Dear Doctors: We used to tease our grandmother for putting a dab of honey on our scraped knees. Now, I’m hearing about “medical-grade” honey. How does it work?
Answer: When your grandmother treated your wounds with honey, she was following a curative practice that dates at least to the ancient Egyptians, who also harnessed its antimicrobial properties to help embalm and preserve their dead.
Medical-grade honey, used primarily on wounds and burns, has emerged as a tool in the fight against antimicrobial resistance, a growing health threat.
Thanks to expanding research into its therapeutic uses, honey has entered the medical mainstream after long being dismissed as an alternative treatment.
Honey is primarily fructose and glucose. But it also contains up to 200 bioactive compounds and is rich in phytonutrients — biologically active chemicals found in plants. Many are antioxidants, with anti-inflammatory properties.
Researchers discovered that the antibacterial and antimicrobial properties it had been credited with in folk medicine were indeed real. Studies have shown honey has an inhibitory effect on scores of bacteria and other microbes, including salmonella, shigella, H. pylori and E. coli, which can cause nausea, vomiting, diarrhea or worse.
Honey is acidic, so its low pH inhibits bacterial growth.
Unlike antibiotics, which damage a bacterium’s cell walls, honey deprives the microorganism of water, starving it of the water it needs to survive.
Also, its high sugar content induces osmosis, a process that extracts moisture from microbes and hinders growth.
Honey also can provide a protective barrier and keep a wound moist. And its micronutrients nourish injured tissues and promote healing.
But don’t just reach for a jar of honey to rub on a burn or wound. Medical-grade honey is a sterile product specially formulated and processed and less likely to cause an immune system reaction.
The type of honey matters, too. A variety called Manuca honey contains antibacterial agents in greater concentrations than other honeys and several other compounds that make it especially well-suited for healing.
Various types of medical-grade honey are used in healing wounds and burns, for managing skin conditions such as eczema and dermatitis, for gastrointestinal infections and for digestive health.
With resistance to antimicrobial medications a serious problem, medical-grade honey can provide a viable alternative treatment.
Dr. Eve Glazier and Dr. Elizabeth Ko are internists who teach at UCLA Health.