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Next week when it comes time to celebrate Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, we will follow tradition and eat apple slices dipped in honey. The coming year should be as sweet as honey.
Honey is the sweetest food found in nature. Flowering plants secrete sugary nectar made of dilute sucrose in order to attract insects which, in moving from plant to plant collecting this nectar, transfer pollen providing plants the evolutionary benefit of sexual reproduction. The bees evaporate water from the nectar concentrating it and add an enzyme which catalyzes the breakdown of the sucrose into glucose and fructose. Fructose is perceived as tasting very sweet, much more so than glucose or sucrose. Honey, gram for gram or calorie for calorie, tastes much sweeter than any other sugar.
The practice of finding and robbing honey from wild bee hives dates back five million years or more. The first major advancement in honey production, keeping bees in moveable hives, occurred about 5,000 years ago in Egypt . The classic domed shaped bee hive called a skep is still universally recognized, even though its use was outlawed a hundred years ago. Even with potable skep hives, the honey bee colony had to be destroyed in order to harvest the honey. The modern box beehive with removable frames was invented in the 1850s and centrifugal honey extractors soon after. These allowed honey to be harvested without disrupting the colony or destroying the comb. These innovations brought us into the modern honey era in which honey has been easy to produce and cheap to purchase.
Honey has a long history of use as a medicine. You’ve got to figure that in a world without sugar, the taste of honey was unimaginably delicious. Anything this good should work magic. Interestingly enough, it often does.
I’ve written past newsletters about using topical honey for treating various skin conditions including seborrhea, [i] atopic dermatitis, [ii] Tineaversicolor, [iii] diaper rash [iv] and Herpes simplex[v] . It fights skin infections, inhibiting growth of Staphylococcus aureus and Candida albicans.[vi] Topical honey can be used to treat infected surgical wounds, [vii] [viii] including major infections after c-section; [ix] it helps skin grafts [x] and burns [xi] heal faster and prevent tumor cells from implanting at the site of surgical incisions. [xii] Newer studies are looking at the beneficial effect of honey administered internally. In simpler words, it looks like eating honey is also good for you.
Honey taken orally (eaten) will lower fasting blood sugars, homocysteine, c-reactive protein and LDL cholesterols in hyperlipidemic and diabetic people. [xiii] As all of these are risk factors for heart disease, we can translate this into ‘honey prevents heart disease.’ Two weeks of eating honey significantly increases antioxidant levels in the blood while quieting immune over reactivity. [xiv] This probably explains in part the common practice of eating honey regularly to decrease allergies. Honey also appears to rev up the immune defenses making it better able to fight off attacking infectious agents: “…. oral honey stimulates antibody production during primary and secondary immune responses against thymus-dependent and thymus-independent antigens” [xv]
Eating honey increases nitrite excretion from the body. Nitrite is a metabolite of nitrous oxide and the implication is that honey increases nitrous oxide (NO) levels. Nitrous oxide is the cool chemical that everyone is excited about these days. Increasing levels of NO supposedly are good for almost everything that ails modern man, from impotence to heart disease. [xvi] Honey consumption also decreased urinary prostaglandin excretion, the implication here that it decreases prostaglandin production throughout the body. Although prostaglandins have their role, the consensus is that we generally make too much prostaglandin and that lowering levels will be beneficial. [xvii] Intravenous administration of honey, injecting it with a needle, although not a common method of ingestion, has also been demonstrated to increase blood nitrous oxide levels without any apparent side effect. [xviii]
There is some evidence that increased nitrite levels in urine may be linked to bedwetting in children [xix] and so, theoretically, honey may increase bed wetting, though I haven’t found any evidence to support this worry.
Honey can be watered down and inhaled through a nebulizer in the same way asthma medications may be given. When done for ten minutes twice a day, “honey inhalation was safe and effective in reducing blood glucose level, in normal and diabetic subjects, it could improve glucose tolerance test, elevate plasma insulin and C-peptide and PEFR [peak expiratory flow rate], and reduce elevated blood pressure in hypertensive patients.” [xx] Though I haven’t seen a study yet, one would suspect this would also work to treat hay fever.
It is often tempting to lump honey together with all other sugars and suggest minimizing consumption. Yet it appears we should be suggesting the opposite. Honey in moderate amounts appears to have beneficial health effects exactly the opposite as those we associate with sugar over consumption.
For five million years our ancestors have collected honey and used it both as food and medicine. With its sweet flavor and its medicinal uses, people regarded honey as a magical substance. We probably still should. As we make our wish for a sweet new year next week, we can pause to marvel what a simple and timeless miracle we have in honey. I plan on making baklava next week for the holiday. A recipe follows. Typical recipes use a sweet syrup made from a mixture of honey and sugar. Sugar is a relatively recent invention and we must assume that this pure honey syrup is more authentic.
[i] Al-Waili NS, “Therapeutic and prophylactic effects of crude honey on chronic seborrheic dermatitis and dandruff,” Eur J Med Res. 2001 Jul 30;6(7):306-8.
[ii] Al-Waili NS, “Topical application of natural honey, beeswax and olive oil mixture for atopic dermatitis or psoriasis: partially controlled, single-blinded study,” Complement Ther Med. 2003 Dec;11(4):226-34.
[iii] Al-Waili NS, “An alternative treatment for pityriasisversicolor, tineacruris, tineacorporis and tineafaciei with topical application of honey, olive oil and beeswax mixture,” Complement Ther Med. 2004 Mar;12(1):45-7
[iv] Al-Waili NS, “Clinical and mycological benefits of topical application of honey, olive oil and beeswax in diaper dermatitis,” ClinMicrobiol Infect. 2005 Feb;11(2):160-3.
[v] Al-Waili NS, “Topical honey application vs. acyclovir for the treatment of recurrent herpes simplex lesions,” Med SciMonit. 2004 Aug;10(8):MT94-8. Epub 2004 Jul 23.
[vi] Al-Waili NS, “Mixture of honey, beeswax and olive oil inhibits growth of Staphylococcus aureus and Candida albicans,” Arch Med Res. 2005 Jan-Feb;36(1):10-3.
[vii] Al-Waili NS, “Investigating the antimicrobial activity of natural honey and its effects on the pathogenic bacterial infections of surgical wounds and conjunctiva,” J Med Food. 2004 Summer;7(2):210-22.
[ix] Al-Waili NS, Saloom KY, “Effects of topical honey on post-operative wound infections due to gram positive and gram negative bacteria following caesarean sections and hysterectomies,” Eur J Med Res. 1999 Mar 26;4(3):126-30.
[x] Misirlioglu A, et al, “Use of honey as an adjunct in the healing of split-thickness skin graft donor site,” Dermatol Surg. 2003 Feb;29(2):168-72.
[xi] Burns. 2003 Feb;29(1):15-24.
[xii] Hamzaoglu I, et al, “Protective covering of surgical wounds with honey impedes tumor implantation,” Arch Surg. 2000 Dec;135(12):1414-7.
[xiii] Al-Waili NS, “Natural honey lowers plasma glucose, C-reactive protein, homocysteine, and blood lipids in healthy, diabetic, and hyperlipidemic subjects: comparison with dextrose and sucrose,” J Med Food. 2004 Spring;7(1):100-7.
[xiv] J Med Food. 2003 Summer;6(2):135-40. Effects of daily consumption of honey solution on hematological indices and blood levels of minerals and enzymes in normal individuals.Al-WailiNS .
[xv] Al-WailiNS ,Haq A, “Effect of honey on antibody production against thymus-dependent and thymus-independent antigens in primary and secondary immune responses,”J Med Food. 2004 Winter;7(4):491-4.
[xvi] Al-WailiNS ,BoniNS, “Honey increased saliva, plasma, and urine content of total nitrite concentrations in normal individuals,” J Med Food. 2004 Fall;7(3):377-80.
[xvii] Al-Waili NS, “Effects of honey on the urinary total nitrite and prostaglandins concentration,” IntUrolNephrol 2005;37(1):107-11.
[xviii] Al-Waili NS, “Identification of nitric oxide metabolites in various honeys: effects of intravenous honey on plasma and urinary nitric oxide metabolites concentrations,” J Med Food. 2003 Winter;6(4):359-64.
[xix] Al-Waili NS, “Increased urinary nitrite excretion in primary enuresis: effects of indomethacin treatment on urinary and serum osmolality and electrolytes, urinary volumes and nitrite excretion,” BJU Int. 2002 Aug;90(3):294-301.
[xx] Al-Waili NS,“Intrapulmonary administration of natural honey solution, hyperosmolar dextrose or hypoosmolar distill water to normal individuals and to patients with type-2 diabetes mellitus or hypertension: their effects on blood glucose level, plasma insulin and C-peptide, blood pressure and peaked expiratory flow rate,” Eur J Med Res. 2003 Jul 31;8(7):295-303.
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