Posted by Dr Cathy Stephenson (GP and medical forensic examiner)
In our household, 2014 has been the year of the fish – my resolution being to load up our family table with kai moana and reap the benefits of all those fabulous fish oils. I am hoping that 2015 will be the year of the bee. I love honey and sneak it into all sorts of recipes whenever I can. I suspect I somehow inherited this honey addiction from my Yorkshire family, who spread it on crumpets to go with a cup of tea at 3 o’clock for afternoon tea.
Not only does it taste delicious, but my dad has always believed that it somehow has magical life-giving qualities as well. It turns out he may not be far wrong. Honey is one of the world’s oldest foods and has a long medicinal history. As well as offering honey up as a gift to the gods, ancient Egyptians used it as an embalming fluid and to put on dressings for wounds. According to Dr Shaun Holt, founder and medical director of HoneyLab, a company that develops pharmaceutical products from bees and their environment, they were right on track.
HoneyLab is currently researching the health benefits of New Zealand’s own kanuka honey, with some very promising results to date. Although kanuka honey is not as well-known internationally as its big cousin manuka, it actually contains more of the “manuka factor” that enhances the antimicrobial (or antiseptic) properties of the honey. Both these honeys are thought to be so potent at healing infections that many hospitals around the world are now turning to them. The main uses to date seem to be in wound healing, especially in ulcers that are slow to heal, and treating skin infections caused by the “superbug” MRSA.
When honey is applied externally to wounds or skin infections, it seems to draw healing fluids and nutrients to the affected area, promoting rapid healing and regrowth of the underlying tissues. It is thought to be more effective at clearing up infections in post-operative wounds than topical antibiotic creams, and clearly avoids adding to the huge issue of antibiotic resistance around the world. Honey can be applied directly to wounds and then a dressing used to cover the area, but honey-impregnated dressings are now available too, which provide a slightly more expensive but less messy alternative.
Holt cautions against using the honey in your pantry to treat cuts or wounds. “It is full of impurities and can cause a bad reaction. The medicinal version we are producing is pure, pasteurised and contains a high level of the active ingredients required to be effective.” Holt’s research is also focusing on the use of kanuka honey to treat rosacea, an inflammatory skin condition that causes reddening and scaling of the face. His team’s controlled study using a honey- based ointment to treat rosacea has had very promising results. “HoneyLab are about to publish results showing that our medical-grade kanuka honey formulation is very effective at treating rosacea. “This is often treated at the moment by the long-term use of antibiotics and contributes to the WHO’s number one health issue: antibiotic resistance.”
Other conditions that are being studied include acne, nappy rash and cold sores. In terms of eating honey, the jury is still out when it comes to health benefits. “When eaten, honey is an excellent nutritional supplement, providing energy, minerals and vitamins. “However, there are no research findings showing that, when it comes to eating honey, expensive ones with high levels of manuka factor are any better than cheaper varieties,” says Holt.
But there is little doubting its therapeutic use when applied to the skin, and my prediction is that over the next few years we will understand more and more about the benefits of this wonderful product of nature. Here’s to the year of the bee.