February 2016

Healing with Honey


Erica Elliott, M.D.

During my training as a young doctor in the early 1980s, a mentoring surgeon confided in me that, on rare occasions, he used raw honey on wounds that didn’t heal. From the conspiratorial tone of his voice, I understood I was not supposed to talk about home remedies to anyone. The mere mention of honey in connection with wound healing ran the risk of sounding ignorant and unprofessional.

After stepping off the golden path of mainstream medicine and practicing on my own in the early 1990s, I had the freedom to practice medicine in a way that was more nurturing and more in alignment with who I am. With my newfound freedom, I was able to try out harmless home remedies with my patients before resorting to potentially harmful medications. Raw honey was at the top of my list.

Jennie was an 80-year-old woman with nonhealing ulcers in her lower extremities related to venous insufficiency and diabetes. For over a year, she had been a regular patient at the local wound-care clinic, and yet the ulcerations persisted. She came to me as a last resort, desperate and willing to try anything, no matter how unconventional it sounded.
“Jennie, would you be willing to let me put raw honey on your wound?” I asked. “Many years ago a surgeon told me raw honey was useful for wounds that don’t heal—even if they are infected.”

“Honey? Really? Is there any chance it would make the sores worse?”

“I think the worst that can happen is nothing. No change.”

After hearing the reassuring words, she readily agreed to the experiment. I went into my kitchen and brought out a jar of raw Manuka honey. With a butter knife, I spread the honey on her oozing ulcerations then wrapped her legs with bandages and asked her to come back every day for her dressing change.

To the surprise of both Jennie and me, the wound showed signs of healing after just 24 hours. After one week, the ulcerations had filled in with new, healthy tissue. We were both stunned at the results.

A few years later, I read in a surgical journal about the benefits of raw honey for nonhealing lesions. The study was done with raw Manuka honey. I could hardly believe what I was reading in a mainstream journal. I wished my surgeon mentor were still alive, so I could show him the article and watch his reaction.

After reading the article, I was less circumspect about talking with patients and colleagues about the use of raw honey in my medical practice. In fact, I’ve been talking about the wonders of raw honey with Ewen, the fourth-year medical student I’m currently mentoring. Ewen offered to do a search of mainstream medical literature to see what was written about the healing properties of honey. He found literally hundreds of research articles published in the last few years about honey. Below is a summary of Ewen’s exciting research findings:

  • Honey has antibiotic, anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties.

  • Honey promotes faster wound healing, including burns and nonhealing ulcers.

  • Manuka honey can treat some antibiotic-resistant strains of bacteria such as MRSA.

  • Manuka honey has potential to interact with other foods in preventing H. pylori-associated disease.

  • Honey does not appear to produce resistant strains of bacteria, as is common for other antibiotics.

So how does raw honey heal?
Many substances are found in raw honey that play a role in killing pathogens and healing wounds, including an enzyme that causes the release of low levels of hydrogen peroxide when the honey has contact with the wound. Hydrogen peroxide kills pathogens. Healthy cells have enzymes that can degrade the hydrogen peroxide into water. The unhealthy cells do not have that capacity. If the honey is heated or pasteurized, the enzymes are destroyed.

Raw honey also draws fluid away from the wound due to its high sugar content, making the wound incompatible with infection, while allowing the wound to stop oozing. Most of the formal studies have been done with Manuka honey, made with pollen gathered from the flowers of the Manuka bush grown in New Zealand. Compared to other types of honey, Manuka has an extra antimicrobial factor called methylglyoxal that appears to play a major role in healing and can effectively eradicate more than 250 strains of bacteria, including resistant varieties such as MRSA.

Medicinal honey must be raw and unpasteurized. Cheap, pasteurized supermarket honey is useless for medicinal purposes. It’s akin to high-fructose corn syrup and should never be used on wounds. Raw honey has literally been a life-saver in a few cases in my practice. Several years ago, a patient came to me with a serious case of MRSA on his legs after a penetrating injury. He had tried multiple rounds of antibiotics without success. To our dismay, the infection was spreading rapidly throughout his body. I was concerned the patient might lose his life. Since we had nothing to lose at that point, we tried Manuka honey on the lesions. You can’t imagine the relief we both felt when we saw the lesions retreating. The patient is alive and well to this day—and grateful for the healing power of honey.

Consider including a small jar of Manuka honey in your first aid kit, along with honey-impregnated bandages from the drug store. The potential uses are manifold and include both prevention and treatment of wound infections, burns, and nonhealing lesions.

Honey has been used throughout history for healing. When drugs became the first line of treatment in mainstream medicine, the ancient remedies were dismissed or forgotten. It’s heartening to see the resurgence of raw honey for medicinal purposes. This marvelously effective bee product comes without the risk of potential side effects and the exorbitant cost of pharmaceutical drugs.

On a parting note, the bees are in grave danger with declining populations. Toxic chemicals, like pesticides, along with genetically engineered crops are the main suspects. What can you do to help the bees? If you have a garden, consider planting flowers that attract bees, and be sure to avoid using toxic chemicals like RoundUp and other herbicides and insecticides. You will often be told a substance is nontoxic without that being the case, based on ignorance of what is toxic and what isn’t. If you’re not sure about the toxicity and can’t find answers, here’s my mantra: “If in doubt, leave it out.”

For a list of New Mexico local beekeepers see www.nmbeekeepers.org/buy-new-mexico-honey.

Here’s to your good health.

Dr. Erica Elliott is trained in both family practice and environmental medicine and draws from a wide range of healing modalities. She has been nicknamed “The Medical Detective” for her ability to find the underlying causes of illness rather than simply treating symptoms. She co-authored the book, Prescriptions for a Healthy House, used nationally as a guide for creating a healthy living environment. At www.ericaelliottmd.com is a link to subscribe to her weekly posts. Her blog site is www.musingsmemoirandmedicine.com


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