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You should rub honey on your everywhere

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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ResearchBlogging.orgHoney is awesome. I’ve found its best consumed when combined with nougat and wrapped in dark chocolate but I digress.

Indulge me while I digress my way to diabetes

Honey also has some pretty amazing properties, it’s broadly antimicrobial and seemingly able to promote healing. My Nan would always give me a spoonful of honey alongside other meds when I had colds and flus but as you can see below it can have pretty amazing results on far more serious injuries.

Before and after shot of topical honey treatment for 3 weeks. You're welcome. Adapted from Efem (1988)

Honey’s ‘healing powers’ can be summarised into 5 main ingredients or activities of the components of honey;

  1. Hydrogen peroxide – Honey contains an enzyme called glucose oxidase which breaks down glucose sugars and generates hydrogen peroxide, a kind of bleach, when there is free water available. In case you missed the antimicrobial component it was friggin BLEACH IN YOUR HONEY. I can feel you wondering why bees would bleach their own food supply and it turns out that is very simple. Any available water can cause the honey to spoil so the presence of glucose oxidase in the honey is an inbuilt anti-spoiling mechanism, pretty smart huh?
  2. Sugar – The hydrogen peroxide control mechanism is a back up as very little free water exists in honey. The lack of free water is due to the vast amount of sugar dissolved into honey which gives it a low water activity. This essentially means that honey is more likely to take up water from its surroundings than have water removed from it and if you are a micro-organism it makes it very difficult to survive.
  3. Methylglyoxal or MGO – This compound is an incredibly interesting and powerful antibacterial compound but, it is only found in certain natural honeys (Manuka honey from New Zealand) although it can be made in artificial greenhouses as well. This is the stuff that is making honey a potentially very useful topical salve (with the possibility of other forms of treatment being considered) in medical honey treatments such as MediHoney.
  4. Bee Defensin 1 – Bee Defensin is an antimicrobial peptide (AMP) that for a long time was thought to be exclusively found in the Royal Jelly (The food worker bees make for potential Queen larve). But fairly recent discoveries have found it in the honey, but more on AMPs in a second.
  5. Acidity – Finally, honey is fairly acidic and remains so even when diluted holding a pH of approximately 3.5. Nothing that likes eating you particularly likes living in acid so this property is very important.

No single property is more important than the others and the multifactorial nature of honey’s activities is probably the key to its amazing antimicrobial nature. Having said this, Bee Defensin 1 and other identified AMPs in honey such as Apidaecin may have much more involved roles that are only recently being uncovered.

Typically defensins interact with the bacterial membrane and assemble into shapes that facilitate a ‘hole-punching’ mechanism. The hole-punchers then do just that to the bacterial cell’s membrane causing its insides to leak to its outsides. This is rarely good which may account for the observation that defensins can be found all over the place on the tree of life. They form part of our own innate immune system but you can find them in invertebrates and even in some plants.

Apidaecins, however, work differently. Instead they have been observed moving into the microbial cytoplasm where they bind the protein DnaK. DnaK is involved in helping bacterial cells handle stress (not the ‘hard day at the office’ kind, the ‘my environment is trying to tear me apart’ kind). By binding to and inactivating DnaK the bacterial cell cannot respond to a hostile and stressful environment and as a result they die. This ability to induce death via an intracellular mechanism is very attractive to the fields of drug development and structural biology and better yet, a more complete understanding of this mechanism may lead to the development of new antibiotics.

Interestingly, apidaecins seem to also have the ability to alter the host immune system by modifying chemotaxis (movement of cells in the immune system), apoptosis (induced cell death), cytokine/chemokine production (the production of signalling chemicals which direct the immune response), antigen presentation and the Th1/Th2 balance (whether you fight the nasty with B cells or T cells).

In most cases the ability of apidaecins (and their homologues) to modulate the immune system has been done in the the organism the AMP was originally recovered from but some recent work sugests the potential for  insect apidaecin to have a crossover effect on a mammalian system. While apidaecin is insect derived it appears to be sufficiently similar in shape to human AMPs that it can interact with and modify the activity of our immune system. When macrophages in particular were incubated with apidaecin they started pumping out chemokines and cytokines that promote increased antimicrobial activity in these cells. Additionally when these cells were stimulated with apidaecins and lipopolysaccharide (a potent immune system activator found on the surface of many bacterial cells) apidaecin seemed to counter some of the pro-inflammatory effects normally observed with lipopolysaccharide stimulation suggesting it can both promote and regulate the response to microbes.

While only preliminary, it seems honey and its various components might have more secrets to unveil which will further develop our understanding of the anti-microbial nature of this environmental product and at the same time its pro-immune responses elicited when we use it.

Tavano, R., Segat, D., Gobbo, M., & Papini, E. (2011). The Honeybee Antimicrobial Peptide Apidaecin Differentially Immunomodulates Human Macrophages, Monocytes and Dendritic Cells Journal of Innate Immunity, 3 (6), 614-622 DOI: 10.1159/000327839
Kwakman, P., te Velde, A., de Boer, L., Speijer, D., Vandenbroucke-Grauls, C., & Zaat, S. (2010). How honey kills bacteria The FASEB Journal, 24 (7), 2576-2582 DOI: 10.1096/fj.09-150789

James Byrne About the Author: Dr James Byrne has a PhD in Microbiology and works as a science communicator at the Royal Institution of Australia (RiAus), Australia's unique national science hub, which showcases the importance of science in everyday life. Follow on Twitter @JB_blogs.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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Comments 20 Comments

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  1. 1. sfateen 11:42 am 03/21/2012

    You may be interested to know that the Quran, revealed more than 1400 years ago, has this to say about honey:

    “And your Lord taught the honey bee to build its cells in hills, on trees, and in (men’s) habitations; Then to eat of all the produce (of the earth), and find with skill the spacious paths of its Lord: there issues from within their bodies a drink of varying colours, wherein is healing for men: verily in this is a Sign for those who give thought. (Surat an-Nahl (The Bee), 68-69)

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  2. 2. jtdwyer 12:03 pm 03/21/2012

    Does honey’s topical antibacterial effects expose on to fungal infections? Does its ingestion affect digestion by eliminating helpful bacteria in the digestive tract? Thanks!

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  3. 3. geojellyroll 12:22 pm 03/21/2012

    the article is full of unsubstantiated non-science. The photo is undocumented fluff with no control group….nearly all topical infections get better after 3 weeks regradless if trearted or not.

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  4. 4. ecafsub 12:32 pm 03/21/2012

    I can’t speak to the accuracy or lack thereof, but this article is rife with grammatical errors. A tragedy for someone who bills himself as a “science communicator”. Worse, for SciAm. I expect better writing here than I would see from my 2nd-grader.

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  5. 5. 2:01 pm 03/21/2012

    Thank you, ecafsub. I was thinking the exact same thing. He uses the phrase “interesting” too many times (need a thesaurus?) and has no idea how the comma is supposed to work. He needs to go back to grammer school and understand the proper use of punctuation.

    I had to resist the urge to get out my red marker and correct my computer screen. Very badly written.

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  6. 6. Aaaargh 4:22 pm 03/21/2012

    *exactly the same thing*


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  7. 7. 5:06 pm 03/21/2012

    HA! Thanks, and one to you, Aaaargh.

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  8. 8. MadScientist72 5:23 pm 03/21/2012

    “friggin BLEACH IN YOUR HONEY”
    In case there’s any confusion, hydrogen peroxide – while it can be used as a bleaching agent – is not the same thing that’s in ordinary Clorox bleach. That’s sodium hypochlorite. Hydrogen peroxide is what’s found in “color-safe” bleaches (like Clorox II) and in whitening toothpastes.

    “Methylglyoxal or MGO… is only found in certain natural honeys like Manuka honey from New Zealand but can be made in artificial greenhouses as well.”
    Technically, MGO occurs naturally ONLY in Manuka honey, not in “natural honeys LIKE Manuka honey” (emphasis added). It’s made from the dihydroxyacetone occurring in the pollen of the Manuka bush (aKa the tea tree).

    “lipopolysaccharide (a potent immune system antagonist found on the surface of many bacterial cells)”
    Since lipopolysaccharide (LPS, aka endotoxin) stimulates an immune response (inflammation) it is an immune system agonist. An antagonist would suppress a response. A bacteriology PhD student should know this.

    And lastly, an important caveat. In spite of all its anti-microbial benefits. Honey should NEVER be given to newborns. It typically contains low levels of spores of Clostridium botulinum, the bacterium which causes botulism and produces the most potent neurotoxin ever discovered. While a healthy adult’s immune system can easily handle the situation, it could be deadly to infants or other immunocompromised people.

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  9. 9. MadScientist72 5:35 pm 03/21/2012

    “Does honey’s topical antibacterial effects expose on to fungal infections?”
    No. Raw honey also has antifungal properties and would suppress fungal infections allongside the bacterial ones. There is some evidence that pasteurization neutralizes the antibacterial and antifungal effectiveness, so pasteruized wouldn’t suppress either.

    Does its ingestion affect digestion by eliminating helpful bacteria in the digestive tract?”
    There’s evidence that honey can inhibit Helicobacter pylori (the bacterium that causes ulcers) in the stomach, so it’s reasonable to assume that it could do the same for at least some beneficial bacteria.

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  10. 10. Jbyrne 5:40 pm 03/21/2012

    Thanks for all the comments so far. I don’t want to give an excuse but I do want to give a reason for the quality of the writing that appeared upon publication of this post.
    I was working on two posts simultaneously, late at night, after managing an event on the quality of water governance in the Australian Murray-Darling Basin when I hit ‘Schedule’ on this post and ‘Save Draft’ on another. Obviously I got my posts mixed up. Publishing a very early VERY rough draft is ill-advised and if I was more careful it wouldn’t have happened.
    Having said that, I believe I have plugged many of the holes such that it is readable again but please continue to point out the shortfalls so I can adjust them.

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  11. 11. Aaaargh 7:02 pm 03/21/2012

    I have no life

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  12. 12. James Byrne in reply to James Byrne 7:07 pm 03/21/2012

    I appreciated your help by the way :)

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  13. 13. russellintoronto 6:32 pm 03/22/2012

    As well as the comma splice in the second sentence, the writer is oblivious of the difference between “its” as a possessive pronoun and “it’s” as a contraction of “it is.” “It’s” is what’s needed in the second and third sentences (instead of “its”), but NOT in the statements that now have it: “it’s outside” and “it’s various components” … But apostrophes generally are a problem, aren’t they? “bee’s” where “bees” is meant, for example. This kind of careless and subpar writing undermines any other claims to authority that this article otherwise makes. It is an embarrassment.

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  14. 14. bumluck 9:31 pm 03/22/2012

    Pedantry is the real embarrassment.

    I’ve found there are only two types of people in the world in relation to commas: those who know they have no idea what to do with them, and those who think they do.

    I once worked for an encyclopedia publisher editing two different publications. Each had completely different ways of utilizing commas. They called it the publication’s “style.”

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  15. 15. russellintoronto 12:58 pm 03/23/2012

    Yes, bumluck, various publishers do have house styles. They do so to provide consistency within and across publications. And, yes, there are more ways than one regarding (in particular) the placement of commas and periods inside or outside quotations marks. (American and British use varies, for historical reasons.) But that’s not the same as suggesting that it is pedantic to ask for disciplined use of grammar, or that conventionally correct punctuation is desirable in public presentation of knowledge. To draw on a joke that’s been making the rounds, there’s a difference between the messages: “Let’s eat, Grandma” or “Lets eat Grandma.” Punctuation clarifies intention.

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  16. 16. KipHansen 7:07 pm 03/23/2012

    There is a Cochrane Review from 2009 on the use of honey for wounds:


    Honey may improve healing times in mild to moderate superficial and partial thickness burns compared with some conventional dressings. Honey dressings as an adjuvant to compression do not significantly increase leg ulcer healing at 12 weeks. There is insufficient evidence to guide clinical practice in other areas.’

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  17. 17. InquiringConstructivist 1:15 pm 03/24/2012

    James Byrne, please fix the “bee’s.”
    Some like bumluck don’t understand those of us who correct in comments, but they don’t know that we teachers use well-edited news articles in classes, and too many errors out there undermine our teaching.
    In other words, I want good grammar in my interesting content. Too much to ask?

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  18. 18. daballa 4:25 pm 04/11/2012 is a good source of information about different ingredients, here is honey:

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  19. 19. Muddy Waders 12:13 pm 06/11/2012

    What a bunch of miserable pedants. Do you spend your days searcing the web for grammatical errors?

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  20. 20. Muddy Waders 12:13 pm 06/11/2012


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