Medical grade honey is a viable tool in wound care

Q: We used to tease our grandmother for putting some honey on our scraped knees when we were kids. But now I hear about something called “medical grade” honey. Does it really exist? How it works? Maybe our grandmother was right from the start?

A: When your grandmother healed your wounds with honey, she was following a healing practice that dates back at least to the ancient Egyptians. They not only used honey to heal wounds, but they harnessed its antimicrobial properties to help embalm and preserve their dead.

Today, medical grade honey has become an important tool in the fight against antimicrobial resistance, which poses a growing threat to global health. Used primarily for the treatment of wounds and burns, medical grade honey harnesses the unique properties of what turns out to be a surprisingly complex substance. And thanks to the expansion of research into its therapeutic uses, which had long been rejected as a questionable alternative therapy, honey has entered the medical mainstream.

Honey is considered a sweetener, and it is true that it is composed mainly of fructose and glucose. In addition to these sugars, however, honey contains up to 200 other unique bioactive compounds. These include vitamins, minerals, enzymes, amino acids, and fatty acids. Honey is also rich in phytonutrients. These are biologically active chemicals that are found in plants. Many of them are antioxidants, which have anti-inflammatory properties.

When researchers began to take a closer look at honey, they found that the antibacterial and antimicrobial properties attributed to it in traditional medicine were very real. Studies have shown that honey has an inhibitory effect on dozens of different types of bacteria and other microbes. This includes salmonella, shigella, H. pylori, and E. coli, which can cause nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea, some of which can lead to serious illness and even death.

The antimicrobial properties of honey work in several ways. It’s acidic, so its low pH inhibits bacterial growth. And unlike antibiotics, which damage the cell walls of bacteria, honey robs the microorganism of water. The low moisture content of honey robs bacteria of the water they need to survive and thrive. At the same time, its high sugar content induces osmosis, a process that physically extracts moisture from microbes and hinders their growth. Complex enzymatic interactions also inflict damage on microbes. Honey forms a protective barrier and keeps the wound moist. At the same time, micronutrients nourish damaged tissue and promote healing.

But if you’re tempted to search your pantry for a jar of honey to rub on a burn or injury, wait. Unlike the honey that Grandma used, medical grade honey is a sterile product that has been formulated and processed for safety and effectiveness and is less likely to cause an immune system reaction. The specific type of honey is also important. A variety known as Manuca honey contains antibacterial agents in greater concentrations than other honeys, as well as several other distinct compounds that make it particularly well suited for healing. Various types of medical grade honey are used to heal wounds and burns, to manage skin conditions such as eczema and dermatitis, for gastrointestinal infections, and for digestive health. With resistance to antimicrobial drugs becoming an increasingly serious problem, medical grade honey offers a viable treatment alternative.

• Dr. Eve Glazier is an internist and associate professor of medicine at UCLA Health. Dr Elizabeth Ko is an internist and assistant professor of medicine at UCLA Health. Send your questions to [email protected]


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