Honey has been used to treat wounds since ancient times, as detailed in a document dating back to 1392. It was believed to help in the fight against infection, but the practice fell out of favor with the advent of antibiotics.
As we face the challenge of a growing worldwide resistance to antibiotics, scientists are examining the properties and potential of honey.
In this article, we explore what Manuka honey is, what its properties are, and how it differs from other types of honey.
We also look at the evidence available to assess whether Manuka honey really is the next great superfood.
Medicinal use of honey dates back as far as 1392, when it was used to prevent infections in wounds.
The leaves of the Manuka tree, also known as a tea tree, have been known for centuries among the indigenous tribes of New Zealand and southern Australia for their healing powers.
Bees that collect nectar from this tree make Manuka honey, which harbors some of healing properties.
All honey contains antimicrobial properties, but Manuka honey also contains non-hydrogen peroxide, which gives it an even greater antibacterial power.
Some studies have found Manuka honey can also help to boost production of the growth factors white blood cells need to fight infection and to heal tissue.
Manuka honey contains a number of natural chemicals that make it different:
- Methylglyoxal (MGO): This has been shown to be effective against several bacteria, including Proteumirabilis and Enterobacter cloacae.
- Dihydroxyacetone (DHA): This is found in the nectar of Manuka flowers and converts into MGO during the honey production process.
- Leptosperin: This is a naturally occurring chemical found in the nectar of Manuka plants and a few close relatives.
Medical grade honey, used by healthcare professionals as part of a wound dressing, can help some kinds of wounds to heal.
Experts believe that because Manuka honey has added antibacterial and healing properties, it may be even more effective. At the moment, however, there is little evidence to support the theory.
A Cochrane Review looked at all the evidence available to support the use of honey in wound care. Published in 2015, the study said the differences in wound types made it impossible to draw overall conclusions about the effects of honey on healing.
The study found strong evidence that honey heals partial thickness burns around 4 to 5 days more quickly than conventional dressings. There is also evidence indicating that honey is more effective than antiseptic and gauze for healing infected surgical wounds.
Another study concluded that honey has rapid diabetic wound healing properties, but recommended more research to confirm that honey can be used as a first line of treatment for these types of wounds.
While some research does show that honey can help improve certain conditions, more studies are needed to confirm honey's benefits for:
- mixed acute and chronic wounds
- pressure ulcers
- Fournier's gangrene
- venous leg ulcers
- minor acute wounds
Antibiotics are used to prevent and treat bacterial infections all over the world. However, the bacteria the drugs are deployed to kill can adapt and become resistant.
Manuka honey has antibacterial properties, and may be able to fight superbugs resistant to most standard antibiotics.
This resistance is currently happening all over the world, and a growing number of infections are becoming harder to treat. This leads to longer hospital stays, higher medical costs, and ultimately, more deaths.
The World Health Organization (WHO) has listed resistance to antibiotics as the one of the biggest threats to global health, food security, and development.
The natural antibacterial properties of honey may be useful in this fight. In the lab, Manuka honey has been shown to be able to inhibit around 60 species of bacteria. These include Escherichia coli (E. coli) and salmonella.
Some studies have shown that Manuka honey can fight so-called superbugs that have become resistant to antibiotics. These include staphylococcus aureus (MRSA-15) and pseudomonas aeruginosa.
This line of investigation is still in its infancy. These have been small, lab-based tests which combined medical grade Manuka honey with antibiotics.
There is still a lot of work to be done before scientists can come to a conclusion.
There are many other potential health benefits of Manuka honey. These include:
There is, however, limited evidence for its use in these areas.
Using Manuka honey
The medical grade honey used to dress wounds is very different from the honey sold in stores.
Medical grade honey is sterilized, with all impurities removed, and prepared as a dressing. Wounds and infections should always be seen and treated by a healthcare professional.
Store-bought Manuka honey can be used in the same manner as any other honey: on toast, on porridge, or to sweeten drinks.
There is no clear evidence that people who consume Manuka honey in this way will notice any benefit to their health. It is not clear how the active ingredients that provide Manuka honey with its healing properties survive in the gut.
Due to the recent trend for Manuka honey, it can be expensive, so it is important to make sure you know what you are looking for.
When buying Manuka honey from the store, look for the Unique Manuka Factor (UMF) mark. This means the honey has been produced by one of the 100+ beekeepers, producers, and exporters licenced by the UMF Honey Association.
The number displayed next to the UMF mark represents the quantity of Manuka key markers, leptosperin, DHA and MGO. Consumers are advised to choose UMF 10+ and above.