Honey has been held in high respect for centuries with its potential to heal the body and soul. It has often been referred to as the nectar of the gods and the elixir of life.
Although there is widespread knowledge of the many uses of honey, both culinary and medicinal, there has been little scientific research undertaken to reveal the components responsible for honey's antibacterial, antimicrobial, and antifungal qualities.
Dr Peter Molan of the Waikato University Honey Research Unit, a notable authority on antimicrobial agents, has been researching New Zealand honey for medicinal purposes.
"Honey's antibacterial activity is caused by hydrogen-peroxide, generated in the honey by an enzyme added by the bees," Dr Molan reports. "In addition there may be non-peroxide antibacterial components that come from the nectar of various flowers."
The hydrogen-peroxide activity is found in all honey varieties. Some of New Zealand's Manuka honey has non-peroxide activity, - a unique quality. This has come to be known as "active" Manuka honey. Whilst all honeys have antibacterial activity (healing qualities), active Manuka honey has stronger healing potential. Not all Manuka honey, however, has this activity.
When Manuka honey is tested in a laboratory, its 'total' antibacterial activity is analysed, including hydrogen-peroxide activity, and its unique Manuka activity. The results are analysed into levels of activity, usually low, medium or high.
When honeys are taken internally, they are diluted by body fluids, therefore if the level of activity is high, less honey is required to achieve results. Lower activity has the same healing potential but a higher doage or longer usage is suggested.
Dr Molan explains that the realistic potential for honey as an antimicrobial agent in medicine is in topical application, rather than as a systemic agent. However, there are some situations, such as gastrointestinal infections, where the honey remains localised and does not become too diluted to be effectively antibacterial.
Honey has served the purpose of a wound dressing in both ancient and traditional medicine. Active Manuka honey has regained its popularity as a topical antibacterial agent for treating wounds, burns, and skin ulcers.
Research in this area has led Dr Molan and a pharmaceutical acquaintance to investigate the possibility of using Manuka honey as a wound dressing, in the form of a sterile bandage saturated in active Manuka honey. An informal trial was conducted at Waikato Hospital, and the encouraging findings were published in the New Zealand Medical Journal on 28 March 1997. Observations included the quick reduction of inflammation, swelling and pain and the ceasement of unpleasant odors. Dressings were able to be removed painlessly,
without causing damage to regrowing tissue. Healing occurred rapidly with minimal scarring, reducing the need for skin grafting.
"It is notable to report that Manuka honey with an average level of activity, can be diluted to fifty-four times its volume of fluid yet still completely inhibit the growth of Staphylococcus aureus, a major wound-infecting bacterium and a species notorious for its development of resistance to antibiotics", says Dr Molan.
Dr Molan and his team are continuing research into New Zealand honey. It is possible they will discover non-peroxide activity in other varieties of New Zealand honey, the main problem being finding pure nectar sources to test.
There is a worldwide interest in New Zealand honey as beekeepers here do not use drugs in the hive to control disease. This give New Zealand a unique international drug-free status.
Note: When using honey as a wound dressing at home, be sure the honey is completely covered with a bandage, especially when outdoors. You will be surprised how quickly bees will be lured to the scent!