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As hospital acquired infections soar, and bacteria become resistant to the last resort antibiotics, researchers come to the rescue with startling discoveries on an ancient remedy.

Teenager saved by honey

Making HoneyAaron Phipps nearly died of bacterial meningitis. His lower legs and fingertips were amputated because of septicaemia (blood poisoning). Numerous skin grafts failed to heal his wounds. Nine months had passed with no cure for the infected lesions around his bone-protruding sores. The smell alone was enough to terrify the brave teenager. Luckily, his nurse contacted the University of Wales, Institute of Cardiff where experiments with honey as a wound dressing were underway [1]. The effect of honey on Aaron's body was almost immediate. Honey acts as both bacteriostatic, slowing down microbial growth, and bactericide, killing it. It also assists in new tissue growth. The young man said, "The honey healed my legs enough to start wearing artificial limbs."

Honey is mentioned in ancient medical texts. Aristotle recommends that honey collected in specific regions and seasons should be used for treating particular ailments [2]. Honey has been known as a remedy for burns for thousands of years, but only recently revealed its potential for completely inhibiting the growth of some of the most infectious, drug-resistant pathogens [3].

Honey inhibits Staphylococcus aureus

One of these "superbugs" is Staphylococcus aureus , the predominant agent of wound infections in hospitals. Stories abound of wards closed due to MRSA or methicillin resistant Staphylococcus aureus . Its multi-drug resistant reputation grows as strains emerge which are resistant to the last-resort antibiotic, vancomycin [4]. There are 100,000 cases of hospital-acquired infections reported in the UK every year, with 5,000 deaths [5]. It is very good news that S. aureus is sensitive to the antibacterial activity of honey.

Seven species of bacteria found in wound infections were tested against a variety of honey. Results showed that honey diluted 10-fold completely inhibited the growth of S. aureas and all other bacteria tested. One type of honey, Manuka, made from the flower essences of the Manuka Tree (Leptospermum scoparium  or Tea Tree, was noticeably more effective in inhibiting S. aureus even when diluted with 54 times its volume of fluid [3]. Manuka Tree is a small tree or shrub that grows abundantly throughout New Zealand, and was named by Captain Cook. The properties of this tree are known to some inhabitants and indigenous Maoris, who use the leaves as bitter tea, similar to green tea. Cooled tea is used for treating burns, and vapour from hot tea clears head colds. Only compounds of a few of the 85 Leptospermum genus contribute to "active" manuka honey used in clinical trials and produce the "unique manuka factor" (UMF) that stops the superbug. This was advertised on two company websites, one in New Zealand, and the other in the UK [6].

Honey is 80% simple sugars, glucose and fructose and 20% water. It contains vitamins A, B, C, D, E and K and many minerals, and essential oils and flavonoids contribute to its healing properties. Most honeys contain some hydrogen peroxide thought to contribute high antibacterial activity, but manuka honey does not have peroxide. Hydrogen peroxide in honey is made by glucose oxidase enzyme added by the bees that becomes activated by contact with water. In commercial honey, this element is inactivated by exposure to heat. Honey has a pH of between 3.2 and 4.5, acid enough to inhibit or stop the growth of many species of bacteria. The sugar acts like a water magnet pulling water away from bacteria by osmosis [7].

Honey from the manuka tree

The Honey Research Unit at Waikato University, New Zealand, is led by British honey pioneer Dr Peter Molan MBE. He has worked for 20 years on the antimicrobial properties of honey and the ways in which it effectively treats medical conditions naturally. In an article promoting manuka honey on the website of the company, Manukahoney [8], Molan states, "For over 10 years, I have scientifically investigated what many local New Zealanders have accepted as common wisdom: our local manuka honey is a superior treatment for wounds and infections. Manuka honey is gathered in New Zealand from the manuka bush, Leptospermum scoparium , which grows uncultivated throughout the country. (More recently, as a result of systematic screening of Australian honeys, a honey with the same properties has been found to be produced from Leptospermum polygalifolium , which grows uncultivated in a few parts of Australia [sic].)" The article listed seven publications co-authored by Molan in scientific journals dating from 1992.

In practice, covering a skin lesion with honey is a messy process, so Molan created a rubbery wound dressing constructed entirely from manuka honey. Placed directly onto the wound, it can be moulded or cut to fit any shape [9].

The Unit claims to have found that manuka honey acts as bacteriocide against streptococci (sore throats), fungal infections like athlete's foot, Candida albicans and bacteria that cause gut infections. It is also effective against the bacterial species causing mastitis in cattle, a major loss of milk production worldwide. Honey is a food preservative in combination with the milk enzyme lactoperoxidase. Current research is focussing on the flavonoids in honey, its probiotic properties, effects on antibiotic-resistant organisms, protozoa and eczema [10]. The Unit shares results with Dr Rose Cooper, a microbiologist at the University of Wales, Institute of Cardiff, where Dr Molan graduated in biochemistry. Laboratory tests at UWIC have demonstrated the potential of honey to inhibit bacteria isolated from wounds. Claire Dunford, clinical nurse specialist in tissue viability at Salisbury District Hospital, Wiltshire applied the research results to heal the teenager with meningococcal septicaemia. [1]

Manuka honey is also found to be helpful against H. pylori bacteria, implicated in stomach ulcers. It appears that the bacteria are 5-10 times more sensitive to manuka than other honey and are completely inhibited in a 5% solution [11].

Although manuka honey is special, commercially available honeys have antimicrobial properties too, as found by a research team in Saudi Arabia after testing six varieties of honey bought from local supermarkets [12]. Control “superbugs” used was S. aureus , E. coli and P. aeruginosa taken from bacteria isolated from hospital patients. The end point of antimicrobial activity was defined as the highest dilution (lowest concentration) of honey producing inhibition in the bacteria. Turkish honey is bacteriostatic against S.aureus at 50% dilution and Black Forest honey inhibits P. aeruginosa and E. coli at 50% dilution. All honeys tested retained anti-microbial activity after storage at 2-8degrees Centigrade for six months, and being boiled for fifteen minutes. This is a unique attribute of honey, as most antibiotics used to treat open wounds are unstable after heat treatment.

Honey is anti-inflammatory

Honey has still other uses. Arthritis is a painful disease affecting as many as 8 million people in the UK. It's not just adults that suffer - one in every thousand cases is a child. Three million people are significantly disabled and 20% of GP consultations are arthritis related [13]. Conventional prescription consists of steroids, painkillers and maybe a recommendation of a vegetarian diet. Some research is now underway for the treatment of arthritis with a combination of bee venom and manuka honey. Bee venom has been used for centuries as a therapy in many cultures [14]. The application of bee venom (or any product of the honeybee Apis mellifera ) is known as Apitherapy and most popular in Eastern Europe and China for relieving chronic inflammatory illness. Receiving bee stings directly onto affected areas used to be the only form of treatment.

People would go to their local beekeeper who would isolate bees from the hive to sting them several times over a course of weeks. It is said that Charlemagne (742-814 AD) underwent this treatment. Now, bee venom is mixed with manuka honey for ailments such as rheumatoid and osteoarthritis, tendonitis, ligament injuries and mastitis. Bee venom contains a compound called apamin, which assists synaptic transmission and dopamine, which encourages motor activity. Also present is adolapin, another neurotransmitter, which has analgesic properties. A pharmacological component of bee venom is peptide-401, a degranulating mast cell protein. Researchers at Guys hospital and Kennedy Institute of Rheumatology found peptide-401 one hundred times more effective as an anti-inflammatory than hydrocortisone (a steroid). Dried bee venom is found to contain mellitin, which indirectly stimulates the endocrine system to produce natural cortisol via the adrenal glands. A modern way of extracting venom from bees is via an electro-stimulant that does not harm the bee. It is then made into a balm that can be rubbed on arthritic or inflamed joints [15].

The jar of honey sitting on your kitchen shelf may do more than sweeten your tea and toast. This is indeed a promising area that needs much more research.

Meanwhile, we have to get rid of GM crops before they contaminate our honey and kill our bees.

A fully referenced version of this article was first published by the Insitute of Science in Society in 2005