A spoonful of honey can do more than just satisfy your sweet tooth, it might just improve your health.
For centuries, honey has been used as a natural sweetener and healing agent. Folk remedies featuring honey as a main ingredient were used to treat ailments ranging from the common cold to chronic constipation.
With the development of antibiotics and other modern drugs, honey fell from favor as a medicinal agent over half a century ago. Lately, it's making a comeback. A growing body of scientific evidence is proving the health benefits of honey, putting this ancient remedy back into modern day medicine chests.
In 1999, the Australian Therapeutic Goods Administration, an organization similar to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, approved the use of honey as a medicine in the land down under. An Australian company now sells its medicinal grade honey, dubbed Medihoney, in markets throughout the world.
Honey has been shown to have remarkably potent antibiotic properties. Researchers have discovered that it naturally produces hydrogen peroxide, a substance capable of killing infection-causing bacteria. Additional agents in honey appear to reduce inflammation and speed the repair of damaged tissue.
All of these healing properties make honey an excellent wound dressing. While it covers injured tissue with a thick, protective barrier, it prevents contamination with dirt and invading organisms.
Researchers in India found that when burn victims' wounds were treated with honey, they experienced less pain and scarring than those treated with more conventional medications. Superficial burns covered with honey-laden skin dressings healed far faster than those treated with silver sulfadiazine, an ointment commonly prescribed for mild to moderate burns.
While honey's antibiotic properties help promote faster wound healing, its antifungal properties can provide relief for many common fungal infections. When applied to the skin, honey is an effective treatment for ringworm, athlete's foot and yeast infections. As a fungus-fighter, honey appears to be comparable to many over-the-counter antifungal preparations.
Scientists recently found that psoriasis sufferers may benefit from applications of a mixture of honey, beeswax and olive oil. In a study of people suffering from psoriasis and other inflammatory skin conditions, 60 percent showed significant improvement when treated with the honey-based mixture.
Honey's healing powers may also work from the inside out, boosting the body's natural disease-fighting ability when taken by mouth. Researchers at the University of California, Davis, asked volunteers to consume about four tablespoons of honey daily for one month. Blood samples taken at the beginning and end of the 30-day period showed a direct link between honey consumption and levels of disease-fighting antioxidants in the bloodstream.
Heidrun Gross, a food chemist and research scientist who led the study, said, "Consuming honey on a daily basis can help protect individuals from oxidative stress caused by free radicals, which contributes to heart disease and other conditions."
The antioxidants in honey, called polyphenols, are similar to those found in fruits, vegetables and olive oil. Polyphenols are thought to reduce the risk of many diseases, including cancer, by disarming disease-causing free radicals in the body.
If you like the flavor of honey, you might want to use it as a marinade for meat. Not only does it promote browning and glaze formation, it reduces the production of cancer-causing compounds during grilling and frying.
One type of carcinogen, called heterocyclic aromatic amine (HAA), is formed when a high cooking temperature causes meat to char or blacken. Researchers at Michigan State University demonstrated that when meats are covered in marinades consisting of 30 percent honey for four hours, the formation of HAA is significantly reduced.
Although it is generally considered safe for healthy adults, honey shouldn't be given to children younger than 1 year of age. Occasionally, it contains spores of the bacteria known to cause botulism, a rare but potentially fatal condition, especially in infants.
Folks watching their weight may worry about indulging in honey, which has 60 calories per tablespoon.
Dr. Rallie McAllister is a family physician in Kingsport, Tenn. Her column appears every other week on this page. Her Web site is www.rallieonhealth.com.