You’re at the doctors with a suspected infection, but instead of offering penicillin or erythromycin, they prescribe honey. Would you switch toast toppings? Take a honey pill? How about letting the doctor smear medical grade honey over the infected area?
People have been using honey (not mad honey) as medicine since ancient times, but until now we have never fully understood how it works. Research lead by Dr. Paulus Kwakman from the University of Amsterdam and his team have finally identified the key elements which give honey its antibacterial activity.
Bacteria are becoming resistant to drugs faster than we’re developing them. Honey might help because it works when other drugs don’t. Studies show it has good activity in vitro against antibiotic-resistant bacteria. An older study reports successful treatment of a chronic wound infections not responding to normal medicine.
So how does it work? It’s a combination of five factors.
1. Hydrogen peroxide, a kind of bleach. The honey enzyme called glucose oxidase makes hydrogen peroxide when honey is diluted with water. We clean toilets with bleach, and it’s pretty good at killing bacteria.
2. Sugar. Honey has so much sugar there’s hardly any water for bacteria to grow in.
3. Methylglyoxal (MGO), an antibacterial compound found in New Zealand Manuka honey a couple of years ago. It’s also found in medical grade honey which is made in controlled greenhouses, albeit in smaller amounts.
4. Bee defensin 1, a protein found in royal jelly (special food for queen bee larva.) This report is the first time bee defensin 1 has been identified in honey, and it works as an antibiotic.
5. Acid. Diluted honey has a pH of around 3.5, the acidic environment slows down bacterial growth.
These five things work together to provide a broad spectrum activity against bacteria. For example, S. aureus is vulnerable hydrogen peroxide, while B. subtillis is challenged only if MGO and bee defensin 1 are working simultaneously. Honey has the right mix for maximum destruction.
So that’s how bees keep their honey fresh and unspoiled by bacterial growth. Perhaps with this information we’ll create enhanced honey to guard against infection, improving on nature like we did with penicillin. Until then, I know what I’m having on my toast.
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Kwakman, P., te Velde, A., de Boer, L., Speijer, D., Vandenbroucke-Grauls, C., & Zaat, S. (2010). How honey kills bacteria The FASEB Journal, 24 (7), 2576-2582 DOI: 10.1096/fj.09-150789