Honey Might Be The Most Underappreciated Inflammation-Fighter Around

Photo: Lily Diamond / Kale & Caramel

Between 8,000 and 15,000 years ago, on the walls of a cave in Valencia, Spain, a Mesolithic-era artist boldly immortalized a painting of a human gathering honey. The figure is shown climbing up a swinging rope ladder on the side of a cliff, carrying a smoking torch to sedate the bees. Is it possible that, even then, humans sought out honey for more than just its nectarous flavor? Beyond honey’s millennia-old allure as a sweet delicacy, it is also a scientifically proven natural healing powerhouse.

From ingesting a spoonful to slathering it on as a facial cleanser, honey delivers potent antibacterial, antioxidant, and anti-inflammatory properties, and its power lies in its composition. Liquid gold and sweeter than sugar, honey is comprised primarily of fructose and glucose, as well as numerous flavonoid polyphenols, enzymes, minerals, free amino acids, vitamins, and proteins.

Photo: Lily Diamond / Kale & Caramel

Honey is antibacterial.

According to the National Institutes of Health (NIH) online, honey contains an enzyme that produces germ-busting hydrogen peroxide. As a result, honey is an antibacterial agent that has been used for centuries both internally and externally. The NIH states that the "medicinal importance of honey has been documented in the world's oldest medical literatures, and since ancient times, it has been known to possess antimicrobial properties as well as wound-healing activity."

The Egyptians used honey to preserve and mummify, and jars of honey found in tombs thousands of years old are still perfectly intact. Honey’s low pH (between 3 and 4.5) eliminates bacteria that might lead to cellular decomposition. Moreover, honey’s high sugar content inhibits microbial growth, speeds the healing of wounds and burns, and facilitates recovery from ailments ranging from urinary tract infections to chronic gastritis and ulcers.

Greek, Egyptian, Indian, and Chinese societies have used honey for millennia to treat illness, wounds, and scarring, as well as for youthful rejuvenation. While honey has the capacity to inhibit bacterial growth internally, one study from the Journal of Cosmetic Dermatology also cites that the use of honey "keeps the skin juvenile and retards wrinkle formation."

Photo: Lily Diamond / Kale & Caramel

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Honey is an antioxidant.

Before we dive into the world of honey as an antioxidant, let’s define some terms. An antioxidant is a substance that inhibits oxidation or the effects of oxidation on living cells. Oxidation occurs when a cell is exposed to or combined with oxygen, ultimately resulting in its deterioration. One way oxidation can be assessed is by measuring levels of reactive oxygen species, or ROS. ROS levels increase during times of environmental stress or oxidation, resulting in oxidative stress and the degradation of the cell. This type of oxidative stress can lead to numerous physical pathologies, from cancer to asthma to hypertension.

That’s where honey comes in. Honey contains high levels of polyphenols, which have been found to reduce ROS levels effectively in cells. Polyphenols are plant compounds that act as antioxidant agents in the body and have been found in abundance in honey, with darker honeys found to have a higher phenolic content and antioxidant capacity. Epidemiological studies also show that polyphenols have potent effects in the treatment of cancer and cardiovascular disease. Moreover, these same antioxidants serve to reduce LDL cholesterol levels by keeping cholesterol out of the lining of the blood vessels. Oxidative stress has also been shown to cause inflammation, internally and externally—another arena in which honey has proved effective for treatment.

While honey on its own is obviously not going to cure cancer or heart disease, the studies clearly suggest a strong benefit of incorporating honey into your regular diet.

Photo: Lily Diamond / Kale & Caramel

Honey is anti-inflammatory.

In tandem with its antioxidant powers, honey’s phenolic compounds have also been shown to reduce inflammation in the body and even to inhibit tumor growth. Inflammation is a defensive response by cells and tissues and can be either acute (the way a bug bite swells) or chronic (the way joints become swollen and stiff) in nature.

In tissues, ranging from lung (for coughs and asthma) to throat to brain, honey has proved an effective anti-inflammatory. From diminishing airway inflammation to reducing neuroinflammation and supporting the recovery of function and memory, honey can tame the cellular havoc caused by oxidation and disease. Again, you may not want it to be your only remedy for inflammation problems—but drizzling it on your oatmeal definitely isn't a bad thing.

Photo: Lily Diamond / Kale & Caramel

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So how should you take honey?

Functioning as an antibacterial, antioxidant, and anti-inflammatory agent, honey serves as one of the most potent medicines available today—at the correct dosage. While it could be tempting to treat internal ailments by consuming the high dosage levels indicated in scientific studies (many studies involved consuming around ½ cup a day), eating that much honey is not necessarily nutritionally advisable. Honey is considered an added sugar, and per the American Heart Association's suggestion, should be limited to about 1½ teaspoons per day. At home, consumers will do best to use honey in bountiful topical applications—from honey face-washing to treating burns and wounds—and limited internal administration.

Reap honey’s benefits by substituting it for other sweeteners and by seeking out honey with particularly high antioxidant concentrations, like Manuka and buckwheat honey. And for the greatest medicinal benefit, make sure to procure honey that is raw and unfiltered—closest to its immortalized Mesolithic-era art form.

This is what happens when you wash your face with Manuka honey.

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