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. Like 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.
5 health benefits of honey.
- Soothe a sore throat. Honey can help reduce swelling and relieve the ache associated with a sore through. Plus, one study found2 that honey can relieve nighttime cold and cough symptoms as well as over-the-counter medications can.
- Calm stomach irritation. Honey has been used as a natural remedy for stomach ulcers.3
- Clear skin blemishes. When applied topically, honey can calm skin irritations.
- Heal wounds and burns. Honey creates a protective barrier that promotes healing and prevents infections.
- Good for gut health. Honey is considered prebiotic, which means it feeds the probiotics living in our gut, encouraging a healthy microbiome.
How exactly does honey work?
Honey's status as a veritable cure-all comes from its composition. A potent mix of antibacterial, anti-inflammatory, and antioxidant properties make it a match for just about anything. Here, we break down the superpowers behind this superfood.
It has strong antibacterial powers.
According to the National Institutes of Health (NIH), honey contains an enzyme1 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 in preservation and mummification, 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 ulcers4.
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 review published in the 5Journal of Cosmetic Dermatology5 also asserts that the use of honey "keeps the skin juvenile and retards wrinkle formation."
It is a potent 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 cell6. 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 levels7 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 cancer8 and cardiovascular disease9. Moreover, these same antioxidants serve to reduce LDL cholesterol levels10 by keeping cholesterol out of the lining of the blood vessels. Oxidative stress has also been shown to cause inflammation11, 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.
It can reduce inflammation.
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 growth12 in cell and animal models. 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)13 to throat1 to brain12, honey has proved an effective anti-inflammatory agent. From diminishing airway inflammation to reducing neuroinflammation and supporting the recovery of function and memory, honey can tame the cellular havoc14 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.
So, how should you take honey?
Functioning as an antibacterial, antioxidant, and anti-inflammatory agent, honey serves as one of the most potent medicinal foods 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 day10), eating that much honey is not necessarily nutritionally advisable. Honey is considered an added sugar, and, per the American Heart Association's suggestion15, should be limited to about 1½ teaspoons per day. At home, it would be best to consume honey in moderation (like with tea or to sweeten your oatmeal) or use it in various topical applications (like in a honey face wash or putting on small burns or scratches. —from honey face-washing to treating small 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 honey7. And for the greatest medicinal benefit, make sure to procure honey that is raw and unfiltered—closest to its immortalized Mesolithic era art form.
Lily Diamond is an editor and wellness writer raised on Maui. She graduated from Yale University with a bachelor's in literature and theatre studies. Her first cookbook, Kale & Caramel: Recipes for Body, Heart, and Table, was named by The New York Times as one of the best cookbooks of Spring 2017, and The Independent called it one of the top vegetarian cookbooks of 2017. Diamond is also an activist, harnessing the power of digital media to democratize wellness and empower women through storytelling, technology, and revolutionary acts of self-care. She now resides in California, where she does her best to forage whenever she can (it gets dicey in L.A., but can’t stop an island girl from trying).