The Amazing Health Benefits of Honey
Honey is a natural substance which has been used for thousands of years for many purposes, not only as sweetener but also as a digestive, to treat wounds, as symptomatic treatment for a bad cold and as an antiseptic.1
Looking at the USDA nutrition facts (limited to macronutrients and minerals), the reason for these various health benefits is not immediately apparent, with 80% made up of sugars, mainly in the form of glucose and fructose. However, a closer look reveals that honey has a very complex chemical composition, containing, in small quantities, about 200 other constituents, including, amino acids, organic acids, vitamins, minerals, and enzymes and phenolic compounds. This multitude of minor components is added by bees or comes directly from nectar due to the ripening process of the plant. The chemical composition depends on the source of honey, with the maximum value in dark honey such as mint, raspberry or thyme.
“Is one type of honey better for you than the other?”
We all remember the plastic honey bear that we used to squeeze honey in our milk when we were children, right? Today, you’ll find there are many more types of honey than the little plastic bear kind. One of the most expensive, and touted as a “superfood”, is Manuka honey. Manuka honey comes exclusively from New Zealand and is produced by bees which feed on the Manuka plant. While there is limited evidence to support the claim that Manuka honey is superior (justifying its price), it is set apart from other honeys by having a stronger anti-bacterial component. Methylglyoxal is its active ingredient and thought to be responsible for these anti-bacterial effects.2 You’ll find that there are many different types of honey available now where the goal is to isolate the bees to only bring in pollen from a certain plant, changing up the flavor profile and perhaps the health benefits.
We know today that many of honey’s health benefits are related to its high levels of certain phytonutrients in particular phenolic compounds or polyphenols, often referred to as antioxidants, which in preclinical studies have shown anti-inflammatory, anti-microbial, anti-diabetic and anti-cancer properties.3 Even though in many of these studies, honey has been shown to exert protective effects in many organ system, including the cardiovascular, respiratory, digestive and nervous systems, definitive results from well controlled studies in human populations are not available.
“Honey’s health benefits are related to its high levels of polyphenols.”
Natural honey is rich in polyphenols, varying between 56 and 500 mg per kg of honey (or 0.3 to 3.5 mg of total polyphenols per teaspoon). Bioactive polyphenol compounds are responsible for the colors, aromas, and tastes of all plant-based products, including fruits, cereals, and vegetables. The different polyphenol-derived ranges of honey color, aroma, and taste are directly dependent on the pollen source, making them primary identifying markers for the botanical origin of honey. Thousands of different polyphenols play an important role in maintaining the health and resilience of plants against environmental stressors such as drought, UV light, pests and diseases, and they play a crucial role in the interactions of the plants’ root system with the soil microbes. These molecules are the universal medicine of nature that are used by microbes, plants, animals and humans to protect against disease and promote health.4 Polyphenols are very big molecules which are poorly absorbed in the small intestine, with less than 5% being detected in the circulation after oral consumption. However, based largely on studies performed in animal models of disease and in isolated cells, they display high therapeutic potential for a variety of chronic diseases.
The major polyphenolic compounds in honey are flavonoids and phenolic acid, the same group of molecules contained in olive oil, many herbs, dark berries and red wine, and that have been implicated in the health benefit of these foods. Honey of darker color contains higher quantities of polyphenols than lighter-colored honey. This difference is likely due to the varying levels of polyphenols among different sources of pollen.
“Polyphenols are king.”
If you’ve been a subscriber at www.emeranmayer.com, you know that we emphasize the importance of polyphenols in our diet. Honey is no exception, even though it doesn’t get the same attention that other polyphenol-rich foods like blueberries, chia seeds, coffee, olive oil or red wine do. However, due to the high concentration of several polyphenolic compounds in honey, it has some major potential health benefits.
Polyphenols are best known for their antioxidant activity when tested on isolated cells or in animal models. Antioxidants are natural chemical substances which are abundantly produced by cells in our body and which are also found in plants. Your body generates its own antioxidants, such as the cellular antioxidant glutathione, which is well known for its protective actions in the liver against damage by toxins or alcohol. Plants and animals, as well as all other forms of life, have their own defenses – including polyphenols – against free radicals and oxidative damage. Free radicals have been implicated to play important roles in many chronic diseases including cardiovascular disease, diabetes, cancer, aging, gastritis and Alzheimer’s disease. Honey contains antioxidant compounds that are derived from pollen sources and that when tested on isolated cells can increase total cellular antioxidant capacity and eliminating reactive oxygen species, thereby reducing DNA damage.
Several flavonoids when tested in the test tube have been demonstrated to also have antimicrobial effects against various pathogens, including E. coli, Staphylococcus and Salmonella and several viruses, and when ingested have an inhibitory effect on microbial species with an inflammatory potential. The polyphenols present in honey have an anti-inflammatory effect by inhibiting the production of a molecule involved in inflammation, nitric oxide. Flavones (naringenin), isoflavones (daidzein and genistein), and flavanols (isorhamnetin, kaempferol, and quercetin) are classes of polyphenols that inhibit the production of nitric oxide and are therefore considered anti-inflammatory.
“How does the gut microbiome relate to honey’s health benefits?”
In addition to the antimicrobial, antioxidant and anti-inflammatory effects, different flavonoids have been shown in preclinical studies to have anti-cancer activity and beneficial effects on the cardiovascular system. Generally, polyphenols with activities against chronic diseases are derived from a variety of plant sources and thus have different therapeutic mechanisms. Despite the widespread range of potential health benefits of polyphenols contained in honey, science has just begun to unravel the complex role of the gut microbiota in mediating these benefits in human studies, and well-designed clinical trials will be required to unequivocally proof the postulated health benefits.
Honey has been used for thousands of years to benefit us. Unfortunately, due to its lower cost and greater availability, cane sugar has taken the lead role of being a sweet-additive. And let’s not forget, the little creatures producing honey in the first place are under increasing threat from pesticides and herbicides used in industrial agriculture, a worrisome developed referred to by scientists as colony collapse disorder. Refined sugar, in particular when consumed in high amounts as in the Standard American Diet is known to be bad for our gut health and high sugar consumption has been identified as one of the major causes of many of our chronic health issues. Consumers have responded to these warnings by switching to sugar substitutes such as Splenda. When considering the many potential health benefits of moderate honey consumption, why not using small amounts of a natural sweetener like honey, even while waiting for science to provide all the facts?
- “The Gut Immune Connection” by Emeran Mayer, MD
E. Dylan Mayer is a graduate from the University of Colorado at Boulder, with a major in Neuroscience and minor in Business. He is currently completing his master’s degree in Human Nutrition from Columbia University. Dylan is fascinated by the close interactions between nutrition, exercise and human health, especially with regard to the brain-gut-microbiome system – and regularly posts his content on his Instagram (@mayerwellness).