Bees are an intricate part of our homestead. Their ten hives pollinate our garden, meadow and orchard while they serve as a reminder to avoid all pesticides. We plant a succession of garden plants to add to the bees' diet and are grateful to take a portion of their honey in return. At first we were just glad to have them as pollinators and rejoiced when we also got honey. We next became aware of how efficient raw honey is for healing wounds. A couple years ago, I received a compilation of studies demonstrating the health benefits of ingested honey, and I've come to realize what a central part the bees are to the health of us and our farm.
These studies were compiled by Joyce Hammett who teaches holistic nutrition classes and has an apiary in Fleming, Ohio. Almost all of the studies come from other countries because there is little funding in the states for the benefits of small scale, local food.
The honey that these studies refer to is not what is found on the grocery shelf. Instead it is honey that is local to the region where people consume it. Besides being local, the honey has not been heated to keep it from crystallizing. It is therefore "raw honey." Ideally, it has not been strained so that the tiny pieces of wax and propolis (secretions from trees used by bees in their hives) further enhance the immune system. And although there are no standards for "organic" honey, this raw and unstrained honey ideally would be free of chemicals and genetically engineered crops. Many of these studies refer to this honey as "natural honey."
Here is a brief summary of some of these studies:
Antioxidants in Honey: Antioxidants are substances that slow down the deterioration of our cells. So much is being written about antioxidants these days that a small dose of chemistry helps to understand how important they are to good health. "Free radicals" are unstable atoms that react readily with other molecules, causing chain reactions that can damage DNA and cell walls. Antioxidants can safely bind free radicals to protect tissue in all parts of our bodies.
Antioxidants are found in fresh fruits and vegetables and also raw, dark honey such as that derived from buckwheat blossoms. Studies from all over the world have documented this effect, and the exact antioxidants found in honey are known.
Anti-inflammatory and Cardiovascular Protection Effects of Honey: Inflammation can be a helpful part of healing. However, when the interior walls of blood vessels get inflamed, plaques form on the vessel walls and these can result in heart disease. Not only do the antioxidants in honey help prevent vessel wall inflammation, but honey also lowers heart disease by importing cholesterol ratios without weight gain.
The Effects on Diabetes of Ingesting Honey: People with type-2 diabetes produce insulin, but their pancreas just can't produce insulin fast enough to prevent the blood sugar from going too high. Both the high blood sugar and the subsequent high insulin levels are damaging to the brain, eyes, heart and kidneys. Consuming honey in moderation is safer than sugar for diabetics because it is absorbed more slowly. This results in safer levels of both blood sugar and insulin levels. One researcher suggested that another reason honey is better than sugar for diabetics is because it tastes sweeter and people therefore consume less. Finally, unlike sucrose, honey is not just a source of empty calories--it's nutritious!
Seasonal Allergy Immunity: Raw and unfiltered honey contains many of the pollens, dust and molds that cause most allergies. Most studies show that taking repeated "doses" of local honey can help allergies, just as allergy shots do.
Colds and Nocturnal Cough Suppression: Many studies have proven that raw honey helps heal a viral cold. Additionally, honey seems to be helpful with nighttime coughs. For these purposes, dark honey seems to work best.
Athletic Performance: Honey has been shown to restore energy quickest over all other forms of sugar. Before the advent of commercial "high-energy" drinks, honey was used by Olympic marathon contestants to restore and maintain energy.
Cognition and Honey Ingestion: Studies show that eating honey for quick brain refreshment is effective and nutritious. If taken with water, honey gets to the brain in seven minutes. Besides "feeding" the brain, other studies show that honey can help prevent brain damage. The antioxidants in natural honey have been shown to be helpful in preventing Alzheimer's disease by reducing damaging free radicals in the brain tissue.
Gastrointestinal Health: Studies have shown natural honey to be beneficial in both the upper gut (stomach) and lower intestinal tract (colon). Bacteria called H. pylori have been proven to cause stomach ulcers, and natural honey inhibits their growth.
Honey's benefit in the colon works by totally different mechanisms. We are dependent on the colon's many bacteria for the digestion and absorption of nutrients. Honey provides the probiotics (live microbes) to increase the amount of healthy bacteria in the gut. It also provides the probiotics that stimulate the activity of beneficial bacteria already in the gut.
Wound Healing: Hammett's collection of studies included other categories where researchers found ingested honey to be helpful, such as calcium absorption, weight control and sleep quality. She also mentions honey's ability to heal wounds. Raw honey's wound-healing ability was used extensively before penicillin was invented. Its antibiotic quality is being rediscovered at a time when bacteria are becoming increasingly resistant to modern antibiotics. Hammett's paper therefore includes studies done in the 1990s with New Zealand Manuka honey. These studies have resulted in the marketing of various types of honey-based would and burn dressings. We don't buy that fancy stuff at our house because the raw honey from our own backyard works great for healing wounds.
Whether from our own antidotal stories or from international studies, I can only conclude that the complexity of raw, unfiltered honey assists our bodies' mechanisms to keep us healthy.