Using Honey for Medicinal Purposes

Honey has been used to heal wounds and burns for thousands of years.  Recently, I’ve read how the Georgia Sea Turtle Center has successfully used honey poultices to heal wounds caused by boat props.

http://www.getgreenbewell.com/honey-saves-sea-turtles-at-georgia-sea-turtle-center/

There are several articles online about using honey to treat leg wounds on horses.   Recently, a friend told me that they are using honey to treat wounds on tarantulas at Sea World….so I wondered why don’t we hear more about using honey as a possible wound/burn treatment for us?      I found some very interesting information as I researched the topic.

While there have been many small studies showing the benefits of honey in wound care, there have not been large clinical trials to support the claims, and therefore, there is no FDA approved “honey” treatment.   These small clinical trials which tended to focus on 4 or 5 types of bacteria & infections –   E. Coli, Bacillus Subtilis, Staphylococcus aureus (aka “staph”) & MRSA (staph bacteria resistant to antibiotics) show excellent results.  Examples of the study results are:

  • Skin Grafts – honey treated wounds had superior healing vs. those treated with a saline-soaked gauze
  • Gangrene – when honey was combined with an antibiotic, the infection was gone within one week.
  • Leg Ulcers – the wound treated with honey was cleaner & healed faster than using Aquacel.
  • MRSA infections – honey cleared up the infection when no antibiotic would.

With these kind of results, you are probably thinking – why isn’t there FDA approval?  There are at least two big challenges blocking the path – 1. running double-blind trials where neither the patient nor the physicians know who is being treated with honey; 2.  commercially producing a honey-based treatment with consistent anti-bacterial and anti-inflammatory properties. Let’s dive into both challenges a bit more.

First, conducting “blind” trials where the patients (and in the double blind case the physicians) do not know which group is getting which treatment is especially difficult when honey is involved.  My first thought when I read this was – Really?  Ok, I understand if you wanted to the honey put directly on the site – that would be hard to disguise because honey is recognizable to most people, but what about having a honey-impregnated wound dressing?   It turns out that the aroma of honey still comes through! They haven’t found a way to mask the smell without altering the healing properties.

Second, when a physician prescribes a treatment for a given symptom or condition, it must have a consistent expected outcome each time it is used.    Unfortunately, this is a huge challenge for any honey-based treatment because as you know from my earlier blogs the taste, color, pH level and other anti-bacterial properties of honey are dependent on which floral source(s) the nectar is collected from.   In other words, clover honey may be better at treating infections from bacteria XYZ, and honey from apple blossoms maybe better at treating infections from bacteria ABC.    (The studies in the reference section show how effective different honeys are against different types of bacteria).

While difficult, it is conceivable that you could give bees only access to one type of floral source (let’s ignore the issue of mono-culture for this discussion!), but the next challenge you must solve is how do you get the flowers to blossom year-round?   Also, you need to ensure consistent climate conditions since the properties of the nectar will vary based on temperature, sunlight, moisture, etc.  Finally, bacterial spores (most commonly botulism) are often found in honey.  (This is the reason why honey should never be given to children less than a year old – their intestinal systems have not developed the bacteria to fight off a possible infection.)     It is possible that the bacteria in honey – even in low concentration –  could cause other infections in the wound that  you are trying to heal.

Even with these challenges, a New Zealand biochemist, Peter Molan, developed techniques to produce a “medical-grade” honey derived from nectar of the manuka plant.     Each batch of honey is treated with gamma rays to kill any bacterial spores (yes – gamma rays are what turned Bruce Banner into the Hulk!), and it is also tested to ensure consistent anti-bacterial and anti-inflammatory properties.

Various “devices” using medical-grade manuka honey have been given “premarket approval” by the FDA for use in the US.  You’ll notice that I said “device”. From the FDA point of view, a wound dressing is a device (like a band-aid) – so it has a different approval process than a drug.  Premarket approval means that the “device” has been demonstrated as safe but does not necessarily mean it has been shown to have scientific medical value.  You don’t need a prescription to purchase these “devices” (you can buy these wound dressing on Amazon or at Walmart – just search for medical-grade honey!)

What does all of this mean to you and I?  If you chose to use raw honey to treat a wound, burn or infection, remember that every batch will have different anti-bacterial and anti-inflammatory properties due to the different nectar sources that were available to the bees.   Some batches may be more effective than others in treating your condition.   Alternatively, you can purchase medical-grade honey over the counter which will always have consistent characteristics.

#honeyForWounds #medicinalHoney #medicalGradeHoney

References:

  • Examples of FDA premarket approval for medical grade manuka honey devices:

https://www.accessdata.fda.gov/cdrh_docs/pdf10/K102659.pdf

https://www.accessdata.fda.gov/cdrh_docs/pdf8/K080315.pdf

  • Presentation showing results of using medical grade honey to treat chronic wounds

dermasciences.com/sites/default/files/…/Medihoney-Acute-Military-Wounds.pdf

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