Honey is a bizarre food. A miraculous food. Small black-and-yellow-striped insects armed with venomous butt-daggers suck nectar from flowers, along the way facilitating the strange ritual of floral sex, or "pollination," as the prudes call it. The bees store their nectar in a second "honey stomach," and upon arriving back at the hive, puke it into another bee's "honey stomach." These bees then let the nectar further digest, before disgorging the material into the storage area of their intricate insect palaces lined with perfectly hexagonal compartments.
The result is delicious, considering its origins. Humans use honey to sweeten cereal, tea and some of America's least favorite Halloween candy.
But honey also has potential healing powers that scientists are still trying to measure.
Researchers at the University of Wisconsin and elsewhere are exploring uses of honey for a number of ailments, from diabetic ulcers to the effects of radiation treatments.
"There's no money in honey." That's what skeptics told Dr. Jennifer Eddy, assistant professor at the UW School of Medicine and Public Health and a physician at Eau Claire Family Medicine. "It was frustrating. They said you'll never get funding to research honey."
The case that spurred Eddy to seek funding for clinical trials of honey involved a patient with severe diabetic foot ulcers. The usual treatments had proved ineffective for the patient, and it was determined that he would have to have his foot amputated.
In this case, though, the patient refused to lose his foot. He would sooner die. And that's what Eddy thought was going to happen.
Eddy had one last idea for treating these diabetic ulcers: "When I was a med student, I studied with Guido Majno, a professor of pathology. He wrote a book called The Healing Hand: Man and Wound in the Ancient World. In the book he translated Egyptian hieroglyphs and looked at ancient medicines. According to Majno, honey was the only one that worked in the lab."
Eddy still had qualms about actually applying honey to a patient's limb. "I asked my infectious disease specialist if it was crazy to try, and she was familiar with some studies where honey had been effective on wounds," says Eddy. They decided to give it a try, and within three weeks "it worked better than anything else had."
If you have doubts as to the potential efficacy of honey as a medical treatment, do yourself a favor and check out the June 2005 issue of the Journal of Family Practice. It's well illustrated. The article, "Topical Honey for Diabetic Foot Ulcers" by Drs. Jennifer Eddy and Mark D. Gideonson, chronicles the progress of the ulcerated foot after three weeks, 6 months and 12 months of honey treatment. The pictures tell the story of a blackened lump, nearly unrecognizable as a foot, gradually regaining its flesh tone, smoothing out, and finally arriving at nearly complete health.
Prior to the honey treatment, the patient had undergone over $300,000 worth of hospitalization, surgeries and treatment over 14 months.
The cost of the treatment that apparently served as a cure was the cost of grocery store honey plus the bandages used on the foot. This is part of the allure: It's very affordable.
The treatment was so effective that Eddy recommended topical honey to subsequent patients for whom standard treatments for diabetic ulcers had failed. Of a dozen or so patients who tried the treatment, all improved.
The obvious question is: How can this work? What properties does regurgitated nectar have that make it valuable?
Literature in the microbiology world has explored the subject. Honey's low moisture content (hyperosmolarity) - it's less than 15% water - "shrinks" bacteria by starving them. Honey's acidity (4.5-5.5 pH) creates an environment that doesn't allow most bacteria to thrive. While this acidity causes a stinging that might make honey an unappealing topical medicine for many conditions, because diabetic ulcers tend to occur on patients with numb feet, the stinging isn't a problem. Lastly, Eddy notes, an enzyme in honey secretes hydrogen peroxide. That's right. The liquid my mother used to disinfect scrapes occurs naturally in the same substance that sweetened my Honey Nut Cheerios.
Because of this triple threat, honey has been credited as a plausible substitute for some of the antibacterial treatments to which some infections have become resistant.
Dr. Eddy notes that people suffering from diabetic ulcers still need to seek guidance and treatment from a physician. Potential problems are blood supply to the leg and infection in the bone. The doctor also needs to remove dead tissue and relieve pressure on the ulcer.
Eddy remains enthusiastic about honey's potential, especially in a world where people lose a leg to diabetes once every 30 seconds. She's received funding from the American Academy of Family Physicians and the Wisconsin Partnership Program to conduct the first double-blind study of the effects of honey on diabetic ulcers. One group of patients will receive a honey treatment and another will receive a placebo.
Eddy's honey study is still accepting participants. To be eligible, patients must be older than 18, have diabetes and a sore below their knee, and not be taking prednisone. Call 715-855-5683.
Other studies are examining potential health benefits of honey. Eddy points to recent successes by a team in India that found honey prevents or lessens the effects of radiation mucositis in patients who have undergone radiation treatments for cancers of the neck. Researchers at Penn State found that honey suppresses children's nighttime coughing, and an Australian researcher is looking at honey's effects on biofilm (a sort of bacteria that can invade catheters and lines).
These are difficult times for honey producers. It's been a long winter not just for humans but for bees too, and some beekeepers are reporting losses of 50%-80% of their bees. Colony collapse disorder, occurring nationwide, has devastated some apiarists' operations and threatens not just America's honey supply but our entire agricultural system. This is disheartening, even frightening, especially as scientists are discovering the many more ways that honey helps humans.
From sneezing to squeezing: Other honey-centric folk remedies
Other medicinal uses of honey have plenty of support in folk medicine circles, but sometimes lack conclusive clinical evidence to reinforce these claims.
The National Honey Board maintains an archive of studies ( honey.com/consumers/honeyhealth/healing) that indicate honey aids in healing, from gingivitis to rhinoconjunctivitis - i.e., seasonal allergy symptoms.
Some beekeepers, too, think that honey alleviates seasonal allergy symptoms. Sue Richards of Hidden Oaks Apiary ( www.localharvest.org/farms/M12195) in Oregon, Wis., which produces Bee Barf brand honey, notes that consuming honey produced in their region alleviates allergy symptoms. "By eating honey produced through collections from local flowers, you're inoculating yourself to the pollen," she says.
A study at the University of Connecticut failed to prove such theories about the relationship between honey and allergy relief, but enough anecdotal evidence exists to keep the question alive.
Honey can also help you get it on - it's purported to increase sexual potency and allure. While you may require access to a wizard's cabinet of ingredients to make any of the following concoctions, it's worth noting that the Kama Sutra recommends that: "If a man, after anointing his lingam with a mixture of the powders of the white thorn apple, the long pepper and the black pepper, and honey, engages in sexual union with a woman, he makes her subject to his will."
Other sources vouch for honey's positive effects on sexual potency, noting that honey is essentially predigested sugar. It offers a quick boost of energy when you most need it, whether that's before a long-distance run or just prior to devastating your political career with a $1,000-an-hour call girl.