From healing wounds to soothing sore throats, honey is a natural remedy for many of life’s ailments. A recent analysis of over 1,345 studies and records has revealed evidence that honey can be more effective than traditional cold remedies.
Honey provides a protective, physical barrier which coats the throat and has antitussive properties (anti-cough). Honey is composed of over 200 substances. Along with its sugars glucose, sucrose, fructose, and maltose, honey also contains minerals, amino acids, vitamins, and enzymes. Though it isn’t completely understood how honey stops coughing, one report suggests that it’s only due to the sweet taste of honey which provides its cough-relieving properties. This could be another explanation why licorice has also been used as a cough remedy.
It’s been hypothesized that the taste of sweetness changes the activity of a region of the brainstem, the nucleus tractus solitarius. To investigate, scientists experimented by inducing cough in healthy participants and tested sweet tastes against bitter tastes. The sweet tastes decreased the cough reflex. In the case of licorice, one of its active constituents is glycyrrhizin, which is almost fifty times sweeter than glucose.
Even if the sweet taste of honey is one of the reasons it’s a success at treating cough, its’ antibacterial properties are also worth mentioning. The antimicrobial activity of honey is largely due to its concentration of hydrogen peroxide which is formed from glucose oxidase, a molecule made by the bee with an enzyme from flower pollen.
Besides the peroxidase activity, honey also has antimicrobial properties because of its acidic pH level, and its low moisture content makes undiluted honey a great antiseptic.
What Do the Studies Show Us?
This month, researchers from the University of Oxford were interested in finding alternative treatments to antibiotics to reduce antibiotic resistance. They examined the studies and records in a meta-analysis review of “honey intervention” for colds (also known as upper respiratory tract infections).
Some studies compared honey to other conventional, over-the-counter treatments from antihistamines (such as Benadryl) to cough suppressants (such as dextromethorphan) which have side effects. A previous study did find that a dose of honey worked better to relieve cough from a cold than Benadryl or dextromethorphan. This most recent meta-analysis also concurred that honey is better than antihistamines.
The analysis supports the recommendation for honey as an alternative treatment to other medications. Honey can offer extra relief and minimize the practice of prescribing antibiotics, which are not likely to work in the case of viral illness.
The honey I've been using
I've recently been using Manuka honey for overall immune strength and throat health. It's important to look for MGO factors and make sure the product you're buying is actual Manuka honey, made from the honey collected by bees that only use the nectar from the Manuka flower in New Zealand.
This is a powerful honey that has many properties unique to the Manuka plant. The MGO factor stands for “methylglyoxal” factor which is a compound that has potent antibacterial properties. Though most of honey's antimicrobial properties do come from the hydrogen peroxide, the methylglyoxal is highly concentrated in Manuka honey.
It has a different consistency than regular clover honey but tastes much the same. I enjoy the extra bit of healing factors I get with this honey. Check out the brand I'm most comfortable with, Manuka Health. They rigorously test and certify each batch. I chose one of the highest MGO factor honey (MGO 400+ or MGO 550+) but they have other MGO factors which are affordable and still potent.
Abuelgasim H, Albury C, Lee J. Effectiveness of honey for symptomatic relief in upper respiratory tract infections: a systematic review and meta-analysis. BMJ Evidence-Based Medicine Published Online First: 18 August 2020. doi: 10.1136/bmjebm-2020-111336
Eccles, R. The Powerful Placebo Effect in Cough: Relevance to Treatment and Clinical Trials. Lung 198, 13–21 (2020). https://doi.org/10.1007/s00408-019-00305-5
Shadkam MN, Mozaffari-Khosravi H, Mozayan MR. A comparison of the effect of honey, dextromethorphan, and diphenhydramine on nightly cough and sleep quality in children and their parents. J Altern Complement Med. 2010;16(7):787-793. doi:10.1089/acm.2009.0311
Mandal, Manisha Deb, and Shyamapada Mandal. “Honey: its medicinal property and antibacterial activity.” Asian Pacific journal of tropical biomedicine vol. 1,2 (2011): 154-60. doi:10.1016/S2221-1691(11)60016-6