The magic of Manuka honey

Manuka honey

Manuka honey is produced in New Zealand by bees that pollinate the native manuka bush. Advocates say it has been in traditional use for generations to treat wound infections. More recently it has been tested as a weapon against hospital infections like MRSA.
Because of the way health products are licenced in Europe and the UK, unless there's validated scientific evidence for any health benefits, manufacturers are not allowed to make any health or medicinal claims about their product.
We take a look at what the science says about manuka honey.

Healing power of honey

Honey has been used since ancient times to treat multiple conditions. It wasn't until the late 19th century that researchers discovered that honey has natural antibacterial qualities.
Honey protects against damage caused by bacteria. Some honey also stimulates production of special cells that can repair tissue damaged by infection. In addition, honey has an anti-inflammatory action that can quickly reduce pain and inflammation once it is applied.
Not all honey is the same. The antibacterial quality of honey depends on the type of honey as well as when and how it's harvested. Some kinds of honey may be 100 times more potent than others.

Components of manuka honey

Hydrogen peroxide is a component of honey. It gives most honey its antibiotic quality, but some types of honey, including manuka honey, also have other components with antibacterial qualities.
The major antibacterial component in manuka honey is methylglyoxal (MG). MG is a compound found in most types of honey, but usually only in small quantities.
In manuka honey, MG comes from the conversion of another compound - dihydroxyacetone - that is found in high concentration in the nectar of manuka flowers.
MG gives manuka honey its antibacterial power. The higher the concentration of MG, the stronger the antibacterial effect.

How manuka honey is used

The main traditional medical use for manuka honey is on top of a wound. It is generally used for treating minor wounds and burns.

The honey used to treat wounds is a medical-grade honey. It is specially sterilised and prepared as a dressing, not just a jar from a shelf in a kitchen. Wounds and infections should also be seen and treated by a health care professional.

Evidence is limited on whether or not manuka honey has any effect on conditions like high cholesterol, diabetes, cancer, inflammation, eye, ear, and sinus infections and gastrointestinal problems.

What the science says about manuka honey

Several studies suggest manuka honey is effective when used on top of wounds and leg ulcers. Studies also show it's effective in fighting infection and promoting healing.
Not all studies show that it helps to heal ulcers, and there is concern that manuka honey may actually delay healing in people who have ulcers related to diabetes.

A major review of evidence by The Cochrane Review notes that honey may shorten healing times in mild burns compared with traditional dressings. However, honey dressings do not increase leg ulcer healing at 12 weeks even when used with compression wraps.
Another study suggests that manuka honey may be effective in preventing gingivitis and other periodontal disease by reducing the build-up of plaque.

In 2010, the scientific steering committee of the US National Cancer Institute approved a proposal for the use of manuka honey for the reduction of inflammation of the oesophagus associated with chemotherapy.

Another possible benefit of honey is that, unlike antibiotics, it has not been reported to cause development of resistant bacteria. These so-called 'superbugs' develop after repeated exposure to common antibiotics. They require special antibiotics to treat them.

An NHS assessment of manuka honey to help tackle MRSA in April 2011 says, "the effectiveness of honey in combination with antibiotics has yet to be tested in clinical trials and further research is still needed to assess whether it could be used to treat drug-resistant infections".

Possible side effects of manuka honey

The possible side effects of manuka honey are:
  • Allergic reaction, especially in people who are allergic to bees. Honey should not be given to infants under 12 months of age.
  • Risk of a rise in blood sugar
  • Possible interaction with certain chemotherapy drugs
Most of the studies on manuka honey have been with small numbers of patients. More studies are needed to decide if it is safe and effective for various medical conditions.