Lessons from Grandma: Medicalgrade honey helps heal wounds

Illustration: Maitreyee Kalaskar

“Ask the Doctors” is a nationally syndicated column written by Eve Glazier, MD, president of the UCLA Health Faculty Practice Group, and Elizabeth Ko, MD, medical director of the UCLA Health Integrative Medicine Collaborative.

DEAR DOCTORS: We used to tease our grandmother for putting a dab of honey on our scraped knees when we were kids. But now, I’m hearing about something called “medical-grade honey.” Does that actually exist? How does it work? Maybe our granny was right all along.

DEAR READER: When your grandmother treated your injuries with honey, she was following a curative practice that dates back at least to the ancient Egyptians. Not only did they use honey in wound care, they also harnessed its antimicrobial properties to help embalm and preserve their dead. Today, medical-grade honey — as opposed to the honey that you will find on the supermarket shelf or at a roadside stand — has emerged as an important tool in the fight against antimicrobial resistance, which is a growing global health threat. Used primarily for the treatment of wounds and burns, medical-grade honey is a sterile product that harnesses the unique properties of what turns out to be a surprisingly complex substance. And thanks to expanding research into its therapeutic uses, which had long been dismissed as a questionable alternative therapy, medical-grade honey has entered the medical mainstream.

We think of honey as a sweetener, and it’s true that it’s composed primarily of fructose and glucose. In addition to those sugars, however, honey has been found to contain up to 200 other unique bioactive compounds. These include vitamins, minerals, enzymes, amino acids and fatty acids. Honey is also rich in phytonutrients. These are biologically active chemicals that are found in plants. Many of them are antioxidants, which have anti-inflammatory properties. As researchers began to look more closely at honey, they discovered that the antibacterial and antimicrobial properties it had been credited with in folk medicine were indeed real. Studies have shown that honey has an inhibitory effect on scores of different kinds of bacteria and other microbes. This includes salmonella, shigella, H. pylori, and E. coli, which can cause nausea, vomiting and diarrhea, and some of which can lead to serious illness and even death.

Honey’s antimicrobial properties work in several ways. It’s acidic, so its low pH inhibits bacterial growth. And unlike antibiotics, which damage a bacterium’s cell walls, honey deprives the microorganism of water. The low moisture content of honey starves bacteria of the water they require to survive and grow, and its high sugar content induces osmosis, a process that physically extracts moisture from microbes and hinders their growth. Complex enzymatic interactions also inflict damage on microbes. Honey forms a protective barrier and keeps the wound moist. At the same time, micronutrients nourish the injured tissues and promote healing.

But if you are tempted to reach for a jar of honey in your pantry to rub on a burn or wound, don’t. Unlike the honey that grandma used, medical-grade honey is sterile and has been formulated and processed for safety and efficacy, and it is less likely to cause an immune system reaction. One last cautionary note: Never give honey of any kind — medical grade or otherwise — to babies younger than 1 year old, not even a taste. The guts and immune systems of very young children are still developing, and ingesting honey puts them at risk of developing infant botulism.

The specific type of honey used for medicalgrade honey also matters. A variety known as Manuka honey contains antibacterial agents in greater concentrations than other honeys, as well as several other distinct compounds that make it uniquely well-suited for healing. Various types of medical-grade honey are used in healing wounds a nd burns, for ma nag ing sk in conditions such as eczema and dermatitis, for gastrointestinal infections and for digestive health. With resistance to antimicrobial medications becoming an ever more serious problem, medical-grade honey offers a viable alternative avenue of treatment.