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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Saturday, July 26, 2003

Honey offers all-purpose salve for ailments

By Darla Carter
Louisville (Ky.) Courier-Journal

When the Royal Society of Chemistry in London let it be known recently that it was seeking newlyweds to test a honey drink known in ancient lore as an aphrodisiac, it was flooded with calls from eager volunteers.

The experiment — in which one couple is being asked to sip mead (a beer made from honey) every night for 30 days after their wedding, and to document its effects — evokes an ancient Persian tradition where newlyweds were expected to drink mead every day for one "honey month" to get in the right "frame of mind" for a happy marriage. The eagerness of present-day couples to participate in the experience illustrates how honey is generating a buzz for other reasons than taste.

In recent years, researchers have been exploring its potential:

  • To lessen the ill effects of radiation therapy in patients with cancer of the head and neck.
  • To improve oral health.
  • To preserve food.
  • To boost antioxidants.
  • To enhance athletic performance.

In the past, honey was used as a wound healer, laxative, cough and sore-throat soother and a salve for sore eyes — among other things.

The journal Supportive Care in Cancer recently published a study by researchers at the University of Malaysia showing that honey may benefit patients who suffer swelling, sores and inflammation in the mouth after radiation therapy. Patients who had honey applied to their mouths before and after therapy experienced less inflammation than those who didn't, according to InteliHealth News Service.

Honey also has been the focus of several studies at the University of Illinois. Nicki J. Engeseth, an assistant professor in the Department of Food Science & Human Nutrition, found that honey, when mixed with ground turkey, slows the oxidation process that gives it that leftover taste after a few days. She's also found that honey has the same level of antioxidants as some fruits and vegetables.

Antioxidants are thought to thwart the process by which fats in food react with oxygen and cause the development of free radicals that damage the body.

Research has shown that "darker honeys are typically better, but that doesn't mean that lighter honeys aren't protective," she says. "They're just less protective."

Engeseth, based in Urbana, Ill., also is working with researchers at the University of Illinois in Chicago to find out whether honey can protect against oral pathogens, the bacteria that causes tooth decay.

Richard Kreider, director of the Exercise and Sport Nutrition Laboratory at Baylor University in Texas, has found that honey gel packs are just as good as PowerGel as a low to moderate source of carbohydrate for athletes. He also found that honey was just as good as a gel form of dextrose called glucose at improving endurance cycling performance. He's also found that ingesting powdered honey with a protein supplement after intense weight lifting promotes an anabolic or muscle-building response equivalent to taking a protein supplement in combination with maltodextrin, another form of carbohydrate.

Honey also was found to be beneficial in maintaining blood-sugar levels.

In honey, there is little water available to promote the growth of bacteria and yeast. Also, honey's natural acidity inhibits some pathogens, and it has tiny amounts of hydrogen peroxide as well as other substances that seem to contribute to its antibacterial effect, according to the National Honey Board, which promotes and markets honey and backs honey-related research.

Manuka honey in New Zealand has been used to destroy bacteria found in stomach ulcers as well as tough strains of bacteria that infect wounds and burns, according to the honey board.

As a sweetener, honey has some advantages over sugar.

"I wouldn't say it's highly nutritious," said Alice Lindeman, an associate professor in applied health science at Indiana University, but "it's going to provide a small amount of more nutrients."