SPEAKING OF SCIENCE All the buzz on honey as sweet medicine
In 1976, my wife and I were in a head-on collision that left me semi-scalped from my eyebrows to about half-way back on my head.
It looked pretty awful but was actually not a serious injury. The doctors sent me home with instructions to apply hydrogen peroxide to the wound several times each day to avoid infection.
Hydrogen peroxide is a compound that has two atoms of hydrogen and two atoms of oxygen. That makes it the same as water, except that it has one extra oxygen atom.
When applied to injured human tissue, it is exposed to an enzyme that liberates the extra oxygen, leaving water and a single oxygen atom floating around. That single oxygen atom is highly reactive and attaches itself to any bacteria in the wound and damages the bacteria’s cell membrane, killing the bacteria. The oxygen that is released, however, causes the tissue to foam in a dramatic way.
On the first morning after the accident, my young children were talking to me about what had happened, as I applied the hydrogen peroxide to my forehead. They watched in horror as my entire forehead foamed up with hydrogen peroxide.
They were both fascinated and appalled. The fascination proved to be the bigger factor as they insisted on being present for every subsequent application.
I became the only dad they had ever heard of with a foaming head. In fact, they asked if they could bring their neighborhood friends to watch. Sensibly, I did not allow this.
“But what does hydrogen peroxide have to do with honey?” you ask.
It turns out that honey has the necessary components to produce miniscule amounts of hydrogen peroxide over an extended period of time. Honey is about 30 percent glucose.
But it also contains glucose oxidase, an enzyme from the stomach of bees that is secreted into honey by the bee.
This enzyme, in the presence of oxygen and water, can break glucose down into gluconic acid and hydrogen peroxide.
However, this enzyme does not function in honey because the pH of honey is too low. Honey generally has a pH reading somewhere between 3 and 4.5, and glucose oxidase requires a pH of about 6.
Also, for glucose oxidase to function requires at least 2300 parts per million (ppm) of sodium to be present. Honey usually has only about 30 ppm. So good, clean honey, stored in a proper container, is stable with no reaction occurring.
Human tissues contain an abundance of sodium, and the pH is generally slightly more than 7. If honey is applied to injured human tissue, the pH is slowly raised where the honey comes in contact with the injured skin. The abundance of salt in the body combines to activate the glucose oxidase. This causes the honey to produce minute doses of hydrogen peroxide over an extended period of time, directly to the place where it may be needed to combat possible infection.
However, the honey isn’t as fun to watch as the hydrogen peroxide because you miss the foaming part.
Honey is also a supersaturated sugar solution and will not support the growth of bacteria because it pulls the water out of any bacteria present. Honey’s low pH also creates an environment that inhibits most bacteria growth.
Finally, some honey has been shown to contain anti-bacterial compounds isolated from the floral nectars.
In all, honey can be used as a home remedy for dressing wounds.
As you might guess, honey varies in its medicinal effectiveness, depending on its floral source and other factors such as water content, glucose content and glucose oxidase content.
Some honeys, such as Manuka honey from New Zealand, have greater medicinal properties than others. This lack of uniformity is one reason why honey isn’t used more aggressively in regular medical treatment.
Well, that, plus the fact that the honey is far less exciting to watch than plain hydrogen peroxide.
Gary McCallister is professor of biology at Mesa State College and also owner/operator of Flaming Moth Productions and the “Bee bar Bee Ranch,” supplier of native bees, native bee nests and native bee information.