Medical Meanderings 30 January 2008
Sweet as Honey
Instead of dirt and poison we have rather chosen to fill our hives with honey and wax; thus furnishing mankind with the two noblest of things, which are sweetness and light.
Jonathan Swift (1667 – 1745)
For thousands of years, honeybees have provided human beings with what, until modern times, was our only source of sweetness. Of course, they gather flower nectar, fan it with their wings to evaporate water and concentrate the simple sugars fructose and glucose, and store the sugars in their hexagonal wax cells not for us, but for themselves and their eggs. Nevertheless, we learned to domesticate bees and use their honey for food and flavoring.
Honey has its fair share of medicinal uses as well. Honey was used very early in recorded history to make and to flavor alcoholic beverages, which were much safer to drink than water. The Egyptians used honey as embalming fluid, to stop decay and prepare their dead. Honey was also the first antibiotic ointment. The extremely high sugar concentration and lack of water in honey greatly impairs the growth of bacteria in wounds. In fact, it is still used today to prevent infection of minor burns.
Now, those of you who know me (or have read this column for long) know that I’m not a big fan of so-called “alternative medicine.” (Mainly because I’m a huge fan of science and evidence.) However, honey has recently become a proven alternative to our over-the-counter cough remedies.
In December 2007, Dr. Ian M. Paul and his colleagues published a study in which they compared buckwheat honey (a dark type of honey) to both a honey-flavored preparation of dextromethorphan (the “DM” in Robitussin DM and other cough medicines) and to no treatment. The dosages of both treatments were half a teaspoon for two- to five-year olds, a full teaspoon for six- to eleven-year olds, and two teaspoons for twelve-year olds and up. (Honey should NOT be given to infants younger than one year old because of a small risk of botulism, a rare type of food poisoning.) The treatments were given to 105 children with coughs from colds, and the children and their parents were asked about the severity of the cough before and after treatment.
This was a well-designed experiment and good science: The kids were randomly assigned to a treatment, and they and their doctors didn’t know which kid was getting which treatment until after the experiment was over. The treatments both tasted like honey. Finally, there was a control group—the kids that had no treatment.
Honey won hands down. Dextromethorphan was as useless as no treatment at all—a result that has been seen in multiple other studies of cold remedies. In other words, there is no evidence that the “DM” works. But honey does. It significantly reduced cough, probably by a combination of soothing the throat, antioxidant activity and perhaps antibacterial action. It’s safe, effective and tasty—another incredible gift from our pollinating insect friends. Following close on the heels of the FDA’s warnings against cold remedies for children, this news is certainly sweet.