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Uncovering Honey’s Antimicrobial Potential Against Drug-Resistant Bacteria
Following their discovery in 1928 and since world war two in particular, antibiotics have been used and abused so extensively that some strains of bacteria have acquired resistance relatively quickly against multiple types of antibiotics through mutations. Such strains are called superbugs like MRSA (methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus) and the even more lethal VRSA (vancomycin-resistant S. aureus). With hardly any new antibiotics expected to see the light of day anytime soon, the World Health Organization (WHO) has warned that we are fast approaching a post-antibiotic era in which untreatable infections can become deadly to otherwise healthy people just as the situation was before the discovery of antibiotics.
In search of alternatives to antibiotics, honey’s healing power is being rediscovered. It has been used for centuries in folk medicine, especially for the treatment of slow-healing wounds but also for other ailments like upper respiratory tract infections. Its use for such purposes was abandoned after the advent of antibiotics, but new research now focuses on which of its properties or ingredients are responsible for its antimicrobial effect and on how treatment with whole honey compares to treatment with one or some honey components as well as how honey treatment in general compares to antibiotic treatment.
Honey’s antimicrobial properties originate from multiple factors, like the high sugar content (high osmolarity) which negatively affects microbe growth, the presence of certain compounds like hydrogen peroxide, an antiseptic, and the presence of 13 species of lactic acid bacteria (termed LABs which originate from the bees’ guts) with each species producing its own antimicrobial compounds. Honey also includes phytochemicals from the nectar-source plant(s) and these might also contribute to the antimicrobial effect. With the exception of the high sugar content, commercial honey sold in stores loses much, if not all, of the other factors due to the processing it goes through before being sold (for example, heating or just storing honey for a few weeks kills all the LABs). That is why honey that is intended for medicinal uses is selected and prepared with special care to enhance its natural antimicrobial properties and avoid or minimize any degradation to the contributing factors.
Two types of honey and their medical-grade products have been shown to produce very promising results in treating chronic wounds, shortening the healing time, reducing costs and, most importantly, eliminating the need for amputations. They are the well-regarded as Manuka honey and the newly-developed Surgihoney.
Manuka honey is simply honey that bees make from the nectar of the Manuka tree (also known as tea tree, Leptospermum scoparium). Its supply is limited because it is produced only in New Zealand where the plant grows. The plant produces chemicals that are antimicrobial in themselves and they enhance the healing power of the honey made from the plant’s nectar. Medical-grade Manuka honey and its products (like Medihoney) have been used in combination with some antibiotics like rifampicin or oxacillin to treat MRSA-infected wounds. The results showed synergistic healing effects and very interestingly the ability of the honey product to reverse the resistance of the bacteria to the antibiotic used in the study (oxacillin) or to prevent the bacteria from acquiring the resistance (rifampicin). However, Manuka honey’s therapeutic effect is greatly dependent on its source plant’s chemicals.
The second type of honey, Surgihoney, relies in its efficacy on a general honey property: the hydrogen peroxide’s antibacterial effect. It can be produced anywhere in the world regardless of the plant source. It is a bio-engineered honey, made from organic, “true” honey and produced with great care to maximize its healing potential. Many standards need to be met in its production (from honey quality standards to sterilization with gamma rays). Surgihoney is sold as ready-to-use wound dressings. It is already being produced and sold in different regions of the world (Europe, N. America, Africa) and its producers claim it to be more effective than Manuka honey.
Further research is needed to unveil the full potential of honey. The future of wound dressings and topical antibiotic creams might revolve around honey someday. Only time will tell.
Image courtesy of pixabay.com
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Ahmed Elnagar is currently a PhD candidate in Evolutionary Biology at the Queen Mary University of London, UK. He completed his MSc in Systematics & Evolutionary Biology, at the University of Amsterdam, Netherlands and his BSc in Zoology at the University of Tripoli, Libya. His area of research is focused on the evolution of pollination in bees. Other scientific interests include pest management, nutrition and beekeeping.
Latest posts by Ahmed Elnagar (see all)
- Uncovering Honey’s Antimicrobial Potential Against Drug-Resistant Bacteria - December 30, 2015
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