Medicinal Notes: Honey works better than cow-dung
Wednesday 05 May 1999
Consider honey, a food substance with a long medicinal past. Ancient Egyptian medical papyri and Chinese medical texts recorded honey salves for burns, wounds, infections and sore throats. The ancient Aztecs used salted honey or a sugar concentrate from the maguey plant (a type of agave) for similar purposes and the Koran affirmed that in honey "is healing for mankind". More recently, Ameri-Indians of North America, African tribal healers, and Indonesians, have made medical use of the sweet, sticky stuff. Even captive chimpanzees and monkeys with access to concentrated sugar syrups spread these on their wounds - which suggests a common origin for this widespread human behaviour.
Useless, nonsensical practices? Not at all. In the early 1980s Dr Leon Herszage of Buenos Aires and Dr Richard Knutson of Greenville, Mississippi, reported that patients with surgical and traumatic wounds had significantly lower rates of chronic infection when treated with concentrated sugar pastes than with antiseptic/antibiotic regimens. Moreover, these pastes increased the rate of wound healing, decreased scarring and resulted in shorter, cheaper hospital stays. "Miracle cures" have subsequently been reported by British and African physicians treating chronic ulcerations with honey, and by Indian and Chinese doctors treating burns. Some French surgeons pack the heart cavity with sterilised sugar following open-heart surgery to cut post-operative infections.
The science behind the medical uses of sugar pastes and honey is simple. Concentrated sugar produces high osmotic pressure that destroys microbes by sucking the water out of them. This is how sugar preserves jams and jellies. Sugars also activate the immune system cells that begin healing and eliminate incipient infections. Some sugars interfere with the scarring process. And honeys contain antiseptics in the form of hydrogen peroxide and formic acid as well as numerous vitamins, minerals, and growth hormones that stimulate tissue growth.
How did ancient peoples discover these benefits? When it comes to medicine, experience often precedes explanation. Very probably, people preparing food sustained cuts and burns on their hands and noticed that if they subsequently handled honey or sugar pastes, their wounds felt better, healed faster, and developed fewer infections. Serendipity became folklore. Folklore became tradition. And finally, after thousands of years, tradition became clinically validated treatment. Both Knudtson and Herszage heard about honey treatments from nurses whose grandmothers advocated them.
For every evolutionary success of this sort, however, there have been myriad failures. Historical sources that list honey as a viable wound treatment also suggest chicken excrement, cow-dung, charcoal, ashes, and other agents. Nevertheless, these failures are part and parcel of medicine's vital evolutionary process. Human beings experiment with materials of all sorts to assess their medical value. By such means, the most useful agents, such as honey, emerge to compete successfully against less effective remedies, whether these be dung or antibiotics.
The recognition that medicine evolves has a practical benefit. Any natural substance or folk therapy that has survived for centuries has a high probability of yielding an effective clinical treatment. Thus the trial-and- error of folk medicine provides an important resource for modern research. Indeed, we can prime the pump of modern medical innovation by exploiting time- honoured medical practices of the past.
Robert and Michele Root-Bernstein are the authors of `Honey, Mud, Maggots and Other Medical Marvels' (Macmillan, pounds 12.99)
Film The critics but sneer but these unfashionable festive films are our favourites
TV We're so close to knowing what happened to Oliver Hughes, but a last-minute bluff crushes expectations
Arts & Ents blogs
- 1 Planes go hybrid-electric in important step to greener flight
- 2 North Korean prison officers 'cooked prisoner's baby and fed it to their dogs', more horrific accounts from UN report reveal
- 3 Antonio Martin shooting: Mayor says there should be 'no comparison' to Ferguson
- 4 Antonio Martin shooting: Police and protesters clash over teenager's death just five miles from Ferguson, Missouri
- 5 British actor Idris Elba cannot star as James Bond because he is black, says shock jock Rush Limbaugh
Secret Cinema showed The Great Dictator at protest secret screening, following Sony's The Interview cancellation
Best underrated Christmas movies: From Trading Places to While You Were Sleeping
Cruel Woman in Black prank sees cinema-goers terrified by movie poster - watch their reactions
Game of Thrones season five: First preview clip shows a beardy Tyrion, a moody Cersei and a distressed Arya
Angelina Jolie 'didn't eat much' in sympathy with actors who had to lose weight for Unbroken
Nigel Farage defends Kerry Smith 'ch***y' comment: 'If you are going for a Chinese, what do you say you’re going for?'
Rozanne Duncan: Ukip expels councillor for 'jaw-dropping' comments made in BBC TV interview
Germany anti-Islam protests: 17,000 march on Dresden against 'Islamification of the West'
British actor Idris Elba cannot star as James Bond because he is black, says shock jock Rush Limbaugh
Panic Saturday: 13 million Britons spend £1.2bn – while 13 million others across the country live in poverty unable to afford food
BBC director Danny Cohen: Rising UK antisemitism makes me feel more uncomfortable than ever