Ask the Herbalist: What Are the Health Benefits of Honey?
A: Honey is one of my favorite sweeteners. There are three main reasons why. First of all, the fact that honey is being produced means that there are still healthy bees producing it. I also love that there are so many delicious varieties of honey to choose from. And finally, the health benefits of honey are plenty.
When I was a child, I recall seeing countless honeybees buzzing around and pollinating plants. There were so many that I frequently got stung when I played outside. In the past several years however, the honeybee population has declined severely. The reason for this decline is thought to be because of an infestation of varroa mites. The varroa mites were introduced in Florida in 1987 by already infected bee colonies being shipped to beekeepers. Some of these colonies, and likely other colonies already infected with varroa mites, were shipped throughout the U.S., leading to a spread of these mites and unhealthy bees.
Varroa mites are parasites that feed on adult and brood (baby) honeybees, weakening the bees and shortening their lifespan, which in turn reduces the lifespan of the hive. Without honeybees, honey would be extinct, and the pollination of many plants would practically be non-existent. Thankfully, in an attempt to reverse and hopefully eliminate this infestation, many first-time beekeepers are raising honeybees, which in time will hopefully reestablish the bee population in the U.S.
The Many Varieties of Honey
Honeybees are not discriminatory when it comes to obtaining nectar. As long as blossoms are rich with nectar, the bees will harvest. This harvesting from a wide variety of blossoms is what leads to the many different types of honey, which can differ based on color, flavor and aroma. The flavor ranges from extremely mild to strong and bold, while the color varies from pale golden yellow to almost black. According to www.honey.com, there are over 300 types of honey available in the U.S., almost one type for every day of the year!
Conventional supermarkets rarely have a large variety of honeys available. Furthermore, caution should be displayed when purchasing honey from conventional markets. The price may be lower than what you find in natural food stores, and that is for a reason. As beekeeper Byron Rice stated in an interview published in the Frederick News Post, “much of the honey sold in stores [is] mixed with high fructose corn syrup or cane sugar.” This is unfortunate because many people do not know this, and purchase this honey thinking that they are choosing a healthier alternative to refined sugar.
Fortunately, many natural food stores carry a wide variety of honey. Tupelo is a deliciously mild honey that can be found in such markets. If you are interested in a bolder honey, consider buckwheat honey, which is dark and rich, with a taste similar to molasses. Personally, my taste for honey is not limited to what can be found in natural food stores. One of my favorite websites to purchase honey from is www.beefolks.com. Much of their honey is from their own hives. They understand the life cycle of the bees and allow the bees to flavor the honey based on where they obtain nectar, instead of adding artificial flavoring to their honey. I’ve purchased Lord Byron’s Apiary honey from beekeeper Byron Rice as well, for the same reason.
The Health Benefits of Honey
Not only does honey have a wonderful taste that may surprise and delight you, depending on the type, it also has many health benefits! The three main ways that honey is used for its health benefits are as a natural energy source, an immune system builder and a beauty ingredient.
Honey is primarily made up of carbohydrates but contains enzymes, minerals, vitamins and amino acids as well. It is also high in antioxidants. The darker the honey, the higher its antioxidant content will be. Athletes regularly include honey in their diets because it is so rich in nutrition and a good source of energy. The body absorbs the glucose found in honey quickly, resulting in an immediate energy boost, while the fructose honey contains is absorbed more slowly, providing sustained energy.
The immune system also benefits from honey. I believe this is partly due to honey’s antioxidant and enzyme content. It is also antibacterial, antimicrobial, demulcent (soothing) and humectant, meaning that it helps your body retain moisture, which is why a spoonful of honey, or warm lemon tea with honey, are traditional folk remedies used to help sooth coughs. Honey is also used topically in cases of cuts and burns. The antibacterial action of honey makes it suitable for dressing minor cuts, provided that the cut is cleaned prior to applying honey. Burns can also be relieved with honey, due to its soothing and cooling properties. Applying honey to a cut or burn often allows it to heal without leaving a scar.
As a beauty ingredient, honey is great to use as a facial cleanser instead of soap. Soap is not only drying, but also changes the pH of the skin, which can lead to acne, excessive dryness or overly oily skin. Honey on the other hand, soothes and tones the skin, and cleanses the face of bacteria while helping to maintain pH balance. Many people who use honey notice a vibrant glow to their skin as well. A small amount of honey can also be applied to the hair to help seal in moisture. Simply mix honey with olive oil and apply it to the hair. Cover your oiled hair with a shower cap, then wrap in a warm towel and leave for about 20 minutes before you wash your hair.
Lastly, I’ll leave you with this interesting fact. Do you know where the word, honeymoon, comes from? Traditionally, the bride and groom would eat honey and drink mead, a honey beer, during the first four weeks after wedlock, in hopes that their marriage will remain sweet.
This post is the second in a series on natural sweeteners.
Bessin, R. (2001). Varroa mites infesting honey bee colonies. Retrieved from http://www.ca.uky.edu/entomology/entfacts/ef608.asp on 6/24/10
Honey. Retrieved from http://www.honey.com/nhb/home/ on 6/24/10
Honey – Marriage. Retrieved from http://www.honey-health.com/honey-56.shtml on 6/25/10
Honey Bees Selected by ARS Toss Out Varroa Mites. Retrieved from http://www.ars.usda.gov/is/pr/2009/090910.htm on 6/24/10
Local beekeeper wants state to set standards for honey. Retrieved from http://www.fredericknewspost.com/sections/news/display.htm?storyid=102870 on 6/25/10
Wenner, A.M. and Bushing, W.W. (1996). Varroa mite spread in the United States. Bee Culture. 124:341 – 343.
Lissa’s passion for educating people about the healing powers of herbs led her to obtain a Masters of Science in Herbal Medicine from the Tai Sophia School of the Healing Arts. She has also studied nutrition and women’s health extensively, and has trained as a doula.
Have a question for Lissa? Send her an email and she’ll get back to you!