While most types of honey have some medicinal properties and health benefits, Manuka honey is generally considered the healthiest of them all. It’s made by bees that pollinate a single New Zealand plant, the Manuka bush, or Leptospermum scoparium.
Manuka honey stands out from others because of its exceptional antimicrobial activity, thought to come from its phenols, its low pH, and especially from its methylglyoxal (MGO) content. MGO is a dehydrated form of a phytocompound found in the nectar of the flowers of the Manuka bush. So far as we can tell, MGO should be as toxic to us as it is to pathogens, but it isn’t—in fact, it seems to have a beneficial effect upon our own tissues, as we’ll discuss more below.
However, the MGO level can range dramatically from one honey sample to the next, from 1000 to >1200 parts per million. Thus, the efficacy of a given honey sample is correlated to its Unique Manuka Factor (UMF), which will be prominently labeled on the packaging for authentic Manuka honey with all the attendant benefits. The higher the UMF number, the greater the honey’s MGO and thus, its antimicrobial capabilities. The lowest UMF rating is 5, and it ranges up to 15 or even higher.
Manuka Honey for Wound Healing and Skin Conditions
Any powerful antimicrobial is an aid to wound healing, even if it does nothing else. This is because when the skin barrier gets breached, normal flora convert to potential opportunistic infections, hindering the body’s ability to heal.
While antibiotic-resistant bacteria are dramatically on the rise in general, we have yet to identify a bacteria that is resistant to Manuka honey. It has been shown to effectively inhibit all types of potentially pathogenic organisms from the skin and oral mucosa.
Manuka honey has likewise been shown to exhibit antiviral properties, and may be useful for shingles.
It’s less useful against dermal fungal species, but it still does exhibit antifungal effects, due to its production of hydrogen peroxide.
Aside from its direct antimicrobial properties, the low pH of honey inhibits activity of enzymes from pathogens that might worsen tissue destruction. The honey’s osmolarity (high concentration of dissolved particles) also draws fluid out of the wound when applied topically, allowing pressure to drain and lymph to flow.
For all of these reasons, Manuka honey is well studied for wound healing, especially diabetic ulcers. It is also shown to be effective for atopic dermatitis, for these reasons as well as probably for its immune modulation properties (see below).
Manuka Honey for Oral Health
As mentioned, Manuka has been tested against both dermatological and oral bacteria, and has been shown to be effective for both. While sugar in general is well-known to cause cavities, that isn’t the case with pure honey.
This study rather ironically shows that unlike most candy, a “candy” sweetened with Manuka honey drops both dental plaque and gingival bleeding by 35%.
These benefits are not exclusive to Manuka honey. This study shows that honey in general is effective against every tested pathogen associated with periodontal disease, while this one shows that a mouthwash containing regular honey improves not just plaque and gingivitis, but dental caries as well.
Manuka Honey for Gastrointestinal Health
While Manuka honey hasn’t been extensively studied against GI microbes, this in vitro study shows its impressive efficacy against Clostridia difficile, a potentially severe opportunistic infection.
Other types of honey have been studied and shown to be effective against H pylori, presumably Manuka honey would be also.
Manuka Honey Modulates the Immune Response
Manuka honey does, in fact have both antioxidant and anti-inflammatory mechanisms of action, but it also can stimulate reactive oxygen species, or increase inflammatory cytokines, depending upon the condition of the tissue. This means that the honey can aid in debridement (removal of dead or damaged tissue), and also stimulate healing repair mechanisms.
Manuka honey’s immune modulating properties mean that it can regulate tissue healing, and not just stimulate one aspect of it.
Manuka honey is probably best studied for topical application to speed wound healing. But it can also be used in herbal tea for sore throats, mouth ulcers, or probably stomach ulcers or gastritis. It can be diluted as a mouth wash and swished regularly for gingivitis or periodontal disease. Additional uses for so versatile a substance are sure to be discovered in time.