Manuka Honey: Nature's Own Immune Booster?

‘Superbugs’ - bacterial infections that resist a range of drugs, are on the rise and pose serious challenges for conventional antibiotics. Around the world it has become standard practice for doctors to prescribe antibiotics, such as penicillin, to treat things like chest infections, dental infections and infections of the throat, ear and sinus. There is no doubt that the discovery of antibiotics has been one of the most important developments of modern medicine, but in just a few decades the misuse and overuse of antibiotics have led some bacteria to genetically mutate to resist them.

With some superbugs now resistant to all known antibiotics, scientists are exploring other ways of fighting harmful bacteria that may help to support our immune systems. One of these is with the help of bees and the nectar from the native New Zealand Mānuka tree. In the last several years, scientists have confirmed what our ancestors seemed to have suspected all along; raw Mānuka honey fights bacteria and helps to keep us healthy. A group of researchers reviewed the research around Mānuka honey and outlined the natural qualities that explain why raw Mānuka honey is so remarkable. 

It turns out that many different types of honey have antibacterial properties because they contain something called hydrogen peroxide. However, when that honey is exposed to an enzyme found in almost every plant and animal, the hydrogen peroxide decays and the honey loses its ability to fight bacteria. Not so with raw Mānuka honey. Scientists have discovered that the honey that bees produce from the nectar of the native Mānuka tree contains a naturally occurring chemical called methylglyoxal. MGO, as it is often referred to, gives Mānuka honey the ability to fight bacteria without hydrogen peroxide. 

This remarkable antibacterial attribute has caused a bit of a buzz among scientists, who, since the number of superbugs continues to grow worldwide, have a renewed interest in Mānuka honey as an alternative antibiotic agent. While raw Mānuka honey has proven itself as a natural antibacterial agent for topical applications, scientists are now exploring how the ‘superfood’ can fight infection inside the body. In one study, scientists looked at how Mānuka honey fought pathogens commonly found in the mouth, concluding that Mānuka honey with 515 parts per million (a high quality jar) or more of MGO showed a significantly higher antibacterial effect compared with normal honey. As well as use as a sole agent to tackle bacteria, there appears to be scope to use Mānuka honey to augment treatment with conventional antibiotics. There are even findings which indicate Mānuka honey may have a role to play in relation to the influenza virus.

It will be interesting to watch as more is understood about the natural medicinal properties of Mānuka honey and whether it has a role to play in confronting the so-called superbugs and complementing our immune systems. In the meantime, while we gratefully enjoy our smoothies, granola, porridge, toast or whatever you combine your Mānuka honey with, I think I’ll give a little nod of respect to those incredible bees producing a delicious, healthy and completely natural superfood. Watch this space.