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Manuka Honey and its Potent Medicinal Properties

Atlanta, GA

When I think of honey, I think of it spread on toast, accompanied by a nice warm cup of coffee that I enjoy with my mom for Sunday brunch. Nothing more than something to satisfy my sweet tooth, really. If you asked me a year ago, I would say it’s difficult to envision that such a simple staple in many homes across the world could have such a long history not just as a sweetener, but as a medicine that hinders the growth of microbes!

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Jars of honey

Dating back to Stone Ages approximately 8000 years ago, it was used traditionally as medicine before its antibacterial properties were confirmed in 1980 by biochemist Peter Milan who “created a unique medicinal niche for Manuka honey.” Because honey’s antiseptic attributes were only supported anecdotally, he began his research to support the attributes scientifically. After researching and testing, as well as encountering margin errors, he was finally able to publish cutting-edge work that sparked interest in medical specialists worldwide. He created what he called the Unique Manuka Factor (UMF) which is essentially a grading system in which the potency of the antimicrobial attributes are categorized depending on the content levels of chemicals Leptosperin, Methylglyoxal, DHA, and HMF. Another grading system called the MGO grading system created by Professor Thomas Henle from the University of Dresden in 2008 is also used and works by using the quantity of Methylglyoxal (A naturally occurring chemical in Manuka honey that is mainly responsible for its antimicrobial properties) to evaluate the strength of the antibacterial activity.

The science behind its antimicrobial properties

One might ponder the technicalities of how the sweet sticky substance could be used medically or pharmaceutically. Manuka honey is a type of monofloral honey that is created by bees that pollinate the native leptospermum scoparium bush in Australia and New Zealand Unlike many other honeys, it contains a compound called methylglyoxal (MGO). The concentration of methylglyoxal combined with other phenols found in Manuka honey were used to create a rating that measured the antibacterial potency, the Unique Manuka Factor Rating (UMF). It displays antibacterial properties, resulting in inhibitory activity against the growth of bacteria. The inhibitory activity is said to be a result of a mix of enzymatic activity where hydrogen peroxide is released, osmosis activity, and pH shock. The main inhibitor, hydrogen peroxide, is produced during glucose oxidation that is catalyzed by the bee enzyme, glucose oxidase. While the effectiveness of most honeys is attributed to the peroxide production, some honeys display other unique antibacterial properties.

Essentially, the honey is able to demonstrate antiseptic characteristics by decreasing the cellular metabolic rate activity of biofilm cells. This is when bacteria attaches itself to a surface to reproduce. Decreasing the cellular metabolic rate activity suppresses reproduction, and in turn, suppresses the growth of bacteria

Antithetical discoveries

Due to the low levels of peptidoglycan (~10%) and high lipid content of gram-negative bacteria, traditional medicine used to treat bacterial infections such as antibiotics are often ineffective because of their inability to penetrate the outer membrane (extremely low permeability barrier). Manuka honey, although also not significantly effective against gram-negative bacteria, demonstrated reactions that resulted in anomalies of the cells including abnormally shortened and elongated ones. Additionally, “protrusions of cellular plasma membranes on the cell surface and a substantial amount of extracellular debris indicative of cell lysis” were present against the species P.aeruginosa. The cell lysis illustrates the insignificant, but surprisingly existent suppressing effects of Manuka honey on gram-negative bacteria. Though it should still be noted that gram-negative bacteria is more resistant than gram-positive bacteria.

Modern usage and future potential

In more modern times, Manuka honey is being used to treat a wide range of infectious diseases. A study by Nupur Kapoor and Rahul Yadav who are both medical students in India was conducted in which Manuka honey was used to treat patients with the complaint of chronic nonhealing discharging extraoral wounds, had statistically significant results where the decrease in the average depth of the wound was 0.88 mm. Only honey with a Unique Manuka Factor (UMF) of 10 and above can be used to treat wounds and has proven to be a promising treatment. With the perpetuation of research on natural medicines and their properties,there is hope for a solution to antibiotic resistance.

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