Manuka honey is known for its health benefits

11 Manuka Honey Benefits: The Miracle Honey from Down Under

By: Sonali Ruder, DO

Scientifically Reviewed By: Michael A. Smith, MD

Long recognized as one of nature's wonders, honey has been used medicinally for centuries, in particular for treating wounds and infections. Today, honey is still used in many cultures as a natural remedy for a wide variety of skin conditions and physical ailments, and its many health benefits continue to be explored and studied by modern science.

Manuka honey, in particular, has come to the forefront of this discussion because of its unique health-promoting compounds! It has been touted for improving wound healing, preventing tooth decay, soothing sore throats and promoting digestive health.

But with the very high price of manuka honey (up to $99 per 100 grams), you may be wondering how this honey differs from your local honey. Let's dive in and explore this miracle superfood from down under to see if it's worth the hype.

What is manuka honey?

Manuka honey is a unique type of honey native to New Zealand and parts of Australia. It is produced by bees that pollinate the flowers of the manuka bush (Leptospermum scoparium), also known as the tea tree.

Manuka honey is known for its flavor as well as its medicinal properties. It has garnered a lot of attention in recent years because of its numerous health benefits, particularly its potent antimicrobial properties. Its medicinal properties are believed to be due to its high concentration of methylglyoxal (MGO), a compound found in high levels in manuka flowers.

Honey vs. manuka honey

The term "honey"—whether referring to pure honey (which is filtered from the hive), raw honey (which is unfiltered) or manuka honey—refers to a sweetener produced by bees. The nectar of various flowers is used to make honey (which is one reason why local honey may help you build immunity to seasonal allergies over time), while manuka honey is produced from the nectar of the manuka tree specifically. (Similarly, "clover honey" comes from clover blossoms.) All types of honey have similar nutritional profiles when it comes to the number of calories, carbohydrates, protein, and fat they contain.

Manuka is rarer and more expensive than regular honey because of its limited supply. The manuka tree can only thrive in a specific climate in certain parts of the world (mainly remote regions in New Zealand). Plus, this tree only flowers for two to six weeks a year, leaving a very narrow window for bees to pollinate it.

Honey has several components that help protect our cells from damage caused by bacteria. One of the key components is hydrogen peroxide, which is produced by an enzyme called glucose oxidase. Hydrogen peroxide has antibacterial effects and can help kill harmful bacteria that may be present on our skin or in our bodies.

What really sets manuka honey apart from regular honey is the high concentration of other active compounds it contains, in particular, methylglyoxal (MGO). MGO was first identified by German scientist Thomas Henle in 2008. MGO has been shown to have antibacterial and anti-inflammatory effects, which can be beneficial for a wide range of health conditions, including fighting infections, healing wounds, and easing pain and inflammation. The higher the concentration of MGO, the more potent the health benefits.

Manuka honey also contains other phenolic and flavonoid compounds, including leptosperin, that are only found in manuka. These compounds have antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties that can help reduce inflammation, boost the immune system, and protect against the oxidative stress that contributes to the development of chronic diseases.

1. Wound and burn healing

Manuka is best known for its healing properties. When this honey is applied to a wound, it may support the healing process and reduce pain, making it an excellent natural alternative to traditional wound dressings. This is due to its antibacterial and anti-inflammatory properties, which combat pathogens, provide a protective barrier and reduce inflammation. It also stimulates the growth of new tissue and blood vessels, which accelerates the healing process. The honey used to treat wounds is a medical grade honey that is sterilized and specifically prepared for use as a dressing.

Multiple scientific studies have confirmed the efficacy of medical grade manuka honey in treating wounds, burns, and sores. In a recent randomized controlled trial in critically ill children with pressure injuries, the use of honey dressings decreased the time to wound healing. Another study in diabetic patients with foot ulcers found that manuka honey dressings shortened healing time and led to faster disinfection of wounds compared to conventional dressings.

2. Treating antibiotic-resistant infections

Antibiotic resistance is an ever-increasing global issue. Drug-resistant bacteria that infect wounds can cause life-threatening complications. Research has shown that manuka honey may be effective against antibiotic-resistant bacterial infections, such as methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA).

A recent study showed that concentrations of 10-30% honey inhibited the growth of highly antibiotic-resistant organisms. These results show promise for its role as a natural alternative to antibiotics.

3. Anti-inflammatory benefits

Systemic chronic inflammation plays a key role in the development and progression of many chronic diseases. The flavonoid and polyphenol compounds in honey have anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties that help reduce inflammation, help fight allergies and combat oxidative stress.

In addition to reducing inflammation in wounds, manuka honey has also been shown to reduce inflammation in the gut, which may help alleviate symptoms of inflammatory bowel disease. Its anti-inflammatory effects may also be beneficial for reducing inflammation associated with other chronic conditions, such as arthritis and cardiovascular disease, but more research is needed.

Many of the standard medications used to treat inflammation, like corticosteroids and NSAIDs, have potentially serious adverse effects. Honey has promise as a natural, easily tolerated alternative to these medications with minimal side effects.

4. Alleviating cold symptoms

Drinking hot tea or lemon water mixed with honey is a time-honored way to soothe a sore throat or cough. But honey alone may be an effective way to help suppress a cough and other symptoms of upper respiratory tract infections (URIs) or the common cold. Studies suggest that honey may be a safe and effective treatment for cough due to upper respiratory tract infections and can provide symptomatic relief. This is especially useful as most URIs are caused by viruses rather than bacteria, so antibiotics are ineffective as a treatment.

In children, cold medication options are limited, so honey may be particularly suited for symptomatic relief in this population. Research has also shown that honey can reduce nighttime coughing and improve sleep in children. The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) supports the use of small amounts of honey as a home remedy for coughing in children over 1 year old to help thin mucous and loosen a cough.

5. Oral health

The idea of consuming honey for good oral health may seem counterintuitive. But unlike other sweets, manuka honey's potent antibacterial properties have been shown to inhibit the growth of harmful oral bacteria, which contribute to plaque formation, gum inflammation, gingivitis, and tooth decay.

In a clinical study, manuka honey and chlorhexidine mouthwash were both found to significantly reduce plaque formation better than xylitol gum.

6. Skin disorders

Manuka honey has promising potential as a complementary therapy to treat various skin disorders such as rosacea, acne, and dermatitis.

Manuka honey can help reduce inflammation and redness in the skin. It can also inhibit the growth of bacteria that contributes to dermatologic conditions. Manuka honey can also promote wound healing and tissue repair, which may be beneficial for people who may have damaged or compromised skin barriers.

7. Digestive health

Manuka honey benefits include support for our gut microbiome, which is fundamental for maintaining good digestive health. This honey contains certain sugars, called oligosaccharides, that function as prebiotics, helping to promote the proliferation of good bacteria in our gut.

Early research suggests that manuka honey may aid in a variety of digestive issues, including inflammatory bowel disease. One study showed manuka honey inhibited the growth of Clostridium difficile, a bacterium that causes severe intestinal infections. However, more studies are needed to fully understand its role in supporting gut health.

8. Stomach ulcers

In addition to its prebiotic effects, manuka honey may also help fight gastric ulcers by other means. Its antibacterial activity may play a role in fighting H. pylori, the bacteria that causes stomach ulcers. Its anti-inflammatory effects may also help protect the lining of the stomach from damage.

9. Cystic fibrosis

Cystic fibrosis (CF) is an inherited disorder that causes severe damage to the lungs and other organs in the body. People with CF produce thick and sticky mucous, which clogs the airways, making it difficult to breathe. The mucus also traps bacteria and other pathogens, which can lead to chronic infections and lung damage.

Studies have shown that the strong anti-bacterial effects of manuka honey may work synergistically with antibiotics in the treatment of patients with chronic upper respiratory tract infections, such as those with CF. Additionally, it may help reduce inflammation in the airways and thin out mucous, helping to alleviate symptoms.

A recent clinical study in CF patients with sinusitis demonstrated that those who received manuka honey irrigations twice daily for 30 days had improved quality of life and better endoscopic outcomes compared to those who received saline irrigations.

10. Dry eyes

Chronic dry eye occurs when there is a lack of moisture on the surface of the eye, known as the cornea. Small glands called meibomian glands in the eyelids secrete oils that keep the cornea moist and well lubricated. Meibomian gland dysfunction is one of the most common causes of dry eye. Research shows that manuka honey may be an effective treatment for dry eye by various mechanisms, including reducing bacterial overgrowth and inflammation on the surface of the eye and improving Meibomian gland dysfunction.

A systematic review of five randomized controlled trials found that compared with control treatments, manuka honey eye gel exhibited significant improvement on multiple tests related to dry eye. In one trial in patients with Meibomian gland dysfunction, patients using manuka honey eye drops showed significant improvement in symptoms and objective signs.

11. Atrophic rhinitis

The antibacterial and anti-inflammatory properties of this honey may make it a good therapeutic option for the treatment of atrophic rhinitis, a chronic, degenerative nasal condition. A recent clinical trial found that treatment with a 10% manuka honey and saline spray resulted in improved clinical outcomes, including decreased fetid smell, thickening of the mucosa, decreased inflammation, and healed mucosal glands.

How to Take Manuka Honey

Manuka honey can be consumed in several ways, depending on your preference and intended health benefits. Some of the common ways include the following:

  • Eat it

    . You can enjoy a spoonful of manuka honey directly from the jar or added to your food and drinks. Drizzle it on toast or use it as an all-natural sweetener in oatmeal, yogurt, smoothies, and salad dressings. You can also stir a teaspoon into your tea or warm water for a soothing drink. If you have a sore throat, try taking a spoonful to help alleviate your symptoms.
  • Apply as a topical treatment

    . You can apply medical grade manuka honey directly onto your skin as a topical treatment for wounds, burns or skin infections.
  • Take in a capsulated form

    . This honey is available in capsule or tablet form.
  • Use it in personal care

    . You will find this honey incorporated into eye drops, toothpastes, dental sprays, and nasal sprays.

What does manuka honey taste like?

Manuka honey has a taste that can be described as rich, earthy, and slightly bitter. It has a distinctively strong and intense flavor that is different from other types of honey. It's also not as sweet as regular honey. Manuka's flavor can vary depending on factors such as the region where it was produced, the time of year, and the processing methods used.

Is manuka honey safe?

When used appropriately, manuka honey is safe for most adults. However, it should be avoided if you have an allergy to honey or bees. Also, children under the age of 1 year should not take any type of honey, as it may contain a bacterium that can cause botulism in infants.

Diabetics need to be careful when ingesting any type of honey, as it is high in sugar. One tablespoon of manuka honey contains 16 grams of sugar. But manuka honey topical dressings have been well-tolerated.

Does manuka honey have probiotics?

Some fans of this honey swear by its gut-boosting powers, so you may be surprised to hear that it does not contain any probiotics. It does, however, contain sugars called fructo-oligosaccharides, which have a prebiotic effect. Studies have shown that the prebiotics in this honey stimulate and maintain the growth of probiotics, including lactobacillus and Bifidobacterium.

How to choose a good manuka honey

Because the quality of this honey may vary, a unique grading system was established to rate its potency. The rating is called the UMF, which stands for Unique Manuka Factor. The UMF rating reflects the levels of three signature compounds found in manuka honey: MGO (methylglyoxal), DHA (dihydroxyacetone), and leptosperin. The higher the concentration of these compounds, the purer and more potent the product is.

The product is graded for its authenticity and assigned a rating, ranging from UMF 5+ to UMF 20+. A UMF of 10+ or higher is considered therapeutic. However, the UMF is not a medical rating.

As manuka honey has gained popularity, some honey producers have capitalized on the trend, coming up with their own tests and grading systems. They might even mix less expensive honeys in their products and try to pass it off as pure manuka or label it more potent than it is. The UMF rating is the most established and reliable certification, so make sure the label states that it's genuine manuka honey and check that the UMF trademark is included.

What other honeys compare to manuka honey?

While manuka is highly prized, other honeys have similar properties. However, not all honey is created equal, and the qualities and properties vary depending on factors such as the source, processing, and storage.

Here are a few examples:

  • Kanuka honey

    comes from the flowers of the kanuka tree, which is closely related to the manuka tree. It contains high levels of MGO, making it a good alternative.
  • Jelly bush honey

    comes from the Leptospermum family of plants, like the manuka. It also contains high levels of MGO.
  • Irish heather honey

    comes from Ireland and has high levels of antioxidants.
  • Tualang honey

    comes from Malaysia and is produced by bees from the nectar of the tualang tree. It has antimicrobial properties.
  • Ulmo honey

    is produced in Chile from the flowers of the ulmo tree. It's known for its antibacterial properties and high antioxidant concentration.
  • Buckwheat honey

    is produced in the United States and Canada. It has high levels of antioxidants and antibacterial properties.

About the Author: Sonali Ruder, DO, is a board-certified emergency medicine doctor, classically trained chef, cookbook author and founder of the popular website, Dr. Ruder is a contributing writer, recipe developer, spokesperson, and health and wellness expert for several national magazines, websites, and organizations. Her passion is giving people the tools to take control of their health, starting in the kitchen!