This powerhouse pantry staple can revitalize your holistic health, both inside and out.

By Alexandra Churchill and Zee Krstic
June 03, 2019
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Peter Ardito

Believe it or not, honey was first harvested by Ancient Egyptians who used to bake it into cakes to please their deities. Olympic athletes also downed swigs of honey to fuel their bodies before attempting to reach glory in the arena. Over the centuries, honey has been primarily used as a sweetener, a holistic medicinal agent and, according to Modern Farmer, even as a weapon of war. Today, honey has long graced your kitchen-but like it's history, there are benefits associated with this sweet syrup that you may not be aware of.

In some cases, honey can be a better alternative to sugar for those with dietary concerns, as it can provide a richer nutritional profile compared to sugar. There are even more holistic health benefits associated with honey, including unique antibacterial properties and some evidence linking it to suppressing chronic diseases. Plus, honey's properties as a topical agent is limitless-its used to heal serious burns as well as other wounds, and is a potent solution for common beauty issues like acne. But not all honey is created equally. If you're looking to reap as many of the sweetener's holistic benefits as possible, you'll have to take a closer look at the label. "The kind of honey you buy depends on the flavor that you're looking for and what you want to do with it. While a particular honey's nutrient profile (and its taste and color) vary according to its flower source, the general nutrient profile and health benefits are pretty standard," says Jenny Friedman, MS, RD. Friedman says that you should be able to identify the honey's country of origin on the product itself-and that, in some cases, darker honey may contain more antioxidants than other varieties.

Cynthia Sass, MPH, RD, a performance nutritionist based in New York and Los Angeles, says you should also look for honey that is both raw and organic. "Raw honey is not treated (other than being poured through a cloth to separate the honey from the wax and impurities), so it retains the most nutrients, antioxidants, and other beneficial compounds," Sass says. "In organic honey, the plants the bees are getting nectar from can't be sprayed with synthetic chemicals, and the bees cannot be administered antibiotics either." With the help of experts and nutritionists, we're highlighting some of the most exciting health benefits of honey that you should know about-from need-to-know dietary benefits to beauty applications that will revitalize damaged skin.

Boosts Your Energy

Unlike refined sugar or high-fructose corn syrup, honey is a better-for-you natural alternative to sugar that'll add a balanced sweetness to any beverage or treat you're baking. "Due to the trace amount of nutrients, antioxidants, and its ability to reduce triglycerides when used in place of sugar, raw, organic honey is a good alternative where it might make sense," says Sass, who advocates for honey in smoothies, oatmeal, overnight oats, in coffee or tea, and salad dressings as well as sauces and marinades.

It's important to note that honey generally has more calories, carbohydrates, and total sugars than simple table sugar due to higher fructose content. That doesn't mean you shouldn't consider honey over products with added sugar: "A higher fructose content means it's sweeter, and you'll need less [honey] to obtain the same taste," Friedman says. "The primary reason to choose honey over sugar would be for the flavor or texture, but with honey, you are getting a small dose of extra nutrients like vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants that you don't with sugar."

Supports a Healthy Diet

Don't expect a major weight loss transformation by regularly eating honey-that's not the point of incorporating it into your routine, nutrition experts say. But honey is a nutritious addition to your pantry that can be used to sweeten many recipes without derailing nutritional intakes for the day. For Friedman, she prefers buckwheat honey as it contains a robust flavor and an even fuller nutritional profile-the antioxidants in this honey are "the most important nutritional benefit."

Even if you stick with raw honey, there could be a cardiovascular edge to consuming honey: "Some research shows that honey may help protect against heart disease by reducing 'bad' LDL cholesterol while increasing 'good' HDL," Sass says. "When used to replace sugar (not just added to a diet) honey may also help reduce triglycerides, which are linked to hardened arteries." There are even more properties that could benefit you-research has shown that honey may contain cancer-fighting agents, which is gives you the best excuse in the world to spoon honey into everything and anything.

Moisturizes Your Skin

It might feel strange to slather raw honey onto your face, but honey has quite a few uses when it comes to skincare. According to Joshua Zeichner, MD, the director of cosmetic and clinical research at Mount Sinai Hospital, honey can provide relief for chronic dryness and irritation as it's a known humectant-meaning it draws water to the skin. There are also active enzymes found within raw honey that can restore skin purity in the event that it has been damaged.

Fights Infection

Honey has long been praised for its antibacterial properties: "Honey contains a variety of vitamins, minerals, and even antioxidants in the form of flavonoids and phenolic acids," Friedman says. "The specific amount and type of these nutrients varies with the source of honey, so it's hard to say specifically what you're getting with each jar." Some experts argue that manuka honey, in particular, has been shown to be even more effective than regular honey at preventing infections.

Beyond boosting your immunity, however, the Cochrane Review reports that honey can be used topically. A review of 26 separate clinical trials involving 3,011 participants in total suggests honey can be used to effectively treat the following wounds: boils, burns, pilonidal cysts, as well as venous and diabetic foot ulcers. Zeichner says that it also contains a small amount of hydrogen peroxide in its natural form. Manuka honey, in particular, contains a compound called "methylglyoxal" which allows topical treatment for gashes and wounds, and may be superior to raw honey.

Aids Sleep Naturally

According to research published in the journal Pediatrics, honey can also act as a natural sleep inducer. Simply adding a tablespoon or two to a cup of tea before bedtime can help reset your circadian rhythm. Plus, you can pair it with a blend of tea that's also known as a natural sleep aid. Chamomile tea contains apigenin, which is an antioxidant that can help induce sleepiness and combat insomnia. Don't give children under the age of one this treatment, however, as honey contains spores of bacteria that are harmful to infants, Sass says.

Soothes a Sore Throat

If you're in the dead of winter, flu season is top of mind-honey is known to suppress coughing and soothe sore throats as effectively as dextromethorphan, a common cough suppressant. "It's not a total cure, but honey can lessen the discomfort and irritation that comes along with a scratchy throat. Research supports honey as more soothing than medicinal," Friedman says.

Alleviates Allergies

If you sneeze and sniffle through transitional seasons, try adding a spoonful of honey to your breakfast before you head out the door. It's ironic, since the culprit for our misery is pollen-which bees, in turn, use to make honey-but experts believe that introducing the pathogen into the body might desensitize it. Be warned, however: experts at the Mayo Clinic have reported there isn't enough research to suggest honey as a total replacement for traditional treatment. "While we hear a lot about using honey and bee pollen in treating seasonal allergies, research doesn't support a curative role," Friedman says.

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