In Ayurveda, honey is known by various names such as Madhu, Pushpa Rasa, Makshika, Kusuma Sava. Honey is a product obtained from the bees and is produced in the stomachs of the bees that is regurgitated and stored in the combs. The honeybee itself is known to be very sacred and these different names suggest reverence to not only honey but also to the bee. Madhu in Ayurveda means “Perfection of Sweet”. Honey is used in temples as an offering to the deities as it is considered as one of the five elixirs of immortality (Panchamritam).
A shloka from the Ashtanga Hrudaya explains the properties of honey:
चक्षुष्यं छेदि तृट्श्लेष्मदिषदिध्मास्रदित्तनुत् ॥ ५१ ॥
मेिकु ष्ठकृ दमच्छदििश्वासकासादतसारदित् । व्रणशोधनसन्धानरोिणं िातलं मधु ॥ ५२ ॥
रूक्षं कषायमधुरं, तत्तुल्या मधुशकि रा । (अ.हृ.सू.५ / ५१, ५२)
The above shloka says: honey is good for eyesight, can quench one’s thirst, mitigate the effect of poison and stop hiccoughs. It is also beneficial in curing gastrointestinal infections, worm infestations, urinary tract disorders and is used in the treatment of wounds.
A study in the USA spoke of the scientific benefits of honey. According to Dee Carter, a microbiologist at the University of Sydney, honey has antibacterial properties. Due to the presence of an enzyme – glucose oxidase – in bees’ spit breaks down glucose in honey producing hydrogen peroxide which is incidentally, a commonly used antibacterial agent.
Among the different types of honey, Manuka honey has been the most researched by scientists and they have observed that antibacterial properties of Manuka honey stems from the presence of a chemical known as dihydroxyacetone or DHA. This DHA transforms into methylglyoxal (MGO) which is a sugar that inhibits the growth of undesirable bacteria.
Gargling with honey and warm water can flush out bacteria that cause bad breath and also prevent gingivitis. Honey is used extensively in the cosmetic industry as a skin moisturiser and softener as it helps to heal damaged skin tissues. This is why, in Ayurveda, honey has been used in the treatment of chronic wounds known as Dushta Vrana. Honey is hygroscopic in nature (meaning it tends to absorb moisture from the air) and has a very acidic pH which is what keeps the bacteria away as they require a more alkaline medium to grow in (which is one of the reasons as to why blood is preferred by microbes).
In a study conducted in Jamnagar, Gujarat, a seventy-year-old female was presented with a large wound across the shin area that was filled with pus. The leg was treated daily with a neem bark decoction followed by the application of honey and it was then covered with a sterile white cloth. She was also administered Ayurvedic drugs orally for a period of five weeks. At the end of the fifth week, the wound had completely healed with a minimal scar on the leg.
Honey is very viscous and hence when applied forms a barrier between the wound and the outside environment. Honey is frequently used in the prevention of hypertrophic scarring and post-burn contractures.
Each bee produces a different type of honey. There are various texts such as Ashtanga Hrudaya, Charaka Samhita, Sushrutha Samhita and Bhavaprakash Nighantu that mention the quality and medical benefits of honey. The authors of the texts have divided honey in many ways.
In the Charaka Samhita, Maharishi Charaka has divided honey into four types: Makshika, Bhramara, Paittaka and Kshaudra. Makshika is very sweet to taste and is of dark red colour. The Bhramara bee produces the Bhramara honey and is white in colour. The Kshaudra honey is produced by small bees and is of brown colour. The Paittaka honey is produced by large bees and is the colour of ghee.
Maharishi Sushrutha and the Bhavaprakash Nighantu have divided honey into eight types. Among the eight types Makshika is considered the best type of honey. It has qualities such as Laghu (light and quickly digestible) and Ruksha (balances Vata and Kapha). It is used in the treatment of jaundice, piles and cough. Maharishi Sushrutha has stated that honey is a Yogavahi which means catalyst. It can penetrate deep into the tissues without any alteration in its structure.
In the Shashti Upakrama or sixty treatment modalities prescribed by him, honey is one among them. Honey possesses the property: Anupana. This allows honey to be administered with other drugs that enhance its activity.
Honey helps to improve digestion by enhancing the digestive Agni. To those who have Manda Agni (weak digestive fire), honey can decongest and unclog the vital channels of the body. It is used in the treatment of peptic ulcers by controlling the production of hydrochloric acid.
Honey is also a storehouse of vitamins such as B2, B4, B5, B6, B11 and C, and minerals like calcium, zinc, potassium, iron, phosphorus, magnesium, selenium, chromium and manganese. It contains eighteen different amino acids and sugar ranging from glucose, sucrose, fructose. This makes it a healthier alternative to processed sugar.
Interestingly, honey that contains pollen in it can act as a natural vaccine against seasonal allergies. When this honey is consumed, the pollen in it triggers the immune system to produce antibodies against it. This is stored in the memory of the immune system.
Honey was used as a therapeutic resource by our sages ever since the Vedic era. Honey finds its mentions in the Atharva Veda and Rig Veda and this tells us the extent of significance honey was given from time immemorial. Five thousand years ago, honey was considered as one of nature’s most remarkable gifts to mankind and is still considered the same.
About the Author
Ms Varsha Venkataraman
Varsha Venkataraman is a graduate in Applied Microbiology and Cancer Studies. Currently she is the Senior Researcher for the Centre for Soft Power with an avid interest in Ayurveda and wishes to focus on the integrative approach of Ayurveda and modern medicine in the treatment of cancer.