Complementary medicine
Healing honey

Honey, a household remedy millennia old, is receiving renewed attention in the wake of the growth of bacterial strains that are resistant to modern antibiotics.

The healing properties of honey have been known for several thousand years. The Ancient Egyptians used it to help heal wounds, it is mentioned in the Gilgamesh epic dating back to around 3000BC and Ibn Sina (aka Avicenna), the renowned 11th-century Islamic physician considered honey to be the “food of all foods, the drink of all drinks and the drug of all drugs”.

For the past several years researchers in many parts of the world have been studying the use of honey in medical treatments. Some of the most successful uses include the control of wound infection, prevention of post surgical wound infections, treatment of burns, diabetic foot, radiation mucositis and sore throat, among others.

However, it is not just any honey that has the properties to promote the healing of, for example, infected wounds. Professor PC Molan, director of the Honey Research Unit, Department of Biological Sciences, University of Waikato, New Zealand, says in a paper published in the Journal of Woundcare, October 2004, that the “potency of honey’s antibacterial activity can vary up to a hundred-fold [depending on the type of honey].” Honey derived from Leptospermum species of plants found in New Zealand and Australia, particularly Leptospermum scoparium, is known to have strong antibacterial properties, and is now produced specifically for wound care.

There are several commercial varieties on the market that have been approved by regulatory authorities in the EU, Canada and Australia. In some instances it is referred to as ‘manuka honey’ or ‘medihoney’. Prof Molan noted three points why honey has good antibacterial properties.

Firstly, honey has high osmolarity. Secondly, honey has hydrogen peroxide, “which is formed in a slowrelease manner by the glucose oxidase added by bees during it production”. And thirdly, some honey has phytochemicals from the nectar of particular plant species. He points out that the phytochemical factor in Leptospermum honey is exceptionally potent, giving this type of honey “a powerful antibacterial action that diffuses into the depth of infected tissues, making it the honey chosen for sale for wound care”.

In his 2004 paper he points out that “there are over 500 reports of case studies and clinical trials where honey intended as a food product has been used as wound dressing, and none have reported adverse effects”, adding that, nonetheless “clinicians are reluctant to use non-sterile products on open wounds” and would rather opt for the approved medihoney.

Astonishing success

More recently medical researchers at the University of Bonn, Germany, announced their “astonishing success” in their research using medihoney, noting that even chronic wounds infected with multiresistant bacteria often healed within a few weeks.

Dr Arne Simon, who works on the cancer ward of the Bonn University Children’s Clinic, says the medical use of honey is becoming attractive again for the treatment of wounds.

His young patients form part of a high-risk group: the medication used to treat cancer known as cytostatics not only slows down the reproduction of malignant cells, but also impairs the healing process of wounds.

“Normally a skin injury heals in a week, with our children it often takes a month or more,” he says. Moreover, children with leukaemia have a weakened immune system. If a germ enters their bloodstream via a wound, the result may be a fatal case of blood poisoning. “[Using medihoney] dead tissue is rejected faster, and the wounds heal more rapidly,” Kai Sofka, wound specialist at the University Children’s Clinic, emphasises.

“What is more, changing dressings is less painful, since the poultices are easier to remove without damaging the newly formed layers of skin.” Some wounds often smell unpleasant, which puts an enormous strain on the patient. Yet honey helps here too by reducing the smell.

“Even wounds which consistently refused to heal for years can, in our experience, be brought under control with medihoney – and this frequently happens within a few weeks,” Sofka says. There are now two dozen hospitals in Germany using honey in their treatment of wounds.

In conjunction with colleagues from Düsseldorf, Homburg and Berlin, the Bonn medical staff have developed the Woundpecker Data Bank where they will record and evaluate over 100 courses of disease over the next few months, the aim of which is to boost the amount of clinical data available.

The next step planned is comparative studies with other therapeutic methods, such as the very expensive cationic silver dressings. “These too are an effective anti-bacterial method,” says Dr Simon.

“However, it is not yet clear whether the silver released from some dressings may lead to side-effects among children.” Prof Molan concludes: “Honey, the most ancient of wound treatments, is taking its place in modern wound care.

Like modern wound dressings, it is easy to apply, painless and comfortable, harmless to tissues, creates a moist healing environment, is antibacterial and stimulates healing and epithelialisation.”

At the time of going to press the “1st International Conference on the Medicinal Uses of Honey” was due to take place in Malaysia from 26-28 August, hosted by the School of Medical Sciences, Universiti Sains Malaysia, in an effort to popularise the medicinal uses of honey.

Berberine hope for type 2 diabetes

Reports of a traditional Chinese medicine having beneficial effects for people suffering from type 2 diabetes now has some scientific evidence to back up the claims. A collaboration between Chinese, Korean and Australian scientists at Sydney’s Garvan Institute, has revealed that the natural plant product berberine could be a valuable new treatment.

Berberine is found in the roots and bark of a number of plants used for medicinal purposes including wound healing and treatment of diarrhoea. It has also been documented in Chinese literature as having a glucose lowering effect when administered to people with diabetes; yet, until now, its mode of action was unknown.

It has also been documented as having antimicrobial, anti-tumour and anti-inflammatory properties as an oral medicine. Garvan scientist Dr Jiming Ye says: “Our studies in animal models of diabetes show that berberine acts in part by activating an enzyme in the muscle and liver that is involved in improving sensitivity of the tissue to insulin – this in turn helps lower blood sugar levels.

In addition, it seems berberine can help reduce body weight.” Current medicines for treating type 2 diabetes include metformin and the TZD group of drugs. However, a large number of patients cannot tolerate metformin and the TZDs can cause undesirable weight gain. Therefore, it is critical to develop new therapies to treat type 2 diabetes, which is a growing health problem. “Berberine has been used for decades, if not centuries, with few reported side effects.

Given the limitations of existing medicines we are excited to have evidence that berberine may be a helpful new treatment for type 2 diabetes; however, despite its widespread use in traditional medicine practices, it will still have to be evaluated properly following the defined clinical trials process”, said Professor James, head of the Garvan’s Diabetes & Obesity Research Program and co-author of the paper published in the August issue of Diabetes.

Preserving Arabia’s natural medicinal heritage

Natural Remedies of Arabia, by Robert Lebling and Donna Pepperdine, is a beautifully illustrated compendium of centuriesold complementary and alternative treatments drawn from across Arabia. Beside the attractive photos, the information is well detailed and thoroughly researched. This is undoubtedly a book for all interested in complementary medicine and should find a place in every home and many a doctor’s practice.

From aloe, anise, arak and arta to incense, sarcocol, wormwood and yarrow, this thoughtfully designed, easy to use, book lays out in alphabetical order the full spectrum of medicinal plants, herbs, spices and seeds available across the Arabian Peninsula. Under each heading the authors provide a brief history, a list of family remedies, how to prepare and use, several fascinating anecdotes, as well as a summary of recent research related to the plant, herb, spice or seed.

For example under frankincense, the authors point out that in ancient times “frankincense was a valuable commodity, sometimes more valuable than gold”. They say you can “chew as gum”, “suck on a granule to relieve nausea”, “soak frankincense granules in water and drink the strained liquid”, and “burn as pleasant incense”.

They briefly recite research in which boswellic acids found in frankincense have shown “promising results for treating certain chronic inflammatory diseases, including rheumatoid arthritis, chronic colitis, ulcerative colitis, Crohn’s disease, bronchial asthma and peritumoral brain edemas”.

In a list of less well-known facts they say: “Did you know tenth century Persian physician Ibn Sina (also called Avicenna) used frankincense in treatments for tumours, ulcers, vomiting, dysentery and fever.” There are some 90-odd medicinal herbs and spices covered in the book.

At the back of the book are several appendices. These include a section on natural beauty covering hair care, skincare perfumes and cosmetics; several pages of recipes, a glossary of terms and, particularly useful, an index of ailments under each of which is listed the related natural remedies.

The authors Bob Lebling, a writer/editor who has spent many years in the Middle East and Donna Pepperdine, a master herbalist who has also spent many years in the region, should be praised for their effort to record these old oral traditions and regional knowledge, which is now fast disappearing from consciousness under the weight of well marketed manufactured pharmaceuticals.

Mint oil hope for chronic pain relief

A new synthetic treatment inspired by ancient Greek and Chinese remedies could offer pain relief to millions of patients with arthritis and nerve damage, a new University of Edinburgh study suggests.

The Greek scholar Hippocrates treated sprains, joint pains and inflammation by cooling the skin, and traditional Chinese remedies used mint oil to the same end. Now scientists have discovered that cooling chemicals which have the same properties as mint oil have a dramatic pain-killing effect when applied in small doses to the skin. Unlike conventional pain killers, these compounds are likely to have minimal toxic side effects, especially because they are applied externally to the skin.

This should mean they are ideal for chronic pain patients for whom conventional pain killers often do not work. The Edinburgh study sets out exactly how the ‘mint oil’ compounds (and related more powerful chemicals) work. They act through a recently discovered receptor (a protein which is capable of binding with these chemicals) which is found in a small percentage of nerve cells in the human skin.

The scientists have found that when this receptor, called TRPM8, is activated by the cooling chemicals or cool temperatures, it inhibits the ‘pain messages’ being sent from the locality of the pain to the brain. Thus, the new treatment makes good use of the body’s own mechanisms for killing pain.

Professor Susan Fleetwood-Walker, who jointly led the study with Dr Rory Mitchell, says: “This discovery of the pain relieving properties of mint oil and related compounds has great potential for alleviating the suffering of millions of chronic pain patients, including those with arthritis or those who have had nerve damage or spinal injury following major accidents.

Conventional painkillers such as morphine are often ineffective in cases of chronic pain, and simply lowering the temperature of the skin is too inexact.

“Our discovery means that patients can be given low doses of a powerful pain killer, delivered through the skin, without side effects. We hope clinical trials on the compounds will begin within the year.”

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