When chilly, wet weather sweeps over autumn, coughs and sniffles start going around - and there’s nothing like a restorative cup of hot lemon tea and honey to warm you up. Honey has been used for therapeutic purposes in many cultures for thousands of years and is a common folk remedy for colds - but can honey actually cure a cold?
Honey is a versatile and powerful substance that has been utilized in a multitude of ways for a long time. The use of honey was first documented in Stone Age cave paintings, and was also used to treat ailments in historical cultures including the ancient Romans, Greeks, and Chinese, and in the Ayurvedic tradition. It was used as a wound salve, in tonics, and even as a medium for embalming the dead!
In North America, the honeybee currently cultivated for honey production was brought by European colonists. A sweet substance produced by bees from the nectar and pollen of flowers, honey is now used and studied in an even broader variety of applications: as a culinary delicacy for sweetening or as a condiment; as a humectant, honey is a potent ingredient for cosmetics and hair care in both home recipes and formulated products; applied topically for wound care; local honey is thought to help those suffering from hay fever; and, of course, honey is popularly thought to be helpful for avoiding the ravages of cold & flu season.
There are some differences in the types of honey you might find on the shelf at your local supermarket or health food store. Conventional honey has been pasteurized and finely filtered, while raw honey is often bottled straight from the hive after filtering out larger particles, but specks of pollen and honeycomb may still remain in the honey. Pasteurized honey may not have the full range of benefits that raw honey can offer, including being higher in antioxidant activity. However, there is a small risk of botulism exposure when consuming raw honey, and infants under 12 months should not be given honey for this reason.
Additionally, there is an inherent variability to honey production - much depends on the weather as well as the types of flowers the bees were collecting nectar and pollen from. The darkness of the honey color may be an indicator of its potency in terms of nutritional profile. It is also important to remember that while honey may have a lower glycemic index than refined sugar and is more nutritionally complex than straight glucose, it is still high in sugars and calories. It’s not possible to get anywhere close to a daily dose of vitamins and nutrients from honey without consuming a greater-than-recommended dose of sugar.
To get to the heart of the matter: can this fascinating and powerful substance improve your health and help stop colds in their tracks? Yes and no.
Honey is rich in antioxidant compounds that work against free radicals and reduce oxidative stress, ultimately aiding in lowering the chances of developing some chronic diseases. Additionally, honey has been studied for its antibacterial properties, which show promise for potential use in burn and wound care. This antimicrobial property is thought to be due to the way bees synthesize pollen, during which they deposit hydrogen peroxide into the slightly acidic honey substance.
Additionally, there are several studies including one exciting, recently released study, which demonstrate that honey can be as effective - or even more effective - than over-the-counter cough syrups at reducing the severity and frequency of coughing, specifically for children experiencing upper respiratory symptoms. One theory is that its viscous texture can help coat and soothe the throat; this may help prevent continued inflammation, relieve soreness, and reduce the pharyngeal irritation leading to coughing fits.
There is no cure for the common cold, though, so no, honey can’t cure your irritating upper respiratory infection. However, consuming honey might help you feel less crummy when you’re under a blanket, coughing and sniffling away! Even if it’s not going to help you or your loved ones fight off an infection all on its own, managing uncomfortable cold symptoms can be a big help when you or your child are under the weather.
It turns out the common remedy of honey mixed with a warm beverage does have proven benefits. Whether you’re mixing honey into an herbal tea with immune-supportive herbs or making a hot lemon, honey, and ginger brew (the perfect trifecta for cold season), including honey is a great way to supercharge your remedies. Lemon is high in vitamin C, which supports immune health, while ginger has many health benefits - its spicy heat can both soothe a sore throat as well as clear blocked sinuses, and it also supports circulation to the respiratory tract, easing congestion and helping to loosen mucus.
During cold and flu season, it can be a good idea to include honey in your immune-supportive natural health regimen, along with a daily adaptogenic supplement formulated specifically for immune support, regular exercise, and plenty of rest.