There is quite a bit of talk going on about the antimicrobial properties of the sweetener, Xylitol, which is a product manufactured from cornstalks. The dental hygienist community (discussion groups) is where I am seeing most of this and my understanding is that it is a pretty good product as a sweetener and good for your teeth and gums. Something made me think, however, about going more natural and 'honey' came to mind. I wondered about the antimicrobial properties of this natural and healthy food and what I found really surprised me!
I was abble to learn quite a bit about honey's properties - Yes, honey is a good antimicrobial and has a great number of applications for treating all sorts of ailments aside from gum disease. Everything from eczema to prostate problems are being effectively treated with honey... Honey!
Before you run to the cupboard, however, you should know that the variety of honeys are widely varied in their effectiveness, so not all types are the same.
Some honeys are apparently no better for your teeth than refined sugar, but at the other end of the spectrum, there are varieties which are outstanding for their antimicrobial properties. It appears that the majority of research on honey's antimicrobial properties and effectiveness in treating gum disease come out of New Zealand in the past dozen years. Most of this may be attributable to Dr. Peter C. Molan, Associate Professor of Biochemistry at the University of Waikato, New Zealand.
"Honey contains an enzyme that produces hydrogen peroxide which is believed to be the main reason for the antimicrobial activity of honey. Types of honey differ greatly in their antimicrobial potency, varying as much as a hundred fold. The research has shown that honey not only stops the growth of the dental plaque bacteria, it reduces the amount of acid produced, which stops the bacteria from producing dextran. Dextran, a component of dental plaque, is the gummy polysaccharide that the bacteria produce in order to adhere to the surface of the teeth."
Honey derived from the Manuka (Leptospermum scoparium) tree, found in abundance in New Zealand, claims the highest potency of antimicrobial properties. In fact, Manuka honey's antibacterial factor is unaffected by enzymes in the body that destroy hydrogen peroxide components. (Normally, peroxide isn't considered a good antimicrobial, orally, because the body quickly dilutes it.) It also has an exceptionally high level of plant-derived antimicrobial activity. Antioxidants in honey also prevent the formation of free radicals and the nutrient supply of honey is an important factor in new tissue re-growth, having been damaged by infection.
In addition, a 'medicinal' honey has been developed in New Zealand and Queensland, Australia to fight against 'superbugs,' such as multiple-resistant staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) and vancomycin-resistant enterococci (VRE), attributable to a reported 100 deaths a week in the UK, according to one report.
"Laboratory testing is required to establish the level of anti-bacterial activity in honey. The honey is compared with a standard reference antiseptic (phenol) for potency. So, for example, a honey with a rating of four would be equivalent in antiseptic potency to a four percent solution of phenol (carbolic disinfectant). Honey should have a rating of four or higher before it can be regarded as a 'Active Honey'. Laboratory tests have shown to be very effective against bacteria, the rating should be at least ten but does not need to be any greater. Honey New Zealand produces a range of Active Honeys: Manuka, Rewarewa and Wild Flora.
"Manuka honey has UMF (this stands for Unique Manuka Factor) in addition to the usual hydrogen peroxide anti-bacterial activity making it doubly potent. UMF honey is more effective than hydrogen peroxide against some types of bacteria. The level of UMF activity is found in laboratory testing by removing the hydrogen peroxide from the honey and using the same test method for testing an 'active honey'. A rating is found describing the anti-bacterial activity remaining in the honey after the hydrogen peroxide has been removed. This is called Active UMF 10+. UMF is an additional anti-bacterial component that is unique to Manuka Honey. No-one for the scientific discoveries of New Zealand active honeys has so far discovered the substance involved, so it is called UMF." (Honey New Zealand)
How is the honey used on the teeth? Some recommend simply rubbing it into the gums after brushing. Since Manuka honey retains it's antimicrobial properties when diluted up to 50 times, it may likely be able to be used as an oral irrigant (when diluted with distilled or filtered water) and directed between the teeth or sub-gingivally into periodontal pockets using an oral irrigator. However, since the honey can ferment, it is recommended that the solution be used immediately and not made up ahead of time and stored for later use. (It should be noted that honey is not to be given to infants under 24 months.)
For those who would like to see some science, here's a pdf file containing plenty of it: http://bio.waikato.ac.nz/pdfs/honeyresearch/bioactives.pdf In addition, you may go to the Waikato Honey Research Unit web site at: http://bio.waikato.ac.nz/honey/ .
One final note: Apparently many brands are calling themselves 'Manuka' honey. For the real thing, look for the UMF Trademark, even if it has 'UMF' in the name.
All our lives we've been told to stay away from sweets. Maybe now its time to do a hundred and eighty degree on that line of thought - at least with honey, anyway!
Tom Cornwell hosts the OraMedia Site for Dental Self Sufficiency and publishes a monthly newsletter for people interested in keeping their teeth and gums healthier.