While honey has been mostly used for sweetening or preserving food, different cultures use it as an ointment due to its anti-inflammatory potential.

While honey has been mostly used for sweetening or preserving food, different cultures have recorded using the sweet substance as an ointment – and researchers have looked into its anti-inflammatory potential.

A multidisciplinary team based in Nebraska, led by members from the University of Nebraska- Lincoln, has observed the potential of honey to act on a protein called NLRP3, which in turn, triggers inflammation in the host body during immune responses. However, the protein has also been associated with diabetes, Alzheimer’s disease, and other medical conditions.

Researchers present their findings in the article “Identification of anti‐inflammatory vesicle‐like nanoparticles in honey,” appearing in the Journal of Extracellular Vesicles.

History of Honey as a Cure

Honey is composed of up to 95 percent sugar, making it a popular sweetener as well as a staple for bee colonies that produce it from digesting and regurgitating flower nectar. In the abstract for their paper, researchers noted that it has been used as “a nutrient, an ointment, and a medicine worldwide for many centuries.”

A 2013 review that examines the traditional and modern uses of natural honey for human illnesses defines the sweet substance as a “by-product of flower nectar and the upper aero-digestive tract of the honey bee,” further concentrated by a dehydration process that occurs within the beehive.

Human use of honey can be traced back as far as 8000 years ago, with cave paintings suggesting honey hunting activities during the Stone Age. Finding use as a medicine in multiple ancient cultures, there have been a number of contemporary studies examining its medical benefits. So far, honey has been identified to have inhibiting properties against some 60 species of bacteria, as well as other species of fungi and viruses. Additionally, honey has been used in gastrointestinal, cardiovascular, neoplastic, and inflammatory conditions.

Anti-Inflammatory Properties for Honey

To further understand this medicinal potential, Jiujiu Yu and colleagues studied the substance to see if there were overlooked components that particularly correspond to its anti-inflammatory capabilities. In their search, they found particles called extracellular vesicles – small membrane-protected organelles that contain proteins, ribonucleic acids, and other biomolecules. These extracellular vesicles have also been observed in other food materials.

The extracellular vesicles in honey contain 142 proteins from plants and 82 from the honey bee themselves, which are found to be consistent with a nanoparticle that originates from flowers and then digested and regurgitated by bees.

In checking whether these extracellular vesicles themselves are involved in the anti-inflammatory response from honey, researchers placed these vesicles together with white blood cells that synthesize the inflammation-triggering NLRP3 protein, then began the inflammatory response. They observed that the vesicles actually reduced the secretion of various inflammation-response proteins, together with the inflammation-related death of some cells.

Researchers then injected these honey vesicles into mice, discovering that the nanoparticles partly helped in their anti-inflammatory response and drug-induced liver injury.

While they were able to establish that micro ribonucleic acids (microRNAs) are the main anti-inflammatory cargo in the extracellular vesicles, they recommended additional studies to examine whether and how the consumption of honey in humans would help in the anti-inflammatory response.

Originally published at Science Times