Can Honey Cure Diabetes?
Guest Post by Ronald E Fessenden, MD, MPH
It’s Counter-intuitive, but True!
The ingestion of natural, unfiltered honey can indeed be therapeutic for diabetes. Yet, there have been countless times when speaking about the health benefits of honey when someone soundly objects, “Oh, I can’t eat honey. I have diabetes. My doctor has told me to avoid all sweets.” Such, unfortunately, is the state of knowledge about honey among the general public and among most health professionals. The conventional wisdom is that honey and diabetes don’t go together.
It may surprise most Americans to learn that in many countries around the world, honey is the first treatment of choice for individuals with Type 2 diabetes.[i] Rather than arming patients with facts to refute the apparent ignorance of their health care professional – a tactic bound to fail – an alternative strategy is suggested. Diabetic patients should simply ask their doctor if fruits are permitted in their diets. Since the question is a bit rhetorical, they can have confidence in knowing that honey is permitted. A tablespoon of honey consists of nearly the same carbohydrate content as a cupful of raw apple or a similar amount of many other fruits.
Sugar from Honey Lowers Blood Sugar
The diabetic patient can also be assured that consuming honey will produce a significantly lower blood sugar response than an equivalent amount of sugar or other glucose rich starches.[ii] When consumed regularly over several weeks or months, honey will lower blood sugar and HbA1c levels.[iii] Glycosylated (or glycated) hemoglobin, or HbA1c as it is commonly known, is a marker used by physicians to identify the average plasma glucose (blood sugar) concentration over prolonged periods of time. The measurement will be proportional to the average blood glucose concentration during a period of time typically considered to be one to three months prior to the measurement. Research studies using humans have shown that honey consumption will result in lower blood sugar levels by as much 60 to 100 mg/dl at 60 and 90 minutes following ingestion of a comparable amount of sucrose. Therefore it is not surprising that the HbA1c levels will be lower by as much as 0.2 to 0.4%.
In other words, substituting honey for sucrose or simple table sugar in the diet could have a profound effect on one’s blood sugar measurements. This dietary change alone would mandate tremendous differences in the treatment recommendation guidelines prescribed by most physicians. It would no doubt result in much less medicine being prescribed.
In fact, the more advanced one’s glucose intolerance, or the worse one’s diabetic condition, the greater the positive impact on blood sugar levels from ingesting honey.[iv], [v] Logic would dictate that the addition of honey to the diet, along with the elimination of most sugar and HFCS should be the first recommended treatment of choice for Type 2 diabetes.
The Sweet Secret
How can this be so and what makes honey so tolerable for those with conditions marked by glucose intolerance? The answer is really quite simple. The balance of sugars and the presence of multiple co-factors in honey serve to make this natural food quite different than table sugar, HFCS or other artificial sweeteners. Honey is an intelligent food, a revolutionary food, a miraculous natural substance! Here’s why:
Though the physiologic mechanisms responsible for this unique response of the body to honey versus other sugars are not completely understood, this is what we know. Honey, with its unique ratio of two simple sugars, fructose and glucose, is directly converted into glycogen (or stored glucose) in the liver. When fructose is present, the liver removes glucose from the blood, thereby lowering blood sugar. Honey, with its near one-to-one ratio of fructose to glucose, facilitates glycogen formation as fructose “unlocks” glucokinase from the nucleus of the liver cells. This enzyme is necessary for the formation of glycogen. Fructose itself is also directly converted to glycogen in the liver.
Glucose based sweeteners, as well starches, which are rapidly converted to glucose in the digestive process, cannot do this. Instead, glucose enters the general circulation raising insulin levels which drive the excess glucose into the body’s cells where it is stored as fat.
Honey Protects against Triglycerides
Additionally, it is known from clinical studies that the amount of fructose (from both HFCS and sucrose) consumed in the average diet simply overwhelms the liver, causing it to stop whatever else it is doing (including the formation of glycogen) to metabolize the fructose. Such large doses of fructose cannot be stored in the liver because it has only a small glycogen capacity (75-80 grams for the average person). The liver breaks down this excessive fructose into triose (a three-carbon sugar) making it available for direct entry into the fatty acid cycle. The problematic result of fructose metabolism is the excessive formation of triglycerides and the increased risk of obesity.[vi], [vii] Furthermore honey consumption seems to protect against the formation of triglycerides from excessive fructose.[viii] These facts alone are indication enough to recommend honey for diabetics over other sweeteners.
How Much Honey is Enough?
Generally, three to five tablespoons of honey a day is sufficient. A good regimen to follow is to consume a tablespoon or two of honey in the morning with fruit or yogurt (diabetics should especially avoid “low-fat” or “heart healthy” yogurt as it contains more sugar or HFCS). Another tablespoon or two should be consumed at bedtime to insure adequate liver glycogen to fuel the brain during the eight hours of restorative sleep. In between, another one or two tablespoons can be ingested with fruit snacks, in baked goods, or used in cooking. In addition, honey is an excellent fuel when eaten before and during exercise.
Honey contains about 60 Calories per tablespoon. Generally, the percentage of ones total caloric requirements provided from simple sugars should not exceed 10%. Thus, the 180 to 300 calories a day provided from honey is sufficient, unless excessive energy demands allow for additional consumption.
Dr. David Baer, from the USDA Human Nutrition Research Center, stated at the First International Symposium on Honey and Human Health in January 2008, “Experimental evidence suggests that consumption of honey compared to other sweeteners may improve blood sugar control and insulin sensitivity.” Honey is indeed the sweetener of choice for diabetics.
Prevention or Cure
Some believe that regular honey ingestion will “cure” many diseases and conditions related to glucose intolerance. Honey is a healthful food to be sure, but it cannot reverse what months and years of dietary indiscretions and lifestyle choices have caused. Regular honey consumption, especially at bedtime, will result in changes in sleep patterns and reduce nighttime metabolic stress almost immediately for most individuals. However, many disease processes as well as their ultimate prognoses may not be reversible or subject to midcourse correction.
Given the fact that being overweight and/or obese is an affliction affecting over 65% of the American population (more than 130 million individuals), and that 24 million have diabetes, and another 57 million are pre-diabetic, it would seem prudent as well as cost-beneficial to adopt an inexpensive dietary strategy that involves no risk, side effects or negative consequences, something that cannot be said for any other medical intervention, treatment option or therapeutic alternative. The strategy for preventing, and quite possibly, eliminating diabetes for many is in your pantry or on your grocer’s shelf now.
Dr Fessenden is a retired medical doctor. He is the co-author of The Honey Revolution – Restoring the Health of Future Generations, WorldClassEmprise, LLC, December 2008 and Smart Sleep, How to Sleep Your Way to Better Health (with Honey), WorldClassEmprise, LLC, (anticipated release date 2012) as well as three other unpublished works about honey and health. He has been researching, writing, and speaking about the healthful benefits of honey for the past 4 years. Dr Fessenden can be contacted at email@example.com.
Go to www.worldclassemprise.com for additional information about honey and health.
[i] NF Sheard, NG Clark, JC Brand-Miller, MJ Franz, FX Pi-Sunyer, E Mayer-Davis, K Kulkarni, P Geil, “Dietary carbohydrate (amount and type) in the prevention and management of diabetes,” Diabetes Care 2004; 27:2266–2271
[ii] P Shambaugh, V Worthington, JH Herbert, “Differential effects of honey, sucrose, and fructose on blood sugar levels.” Journal of Manipulative Physiological Therapy 1990: 13: 322-325
[iii] OP Agrawal, A Pachauri, H Yadav, J Urmila, HM Goswamy, A Chapperwal, PS Bisen, and GBKS Prasad, “Subjects with Impaired Glucose Tolerance Exhibit a High Degree of Tolerance to Honey,” Journal Of Medicinal Food 10 (3) 2007, 473–478
[v] A Samanta, AC Burden, GR Jones, “Plasma glucose responses to glucose, sucrose, and honey in patients with diabetes mellitus: an analysis of glycaemic and peak incremental indices.” Diabetic Medicine, 1985 Sep; 2(5): 371-3
[vi] George A Bray, Samara Joy Nielsen and Barry M Popkin, “Consumption of high-fructose corn syrup in beverages may play a role in the epidemic of obesity.” American Journal of Clinical Nutrition Vol. 79, No. 4, 537-543, April 2004
[vii] JP Bantle, SK Raatz, W Thomas, and A Georgopoulos, “Effects of dietary fructose on plasma lipids in healthy subjects,” American Journal of Clinical Nutrition (November 2000) 72 (5): 1128–1134
[viii] J Busserolles, E Gueux, E Rock, A Mazur, and Y Rayssiguier, “Substituting Honey for Refined Carbohydrates Protects Rats from Hypertriglyceridemic and Prooxidative Effects of Fructose,” American Society of Nutritional Sciences Journal of Nutrition 132:3370-3382 Nov 2002