A Sweet Alternative: Topical Honey Shows Promise in Healing Diabetic Ulcers

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The history of medicine is rich with irony: Serious infections are treated with penicillin, an antibiotic synthesized from the bacteria found in mold.
Jennifer Eddy, MD, a physician with UW Health's Eau Claire Family Medicine Clinic, is attempting to prove that honey, a substance packed with natural sugars, can help to cure ulcerous wounds in patients with diabetes — individuals whose cells struggle to process sugars.
Using funding provided by the Wisconsin Partnership Fund for Health, and the American Academy of Family Physicians, Eddy is testing the effectiveness of topical honey vs. saline gel for the treatment of diabetic ulcers. Her research is the first randomized, double-blind controlled trial of honey for diabetic ulcers. Eddy first used honey with a patient after all medical options had been exhausted.
"My patient was really a striking case," recalls Eddy. "All the best standard care was not enough to heal his foot ulcers. Surgeons told him he would die if they didn't amputate his foot. He refused, saying he would rather die than lose his foot, and ultimately he was sent home."
After a few weeks of applying honey and a gauze bandage to the patient's wounds, they began to improve. They were completely healed within months. Now, several years after treatment, the wounds are completely healed, and the patient remains ulcer-free. Since then, Eddy has used honey to treat several other patients in situations where traditional medical therapy had failed.
Experts believe that treating wounds with honey has tremendous potential for the approximately 200 million people in the world with diabetes, 15 percent of whom will develop an ulcer, usually because of impaired sensation in their feet. Currently, every 30 seconds someone somewhere in the world undergoes amputation for a diabetic foot ulcer.
"My first patient is a great example of the potential health care savings," explains Eddy. "His 13 months of unsuccessful conventional care before trying the honey treatment cost $390,000. Therapy with honey, which rid him of his ulcers, cost less than $1,000."
Diabetics typically have poor circulation and decreased ability to fight infection. Diabetic ulcers treated with long courses of systemic antibiotics often become colonized with drug-resistant organisms, so-called "superbugs" such as MRSA. Since honey fights bacteria in numerous ways, it is essentially immune to resistance. Honey's acidic pH, low water content (which effectively dehydrates bacteria), and the hydrogen peroxide secreted make it ideal for combating organisms that have developed resistance to standard antibiotics.
"This is a tremendously important issue for public health," explains Eddy, adding that the Centers for Disease Control and the World Health Organization have identified bacterial resistance as one of the most important medical problems of our day.
"If we can prove that honey promotes healing in diabetic ulcers, we can offer new hope for many patients," says Eddy.