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Dr. Richard Palmquist Headshot

Honey in Integrative Veterinary Medicine

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Our bodies and those of our pets evolved to provide safe space, to take in good things, to expel bad things, and to find ways that we can grow and reproduce in such a way that our futures and those of our children are secured. Life works towards those major goals as it strives to survive. Once we have air and water, then food is at the base of that process. Food helps keep us safe, it provides the energy and the substances we need to grow and survive. It is our first and best medicine in the game of Life.

We really shouldn't neglect food as a medicine, but we do and when we do then we get all sorts of illnesses and problems just because we failed to give our bodies the precision nutrition needed.

Honey is a simple product, but a complex food. Plants take the energy from the sun and convert it to pollen as they work to reproduce. Pollens have protein and a wide number of compounds such as essential oils that can affect bodily systems. As bees busily go about their daily routines they mix the pollen with saliva and it becomes a concentrated food source for the bees and their offspring. Here is where the bears and bee keepers enter the picture. Honey is rich in many nutrients such as sugars (glucose and fructose), enzymes, minerals ( magnesium, potassium, sodium chloride, iron, phosphate and sulfur), vitamins (B-1, B-2, B-3, B-5, B-6, and C), several hormones and proteins of various types including the pollen grains themselves, which can contain essential oils and other phytonutrients.

So what does this have to do with integrative veterinary health?

Allergies are a significant problem in animals and people and so are wound infections -- honey provides us an interesting option for managing some of these cases. Like so many natural remedies, honey is inexpensive and readily available, so it makes sense that people share its usefulness and consider it in managing the health of both pets and people. It turns out that honey is so beneficial that drug companies are working on patenting certain types of honey for medicinal use.

Honey is also anti-inflammatory. This benefits healing in both exterior wounds as well as reducing inflammation in the intestinal tract. Orally administered honey has been used for many years by indigenous healers for stomach ulcers and research shows it has benefit for this problem as well as being helpful for colon inflammations such as Crohn's disease in humans.

This golden bee nectar is spectacular at stimulating wound healing. Application of honey to open wounds stimulates the release of powerful chemicals called "cytokines" that speed the migration of cells across the defect to bring quicker repair. Since honey is antibacterial it also makes the environment for healing more favorable and keeps bacteria from colonizing the area. This reduces scarring and infection rates and what is very exciting is that bacteria don't seem to develop resistance to honey so its effectiveness should last well into the future. This is very important as medical professionals in human and veterinary medicine work to find solutions that don't involve the use of antibiotics.

Like all things, honey can have some draw backs. In diabetics it can raise blood sugar and is a high glycemic food, which makes it something diabetics should avoid. It is messy to use on wounds and requires that bandages and dressings be changed daily or even twice daily. In animals it gets stuck in the fur but it is easily removed with warm water or saline.

Honey can contain spores from anaerobic bacteria and people worry about this transmitting botulism to infants and young children. Because of this concern people recommend limiting oral honey use to older, adult people and pets. If a person or pet is allergic to bee stings then allergic reactions can occur and caution is recommended. In rare cases it can cause skin lesions or oral ulcers resulting from food allergy. If you give honey to your pet always disclose this to your veterinarian. Consulting with your pet's veterinarian is a wise thing to do before using honey medicinally.

In our practice we use honey for wound healing but most often I use it for dogs suffering from pollen allergies and some gastrointestinal issues. If we give dogs a kale shake (one-half to one-third leaf of organic kale blended with water or broth and fed daily for medium to large dogs) and one tsp of honey for larger dogs daily we see some dogs become less itchy in two to four weeks. In humans with hay fever this has long been known. It doesn't work for all cases but it can be amazing.

One of my favorite stories involved a Sharpei dog that had severe chronic ear infections. The owner had long suffered from expensive, repetitive infections of the dog's skin and ears. His ears were so bad that the veterinarians on the case were considering surgery. Luckily, he responded in about 30 days to a teaspoon of local honey given orally each day. When the owner ran out of local honey the symptoms returned in about three weeks, so he had to take it for the rest of his life, but when he was on his honey his skin and ears were perfect.

Your pet's immune system is organized very well for defense. About 70 percent of the total immune system is surrounding the intestinal tract at any given time. This is necessary to protect your pet from invasion of bacteria, viruses and fungi from the gut. A population of specialized cells called "dendritic cells" monitor the proteins that enter the body through the gut. They develop tolerance to those things we eat. This protects the body against over acting immune responses to foreign proteins such as allergies. It appears that when certain people and pets eat honey, it decreases inflammation in the intestinal tract and leads these dendritic cells to produce information bulletins that advise the body that the pollen is being eaten and not to over react. When pollen enters the nose or lungs or skin, then the signals from those dendritic cells seem to calm the allergy symptoms down. This is called "oral tolerance."

We can all use a bit more tolerance, but if you are suffering from allergies, then oral tolerance is especially nice to develop!

It is important that the honey be local, organic and not be heat treated. Heating changes the honey's natural components which destroy delicate enzymes and other chemicals we haven't even identified yet in science. Local honey is best because it contains the specific pollens from your area that may sensitize and lead a pet to have allergies. Here is Southern California we are lucky to have many farmers markets and we have many bee keepers. One of my favorite honeys to recommend is Honey Pacifica. They have several types including eucalyptus (trees bloom several times yearly depending on the type), Brazilian pepper tree, and Orange tree. If you watch what trees or flowers are blooming when your pet's allergies flare then you can look for honey that contains those pollens.

Honey is sweet. It's a gift from Nature. Think about how powerfully simple it is to eat better and more naturally and to become stronger and healthier for doing that simple thing. And as you do those things for your pet, consider taking some steps for yourself and your family. Find good integrative health care practitioners and take responsibility for your health. If we work on those basic rules of Life -- create and maintain safe space, put good things in that space and eliminate bad things, then we can improve many aspects of life on planet Earth. You might find yourself feeling better and smiling more as you jog along with that fuzzy, smiling mutt.

That is health reform that we can all live with!

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