In the fight against “superbug” infections that resist modern antibiotics, doctors are turning to the ancient past.
Researchers have discovered that a combination of honey and vinegar is a potent antibacterial agent that helps wounds heal quickly without infection.
“In our survey of premodern recipes, we noticed a pattern of combining honey and vinegar … and this inspired us to focus on that combination,” Dr. Erin Connelly of the University of Warwick said in a news release.
It’s a recipe that began with the ancient Egyptians, who combined honey’s antibacterial properties with grease or fat (as a protective barrier) and lint (as an absorbent), according to the journal Clinical Infectious Diseases.
Wine and its sour after-product, vinegar, were used by the ancient Greeks to cleanse wounds. Advice like “For an obstinate ulcer [wound], sweet wine and a lot of patience should be enough” was among the teachings of Hippocrates, the “Father of Medicine.”
Little did Hippocrates know that thousands of years later, long after the introduction of penicillin and other antibiotics, doctors would return to ancient recipes to combat drug-resistant infections.
Connelly and her team are the first to investigate what happens when honey and vinegar or acetic acid — the main component of vinegar — are combined and applied to lab-grown biofilms of bacteria.
Much of their research was trial-and-error using different doses and combinations of honey, vinegar and acetic acids.
“We applied a low dose of honey, that alone didn’t kill the bacteria, and a low dose of acetic acid that also could not kill the bacteria alone,” said Dr. Freya Harrison, co-author of the study, published in the journal Microbiology.
It was the combination of honey and acetic acid together that was the key: “But when we put these low doses together, we saw a large number of bacteria dying, which is really exciting,” Harrison said.
And some types of natural vinegar were superior to plain acetic acid. Pomegranate vinegar, which has a higher concentration of acetic acid than other vinegars, “may be a particularly interesting candidate vinegar for further chemical and microbiological study,” the authors wrote.
This isn’t the first time honey has been investigated for its role in fighting diseases and bacteria that are resistant to modern medicines.
A 2020 survey in the journal Antibiotics found that honey had robust antibiotic properties against drug-resistant germs like MRSA (methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus), Pseudomonas aeruginosa, VRSA (vancomycin-resistant S. aureus) and VRE (vancomycin-resistant enterococci).
And in 2020, University of Oxford scientists found that honey is an effective alternative to prescription drugs including antibiotics, as well as over-the-counter remedies, when it comes to treating mild respiratory illness.
“This is an exciting area of research, to use traditional remedies” in modern health care, Professor Joseph Hardwicke, surgeon at University Hospitals Coventry and Warwickshire, said of the study.
“The burden of wound care and infections is increasing year by year, with causative conditions such as diabetes on the rise,” Hardwicke added. “Maybe the knowledge of our ancestors can be used to enhance the current care we can provide to our patients, at a lower cost.”