Honey has a composition that is approximately 80% carbohydrates and 19% water, with a whole set of components, among them: proteins, amino acids, minerals, polyphenols, vitamins and enzymes. There are over 320 varieties of honey, with very different compositions depending on the plants providing the nectar and environmental conditions. Historically it has been used for more than 5000 years for health reasons, derived especially of its antioxidant, antimicrobial and anti-inflammatory properties.
The most abundant carbohydrates present in honey are fructose (35-40%) and glucose (30-35%), with a 5-10% of other carbohydrates. Generally, the glycaemic index (GI) indicates how quickly blood glucose rises after food consumption. Fructose has a low GI, meaning that it is more slowly and evenly absorbed than glucose. On the other hand, glucose has a high GI and is absorbed rapidly. Depending on the ratio fructose/glucose is the GI of honey and consequently its rate of absorption, oscillating between 32, if it takes long to assimilate, and 87 for a “fast” honey.
The fact that carbohydrates supplementation improves performance is well known. Due to the high carbohydrates content of honey, it could be a suitable energy source for athletes, while also providing some other substances that could potentially improve health and performance. We will see these characteristics in further detail.
Honey on exercise performance
It was found that acute honey consumption improved exercise performance in a 64k cycling time trial (comparing low GI honey with high GI fructose), a 20-minutes running time trial (comparing honey with water) and a high intensity run.
Low GI carbohydrates, as those in honey, release glucose slowly, sustaining blood glucose levels. Therefore, they provide a continuous supply of energy, delaying muscle glycogen depletion and improving performance in long lasting events (2h or more).
For short duration activities, or high intensity exercise, honey was not clearly enhancing performance.
Honey on bone health
Diet and exercise regulate hormonal and mineral functions that determine bone health. Honey consumption alongside exercise improve bone health markers such as bone mass, mechanical properties and enzymes.
Honey is rich in vitamins D and K, but also in minerals such as calcium, phosphorous and magnesium, that could be the nutrients responsible of bone health. Additionally, honey has alkalinizing properties after digestion. This is an important property as it counteracts the effects of metabolic acidosis, one of the main contributors to osteoporosis. Consequently, it has been found that honey ingestion, even in the absence of exercise, increases bone density. Thus, honey would be recommended to increase bone formation and calcium absorption and prevent osteoporosis.
Honey and exercise on immune system and inflammatory responses
It is well known that moderate physical activity enhances immune system, although prolonged high intensity exercise may increase infection, especially in the upper respiratory tract. This latter effect has been linked to an increase of free radicals and the inhibition of monocytes and lymphocytes immune response, during an a few hours after exercise.
Honey is rich in phenolic and flavonoid compounds, with antioxidant properties. Because of the antioxidant properties of honey, its supplementation has been shown to decrease the levels of inflammatory cytokines and increase those of anti-inflammatory cytokines. These effects would improve the immune system, especially when using darker honeys, as they are richer in polyphenols and flavonoids, and consequently more potent antioxidants.
Other Honey benefits
From a nutritional point of view honey also contains choline, essential for the cardiovascular system, brain function and cell membranes, and acetylcholine, an important neurotransmitter.
Going back to the GI index, acacia honey has a low GI index and its consumption could be beneficial in diabetic patients. An intake of 50g of honey in healthy individuals and diabetic patients led to smaller increases in blood glucose than the same amount of glucose, or a sugar mixture resembling honey.
Additionally, honey has well-known antibacterial properties, and is also effective in inhibiting virus and parasites spreading.
Regarding its effects on teeth there is still some controversy. Because of its antibacterial capacity it could be acting against caries-inducing bacteria. When compared with fruits juice, it was found that 10 minutes after drinking a juice there was tooth enamel erosion, much intense than 30 minutes after honey ingestion. This different effect on teeth could be due to honey´s mineral content (calcium, phosphorous and fluoride).
As for the gastrointestinal system, honey has been used for the treatment of disorders, such as diarrhoea, gastritis and peptic ulcers since centuries ago, probably because its antibacterial properties. Besides this effect it also acts as a prebiotic agent, increasing the levels of intestine bifidobacterial.
There are many reasons to include honey into your daily routine. Its benefits on health are multiple, but it could also enhance your sports performance. As a source of carbohydrates, it could be as good, if not better, as commercial gels and sport drinks.
A word of caution for children, as honey is a natural and non-sterilized product, and there is presence of Clostridium botulinum, the bacteria causing botulism. Its spores can be present in the honey, and after ingestion they can start producing the toxin in the stomach of infants less than 12 months old.
We would also recommend knowing the source of your honey. If it is very cheap, maybe is better to avoid, as many times they sell for honey what is simply a sugars mixture solution. It may taste like honey, but it will lack all his benefits.
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J Am Coll Nutr. 2008 Dec;27(6):677-89.
Effects of honey on exercise performance and health components: A systematic review
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Science & Sports (2018) 33, 267—281
Honey Supplementation and Exercise: A Systematic Review
Hills SP, Mitchell P, Wells C, Russell M.
Nutrients 2019, 11, 1586