Honey: the sweet treat(ment) for your microbiome

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1. Please give a brief summary of your work.

Our gut is inhabited by trillions of bacteria (our ‘microbiome’) that play a crucial role in our nutrition and health. We can manipulate our microbiome via our diet for positive health impacts. I was one of the first researchers to show the positive effects of eating honey on our microbiome, in an artificial gut system and a pilot human clinical study, during my PhD. All honeys boost the populations of the beneficial bacteria, reduced the numbers of the harmful ones, and promoted butyrate production, recognised as having protective effects against colon cancer - the second biggest cancer killer in Australia. 

2. Describe your approach and broader findings.

Humans are inhabited with trillions of bacteria living in communities referred to as ‘microbiomes’. Most of these bacteria live in at the end of the digestive tract in a balance of potentially beneficial and harmful types, making up the gut microbiome. The gut bacteria play a crucial role in the body: they help to digest food, make essential vitamins, and remove toxins. They influence our hormones, our immune system and even the way our brains work. Because of this, there is huge interest in creating a healthy gut by tipping the balance in favour of the beneficial populations via our diet.

Prebiotics are non-digestible complex sugars that reach the lower gut intact where they can promote specific, favourable changes in the composition and functionality of the gut bacteria. These favourable changes can be due to a relative increase in the numbers of the potentially beneficial bacteria, and/or an increase in the metabolic activity of the gut bacteria to produce more beneficial substances e.g. short chain fatty acids (SCFA). Honey is composed mostly of simple sugars (glucose and fructose) but also contains complex sugars that could function as prebiotics. 

During my PhD, I made the novel discovery that Australian honeys are effective prebiotics, capable of improving human gut health. I examined the effect of a range of these honeys on the balance of beneficial and potentially harmful human gut bacteria using an artificial gut model in the lab, and was one of the first researchers to show that honey boosts the populations of the beneficial bacteria, which then made compounds that prevented the growth of the harmful ones. Honey also promoted the production of butyrate - a compound known to have a protective effect against the development of colon cancer.

I then conducted a world-first clinical study with 50 volunteers eating honey while I looked at changes in their gut populations. I showed that just 20g of honey a day (one tablespoon) was enough to produce significant benefits. In just four years, my research directly contributed to developing the first ever prebiotic honey product, now registered as a therapeutic agent in Australia. This research is still in its infancy and has huge potential for a wider range of applications, including as a prevention and/or treatment for chronic conditions related to our gut bacteria such as inflammatory bowel disease and colon cancer. 

3. What is the wider contribution, or impact, to your scientific field(s)?

Our gut bacteria are now recognised as playing a crucial role in human health and disease. It is estimated that half the Australian population will complain of a digestive issue in the next 12 months and that colon cancer, recognised as being the second largest cancer killer in Australia, affects one in 20 Australians. An ‘unhealthy’ gut, that is disruptions to the balance of bacteria in our gut, has also been linked to obesity, allergies, asthma, heart conditions, and mental health issues. Therefore, there can be significant benefits in manipulating the balance of our bacteria using our diet to create a healthy body that is more resilient to disease. My PhD research has already indicated that Australian honey shows significant potential as a prebiotic and provides scientific evidence for the health benefits of Australian honey,a natural, safe and affordable product that is available and easy to use, to promote a healthy gut. 

Enhanced awareness of the health benefits of honey can also help to raise the profile of Australian honeys globally, improving the profitability of beekeepers and giving the Australian beekeeping industry a competitive edge thereby providing economic benefits. There are also environmental and social benefits to the society because worldwide, there is currently significant public interest in the importance of bees and growing awareness that they are under threat. This presents an opportunity to raise understanding of our unique honeys and the essential roles of bees and beekeepers in food security because without bees, one third of our food would not be available.

4. Are there any potential ideas you would like to explore to take this research further?

Disruptions to our gut microbiome are now recognised as being linked to a number of pathologies including bowel diseases such as colon cancer, irritable bowel syndrome and inflammatory bowel disease, as well as allergies, heart disease and mental health issues. As such, there is huge interest in manipulating the make-up of our microbiome using dietary means. My research already indicates that Australian honey has signficant potential as a prebiotic capable of manipulating the populations of bacteria in our gut. This research is still in its infancy and has huge potential for a wider range of applications, including as a prevention and/or treatment for the chronic conditions related to our gut bacteria.

The primary outcomes of further research in this area would be to help promote honey consumption to maintain a healthy gut balance - a particularly attractive avenue at a time when there is increasing demand for natural ‘superfoods’ that support health beyond providing basic nutrition. Future projects will focus on improving the gut health of patients suffering with chronic gut-related diseases using a gut model system in the laboratory, providing the foundations to develop further clinical studies. 

5. Please share a link for researchers to access a relevant publication, data-set, or thesis.

A major driving force in my research is that it is translatable and during my PhD commercialisation opportunities took precedent. As such, the contents of my thesis are embargoed until August 2017 and publications have been delayed (manuscripts are currently in production).

The abstract of my PhD thesis can be viewed here - http://www.unsworks.unsw.edu.au/primo_library/libweb/action/dlDisplay.do?vid=UNSWORKS&docId=unsworks_35916

The other aspect of my research focuses on the antibacterial activity of honey, with a drive to use honey to treat infections caused by antibiotic-resistant superbugs. I have had two recent publications in this area.