Honey as Medicine in Ayurveda: How Sweet It Is
Raw honey reigns supreme as a medicinal sweet in Ayurveda. Traditionally, the quality of sweetness is associated with loving kindness, compassion, and contentment. Foods that carry the sweet taste are said to build ojas—our vital immunity, ability to ward off disease, and capacity to feel genuine satisfaction.
Honey also acts as a catalytic carrier, or anupana, of other healing substances, drawing them deep into the tissues. It lightens heavier foods and herbs and stimulates agni, the digestive fire. For most of us, it is an excellent sweetener to use between the fall and spring, unless you’re in the midst of a heat wave or pitta aggravation.
The Importance of Preparation
“Uncooked honey is nectar,
Cooked honey is considered poison.”
The attitude and knowledge we bring to making our meals and our medicines color their healing capacity and influence their effects on our body.
It is important to know that honey is a volatile sweet in the presence of heat, which causes it to ferment and create toxins. When baked into foods and eaten, these subtle toxins create ama in the digestive tract. To use honey as a medicine, don’t heat it up and avoid using heated (non-raw) honey as a sweetener. In this way we look to heal, not harm.2
Why Honey Is Unique in the World of Sweets
In Ayurveda, the six tastes are valued for their therapeutic impact. Each taste has different qualities, or gunas. In general, sweeteners and the sweet taste are cold, heavy, and oily. They tend to be soothing and building, which pacifies vata and pitta, but aggravates kapha. Sadly, being cold and heavy, most sweets dampen our digestive fire when eaten at the end of a meal.3
In a bevy of cool sweeteners like white sugar, coconut sugar, maple syrup, stevia, and others, raw honey dances to a different melody because it brings the rare quality of warmth. While it is heavy, it can lighten other substances, thanks to its dry and astringent qualities.
Consequently, it is the best choice for people of kapha constitution, or those of us working with heavy, cool kapha conditions. A little honey in a cup of spiced tea at the end of a meal makes the tea a healing tonic, offering sweet pleasure as well as digestive support.
Benefits of Raw Honey
- Coupled with warm, drying herbs and spices, honey can be used to clear excess kapha in the lungs and soothe the respiratory tract. According to herbalist Sebastian Pole, “The herbs ride on these carriers like the scent on the wind.”4
- Honey taken with warm water enhances bile production, supporting regular elimination.
- As a carrier for heart-friendly herbs like tulsi or arjuna, honey supports their swift absorption into circulation.5
- Mixed with warm milk, honey calms vata and builds ojas.
- Used externally, honey promotes the health of the skin.6
- Manuka honey’s ancient history of soothing irritated and dry eyes is now being tested in Western settings.7
How Honey Affects the Doshas
Its sweet taste (rasa), warming action on the digestive tract (virya), and sweet post-digestive effect (vipaka) make honey calming internally for kapha and vata. It can aggravate pitta in excess, especially when used in hot weather. Yet “young” raw honey (six months old or less) is reputed to balance pitta.8 Because honey is drying, vata dosha should consume honey in moderation and choose more liquid forms.
How much is too much? While raw honey is deeply healing, it’s also a sticky sweet and it’s possible to have too much of a good thing. Use a teaspoon at a time, up to a tablespoon a day, for kapha and vata, and much less for pitta. Think of it as an embellishing accent to your meals and beverages.
When used topically, honey can be used by all doshas.
Honey through the Seasons
Awareness of the seasons aligns us with the cycles of the Earth. For those of us on the planet heading into autumn, it’s time to tend to vata dosha with things that are warming and nourishing. Yet as we leave summer, pitta dosha still needs consideration.
Honey is a supreme medicine for this time. It promotes the gentle strengthening of agni that naturally occurs at this time of year (see graph below). In places that have experienced torrential rains or floods, its warm, drying qualities can help overcome dampness and chill without seriously irritating pitta.9
If you live in an area that still suffers from devastating fires, wait to use much honey until the fiery conditions abate. Organic coconut sugar or other cool sweeteners are wiser choices, especially when used with generous amounts of rose mist and soothing external moisture!
As with all things in Ayurveda, honey can either be healing or harmful depending on how and when it is used. As we have already discussed, its proper preparation, appropriate use with the doshas, and alignment with the seasons and environment are all essential factors when it comes to enjoying this sweet nectar.
Whether you are already a honey connoisseur or considering adding it to your diet for the first time, here are a few more important things to keep in mind.
Respecting the Source of Honey
At the heart of Ayurveda is the sacred acknowledgment of our interdependency with nature, and the belief that our own health is connected to the health of the natural world around us. Thus, it is important to consider where our foods and herbs are coming from and how we can be protective allies for these natural sources.
Honey, which is the concentrated essence of flower nectar, is gathered and transformed by honeybees. The flowers that go into a honey influence its taste and medicinal properties. Anyone who has tasted a bitter neem honey can attest to this!
These hardworking honeybees are animals deserving of our gratitude, honor, and respect, particularly because of their capacity to transform and create ojas.11 Unfortunately, human actions seriously threaten honeybee lives. If you’re interested in becoming a nonviolent protector of this species, check out the Honeybee Conservancy.12
Honey and Ghee
Honey and ghee are often combined, creating a powerful rejuvenative that can serve as a tonic for all of the tissues in the body.
According to Ayurveda, honey is incompatible with ghee in equal amounts by weight, not volume. Honey is literally heavier than ghee. One teaspoon of raw honey weighs as much as three teaspoons of ghee. This is what not to do: combine 1 teaspoon of honey with three teaspoons of ghee. These proportions are said to aggravate the stomach and skin.13
Instead, combine your honey and ghee in equal amounts by volume. For example, take one teaspoon of honey with one teaspoon of ghee. This will provide a safe, nourishing, and lubricating carrier substance.
Alternatives to Honey
Looking for warm sweeteners for vegans? Consider jaggery (dried sugar cane juice) and molasses. Both have a sweet rasa, hot virya, and sweet vipaka configuration, similar to honey. Yet both primarily calm vata and increase pitta and kapha.14 They’re excellent builders, especially molasses for building the blood, yet they lack honey’s ability to act as a carrier for other herbs.
Incorporating Honey’s Magic
The simplest way to incorporate honey’s sweetness into your routine is to mix a bit into your tea or eat it directly from the spoon. But if you’re seeking to take advantage of honey’s role as a carrier substance, here are a few ideas to get you started.
- Ayurveda regards honey as the foremost carrier substance for targeting the lungs, so it stands to reason that honey is the recommended vehicle for taking lung-supportive herbal formulas like Immune Health NOW. After meals, combine ½ teaspoon herbal mixture with 1 teaspoon of honey and stir together to make a paste. Take the paste directly from the spoon, or add warm water and drink it as a tea.
- To help alleviate respiratory discomfort and support deep, easy breathing, combine a pinch of ground cardamom, a pinch of rock salt, 1 teaspoon ghee, and ½ teaspoon raw honey. Mix together and lick from the spoon as needed.15
- Try steeping fresh arugula leaves and dry tulsi together for a tasty respiratory-clearing tea. Adding honey after it’s cooled a minute enhances its decongesting properties. 16
- Fruit and honey are a great combination, especially for kaphas seeking healthy sweetness. My book, Ayurvedic Cooking for Self-Healing, offers many ideas, including a delectable “honey apple pulp.” 17
- Play with using honey in your warm, creamy drinks, such as turmeric golden milk or decaf spiced chai!
- Try making a face mask with honey and chickpea flour, for clear, glowing skin. 18
- Use the pleasurable delicacy of honey to create a potion for sexual rejuvenation, or vajikarana. Mixing fresh onion juice with honey, fresh ginger juice, and an appropriate amount of ghee will immediately enhance sexual juices in both women and men.19
Do not feed honey to babies under a year old. It is not honey that is the difficulty, but rather a Clostridium bacteria that gathers on dirt, surfaces, and honey, creating a risk of infant botulism. These microbes are harmless to older children and adults. 20
How will the medicine of authentic sweetness manifest for you?