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Hops is one of the great sedative and antispasmodic remedies, used for anxiety and sleep disturbances

Hops

Humulus lupulus Cannabaceae

Hops is a native American herb used throughout history in conditions characterised by nervous tension and sleeplessness. Hops is one of the great relaxant sedatives which has been used for centuries in the acute treatment of insomnia.

  • How does it feel?

    Hops delivers a uniquely aromatic quality that can be both sweet and earthy, with a grounding bitter aftertaste. It is this balance between bitterness and gentle aromatic sweetness that makes hops such a popular botanical in brewing.

  • What can I use it for?

    The primary application of hops as used in herbal medicine is as a sedative and relaxant, making it a choice remedy for use in sleep disturbances such as insomnia. Hops are also used to moderate tension and anxiety symptoms. Most often hops are only recommended to be used for these applications intermittently or in the short term because the true approach to treatment in holistic herbalism is to look for the underlying causes rather than to solely treat the outward symptoms.

    The actions of hops as a sedative and relaxant are via a marked effect on the nervous system. Hops may be called upon in the treatment of sleeplessness and acute insomnia.

    In an integrated approach, hops may also be used as a nervine relaxant, bringing one back down from a state of nervous irritability, stress tension and anxiety. For issues with sleeping, hops are best applied for those whose sleeplessness is rooted in stress; there may be racing thoughts and worries that leave one unable to relax into healthy sleep patterns.

    Used in combination with other anti-anxiety herbs such as passionflower or valerian, hops both soothes and settles the nervous system. Due to its sedative actions, it is a medicine which is best used in the evening and before bedtime to assist in a deep and rejuvenating night’s sleep.

    Hops are useful where tension and stress are the cause of stress-related headaches, and also for stress-related digestive symptoms.

    Please note: Hops are not recommended for use by those experiencing significant depression as they can sometimes accentuate symptoms.

  • Into the heart of Hops

    According to the energetics of Western herbal medicine (WHM), hops may be best applied in constrictive tissue states, where tension and constriction may present with both emotional and physical manifestations. Where tissues may be in a state of spasm, hops are relaxant and antispasmodic actions will always be of great value (6).

    This tissue state may also be indicated by the presence of tension and chills. Sometimes those who have never fully recovered from a viral infection, or who have experienced an acutely traumatic situation (that leaves their nervous system in a state of tension), can experience persistent ‘chills’. There will often be gastrointestinal symptoms associated with autonomic nervous system imbalance such as stomach and duodenal ulcers, indigestion, diarrhoea, colic, irritable bowel symptoms and intestinal spasm (2,3). Hops will be useful where these type of symptoms are the result of such nervous tension.

    Plants with an acrid flavour are often used in traditional Chinese herbal medicine to treat wind and chill conditions (equivalent to contraction in WHM approach). Almost all of the great antispasmodics used in traditional western herbal medicine are acrid, such as valerian, lobelia and catnip. Hops are also in this category of acrid relaxant antispasmodics. Therefore, they lend their therapeutic effects in conditions that present with constricted and tense tissue states as described above (6).

    Hops are thought to engender the humour of melancholy in traditional energetics, which is why it is not recommended to use in severe depression.

  • Traditional uses

    Hops was originally introduced into Europe in the 9th century. The first European mention of hops being added to beer dates from 1097. The plant became more universally accepted for this use a surprising six centuries later. The gentle aromatic, sweet and mildly bitter qualities of hops all add a unique benefit in brewing and probably resulted in more widespread recognition and distribution. This may have increased the attention on hops for its other uses, such as in medicine.

    Hops are native to North America, therefore some of the earliest known uses for hops came from Native American healers. In traditional North American medicine, the Cherokee used hops as a sedative. It was also traditionally used for its analgesic and anti-rheumatic qualities, and for the treatment of breast and female reproductive problems. Hops were also thought to be useful in conditions of the kidney. The Delaware used hops in treatment of pain conditions associated with the nervous system such as earache and toothache. The Navajo used it for viral respiratory coughs and colds, and the Dakota in gastrointestinal disturbances as well as to aid sleep and relaxation.

    Traditional Indian medicine (Ayurveda) recommends hops for restlessness, indigestion and headache associated with nervous tension. In Chinese medicine, hops are also used to treat restlessness and sleeplessness, as well as poor appetite and dyspepsia. Hops were also thought to be useful in conditions of the kidney.

  • Traditional actions

    Western herbal medicine actions:

    • Analgesic
    • Antimicrobial
    • Anti-rheumatic
    • Antispasmodic
    • Astringent
    • Bitter
    • Cholagogue and choloretic
    • Diuretic
    • Galactagogue
    • Relaxant
    • Sedative
    • Trophorestorative
  • What practitioners say

    Nervous system: The majority of Hops applications are related to its effects upon the nervous system. Hops are sedative and relaxant and have a long history of use for sleep problems and anxiety. Whilst more gentle than modern sedative medications, hops are powerfully sedative and are used extensively for the acute treatment of insomnia, particularly where it is related to anxiety.

    Hops are also used to support during acute phases of anxiety, where mental strain and worry are effecting quality of life. Hops can be an excellent first aid medicine that help to bring serenity and peace to ones state of mind, for acute anxiety and also during panic attacks.

    Hops is also referenced in other conditions in the nervous system such as for earaches and headaches that are associated with nervous tension. Hops are also known to be an excellent antispasmodic and may be used in spasmodic conditions which are s sometimes the cause of pain. Furthermore Hops also has anodyne and analgesic actions, meaning that they may be used for pain relief especially painlinked to the central nervous system(3).

    Reproductive system: Hops is an anaphrodisiac, meaning that it reduces sexual desire, therefore it is indicated in abnormal or excessive sexual excitability in both females and males. Specific to male health hops may be of used for nervous irritability that brings about problems of excess such as in spermatorrhoea, bladder irritability and premature ejaculation (3).

    Hops may also be used in combination with other specific herbs in conditions of the female reproductive system such as amenorrhoea, dysmenorrhoea, mastitis and to support menopausal symptoms (3).

    Digestive system: Hops can be an excellent conjunctive remedy to use where digestive symptoms arise as a result of nervous and stress-related tension, such as stomach and duodenal ulcers, indigestion, diarrhoea, colic, irritable bowel symptoms and intestinal spasm (2,3).

    Hops clear obstructions in both the liver and the spleen by stimulating the secretion of bile. It is well-referenced for use in conditions of the gall bladder, such as cholecystitis. Hops is a cholagogue, which means that it promotes the flow of bile from the gall bladder into the upper parts of the small intestine (2,3).

  • Research

    Considering how widely used hops are by herbalists, there is surprisingly little clinical research on them. However, we have listed some interesting research below.

    Menopause: In a randomised controlled trial to evaluate the efficacy of Hops on early menopausal symptoms and hot flashes, 120 women were randomly allotted into two groups. Each group either received the Hops extract or placebo tablets. The study period was over 12 weeks where menopausal symptoms were assessed using Greene scale and hot flashes were recorded in a diary before, and at 4, 8 and 12 weeks after intervention.

    The result showed a significant reduction on the Greene scale scoring as well as a significant reduction of hot flushes in the group receiving hops extract. The suited concludes that hops can effectively reduce early menopausal symptoms, as well as hot flushes (4).

    Energy and gut function: Nineteen healthy-weight men completed a randomized 3-treatment, double-blind, crossover study to see how hops extract affected their metabolism (8).

    Participants were either given placebo capsules, delayed-released capsules (released in the duodenum) or quick-release capsules (gastric). Blood samples were then taken and then subjective ratings of appetite, gastrointestinal (GI) discomfort, vitality, meal palatability, and mood were assessed throughout the day. The participants were also fed without restriction to see if their appetite was truly affected.

    Both of the capsules modulated the release of hormones involved in appetite and glycaemic regulation, and participants ate significantly less food after consuming the capsules. This is thought to be because the plant content was bitter, and these bitter taste receptors (which actually also exist in the gut) can play an important role in regulating gut function and appetite. The hops extract provided a “bitter brake” reducing food intake in healthy men (8).

    Sleep: Though not strictly a traditional herbal medicine extract, an interesting study was conducted on non-alcoholic beer which was made out of hops. A total of 17 nurses working night shifts were given 333ml of non-alcoholic beer and symptoms of anxiety and sleep quality were measured. Results showed that anxiety levels reduced as did sleep latency (the time it took to fall asleep) (9).

    The result showed a significant reduction on the Greene scale scoring as well as a significant reduction of hot flushes in the group receiving hops extract. The article concludes that hops can effectively reduce early menopausal symptoms, as well as hot flushes (4).

  • Did you know?

    Hops belongs to the same plant family as cannabis-Cannabaceae. One could think of them as cousins sharing a few similar genetics and traits that give them similar organoleptic properties (those identified through the senses i.e. taste and smell). They share terpenes and other phytochemicals.

Additional information

  • Safety

    Sedatives such as hops should be taken only intermittently or for short periods during acute bouts such as for insomnia and anxiety. This is because they work on a fairly surface level only treating the symptom of a problem rather than the root cause. For chronic insomnia, a clinical herbalist would make a formulation which would aim to resolve the issue on a deeper level. Prolonged use of sedatives may also lead to a physical habituation (and addiction although this is rare).

    Due to hormonal compounds and some effects upon the reproductive system, it is best to avoid taking hops if you are pregnant. Consult a professional medical herbalist before taking hops if you are pregnant or breastfeeding.

  • Interactions

    Hops interacted with a number of different pharmaceutical medications including sedatives, oestrogen medicines as well as recreational drugs. If you are taking any medications it is advised you consult a medical professional before using hops (7).

  • Contraindications

    Hops are not recommended for use in depression as they can accentuate the symptoms (2).

  • Preparation

    • Infusion (tea)
    • Tincture
    • Capsules
    • Hydrolat
    • Fluid extract
  • Dosage

    Smaller doses are advised for nervous irritability and anxiety, whilst larger doses are recommended for insomnia where the sedative action is required.

    Tincture: (1:5) in 40%: Take between 1- 4ml per day.

    Infusion: Infuse 1 heaped teaspoon of dried hops in a cup of boiling water in a covered container for 10- 15 minutes. To be drunk at night for sleeplessness. For daytime dosing, hops are often used in combination with less sedating herbs such as passionflower and chamomile.

    Fluid extract: 0.5-2ml to be taken 3 times daily and before going to bed.

  • Plant parts used

    • Flowers
    • Inflorescence (strobile)
  • Constituents

    • Volatile oil, humulene, β-carophyllene, myrcene, farnesene
    • Flavonoids (many glycosides of kaempferol and quercetin)
    • Oleoresin (3- 12%)
    • Humulone
    • Lupulene
    • Estrogenic substances
    • Tannins
    • Lipids
    • Xanthohumol (a chalcone) (2)
  • Habitat

    Hops are a climbing plant that is most often found in woodlands, along hedgerows and in field edges. It is native to temperate North America, Eurasia, and South America.

  • Sustainability

    According to the IUCN Red List of Threatened Plants Status Hops are classed as ‘Least concern’ due to its widespread distribution and stable populations, with no major threats (1).

  • Quality control

    Herbal Medicines are often extremely safe to take, however it is important to supply herbal medicines from a reputed supplier. Sometimes herbs bought from unreputable sources are contaminated, adulterated or substituted with incorrect plant matter.

    Some important markers for quality to look for would be to look for certified organic labelling, ensuring that the correct scientific / botanical name is used and that suppliers can provide information about the source of ingredients used in the product.

    A supplier should be able to tell you where the herbs have come from. There is more space for contamination and adulteration where supply chain is unknown.

  • How to grow

    Hops need around 6- 8 hours of direct sunlight a day, so choosing the position is very important. As a shooting plant hops have similar properties to vines (known as hop bines), which means they will require a good vertical space to allow them to grow to their optimum potential which can be up to 25ft.

    Hops ideally should be planted in spring, late enough to avoid any exposure to frost.

    The rhizome/ root will need to be planted about four inches deep in well aerated, nutrient-rich soil, with sufficient drainage. Plant the rhizome horizontally, with any visible buds pointing upwards.

    If planting multiple shooters, placing should be around 2ft apart to allow the roots space to grow. Once placed cover with lightly packed soil or with a high nitrogen mulch.

    The ground should be kept moist, watering every couple of days will be sufficient unless the temperatures are particularly hot such as during a heat wave.

    Hops need a support to help them grow vertically, lattice/trellis, bamboo, poles or string are all viable methods to support young vines. The most commonly used is a rough twine like a string which allows the bines to take hold.

    When the vines have reached between 6 and 12 inches trim the rhizome four or six bines each and begin to train them around your chosen support structure, gently weaving the vines around the support in a clockwise formation. If done anti-clockwise, the hops will fall off.

  • References

    1. References
      1. Khela, S. (2012). IUCN Red List of Threatened Species: Humulus lupulus. [online] IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. Available at: https://www.iucnredlist.org/species/202971/2758327 [Accessed 10 Nov. 2022].
      2. Hoffman, D. (2003). Medical Herbalism: The Science Principles and Practices Of Herbal Medicine. Hardback (1st Edition). Independently published
      3. Menzies-Trull, C. (2013). Herbal medicine keys to physiomedicalism including pharmacopoeia. Newcastle: Faculty Of Physiomedical Herbal Medicine (Fphm).
      4. Aghamiri, V., Mirghafourvand, M., Mohammad-Alizadeh-Charandabi, S. and Nazemiyeh, H. (2016). The effect of Hop (Humulus lupulus L.) on early menopausal symptoms and hot flashes: A randomized placebo-controlled trial. Complementary Therapies in Clinical Practice, [online] 23, pp.130–135. doi:10.1016/j.ctcp.2015.05.001.
      5. Brooke, E. (2018). Woman’s Book Of Herbs. Aeon Books.
      6. M. 2004. The Practice of Traditional Western Herbalism: Basic Organs and Systems. North Atlantic Books,U.S.
      7. Pharmaceutical Press (no date) Stockley’s Herbal Medicines Interactions [With Herbal Medicines Interactions 1].
      8. Walker EG, Lo KR, Pahl MC, et al. An extract of hops (Humulus lupulus L.) modulates gut peptide hormone secretion and reduces energy intake in healthy-weight men: a randomized, crossover clinical trial. The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. 2022;115(3):925-940. doi:10.1093/ajcn/nqab418
      9. Franco L, Sánchez C, Bravo R, et al. The Sedative Effect of Non-Alcoholic Beer in Healthy Female Nurses. Chapouthier G, ed. PLoS ONE. 2012;7(7):e37290. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0037290
Aromatic
An ‘aromatic’ remedy, high in volatile essential oils, was most often associated with calming and sometimes ‘warming’ the digestion. Most kitchen spices and herbs have this quality: they were used both as flavouring and to ease the digestion of sometimes challenging pre-industrial foods. Many aromatics are classed as ‘carminatives’ and are used to reduce colic, bloating and agitated digestion. They also often feature in respiratory remedies for colds, chest and other airway infections. They are also classic calming inhalants and massage oils, and are the basis of aromatherapy for their mental benefits.
Astringent taste
The puckering taste you get with many plants (the most familiar is black tea after being stewed too long, or some red wines) is produced by complex polyphenols such as tannins. Tannins are used in concentrated form (eg from oak bark) to make leather from animal skins. The process of ‘tanning’ involves the coagulation of relatively fluid proteins in living tissues into tight clotted fibres (similar to the process of boiling an egg). Tannins in effect turn exposed surfaces on the body into leather. In the case of the lining of mouth and upper digestive tract this is only temporary as new mucosa are replenished, but in the meantime can calm inflamed or irritated surfaces. In the case of open wounds tannins can be a life-saver – when strong (as in the bark of broadleaved trees) they can seal a damaged surface. One group of tannins, the reddish-brown ‘condensed tannins’ are procyanidins, which can reduce inflammation and oxidative damage.
Bitter
Bitters are a very complex group of phytochemicals that stimulate the bitter receptors in the mouth. They were some of the most valuable remedies in ancient medicine. They were experienced as stimulating appetite and switching on a wide range of key digestive functions, including increasing bile clearance from the liver (as bile is a key factor in bowel health this can be translated into improving bowel functions and the microbiome). Many of these reputations are being supported by new research on the role of bitter receptors in the mouth and elsewhere round the body. Bitters were also seen as ‘cooling’ reducing the intensity of some fevers and inflammatory diseases.
Blue-purple colouring
Any fruits with a blue-purple colouring contain high levels of the polyphenols known as anthocyanins. These work 1) on the walls of small blood vessels, helping to maintain capillary structure to reduce a key stage in inflammation, and improving the microcirculation to the tissues; 2) to improve retinal function and vision; 3) to support connective tissue repair around the body.
Cooling
Traditional ‘cold’ or cooling’ remedies often contain bitter phytonutrients such a iridoids (gentian), sesiquterpenes (chamomile), anthraquinones (rhubarb root), mucilages (marshmallow), some alkaloids and flavonoids. They tend to influence the digestive system, liver and kidneys. Cooling herbs do just that; they diffuse, drain and clear heat from areas of inflammation, redness and irritation. Sweet, bitter and astringent herbs tend to be cooling.
Hot
Traditional ‘hot’ or ‘heating’ remedies, often containing spice ingredients like capsaicin, the gingerols (ginger), piperine (black or long pepper), curcumin (turmeric) or the sulfurous isothiocyanates from mustard, horseradich or wasabi, generate warmth when taken. In modern times this might translate as thermogenic and circulatory stimulant effects. There is evidence of improved tissue blood flow with such remedies: this would lead to a reduction in build-up of metabolites and tissue damage. Heating remedies were used to counter the impact of cold, reducing any symptoms made worse in the cold. .
Mucilaginous
Mucilages are complex carbohydrate based plant constituents with a slimy or ‘unctuous’ feel especially when chewed or macerated in water. Their effect is due simply to their physical coating exposed surfaces. From prehistory they were most often used as wound remedies for their soothing and healing effects on damaged tissues. Nowadays they are used more for these effects on the digestive lining, from the throat to the stomach, where they can relieve irritation and inflammation such as pharyngitis and gastritis. Some of the prominent mucilaginous remedies like slippery elm, aloe vera and the seaweeds can be used as physical buffers to reduce the harm and pain caused by reflux of excess stomach acid. Mucilages are also widely used to reduce dry coughing. Here the effect seems to be by reflex through embryonic nerve connections: reduced signals from the upper digestive wall appear to translate as reduced activity of airway muscles and increased activity of airway mucus cells. Some seed mucilages, such as in psyllium seed, flaxseed (linseed) or guar bean survive digestion to provide bulking laxative effects in the bowel. These can also reduce rate of absorption of sugar and cholesterol. .
New-mown hay aroma
The familiar country odour of haymaking, of drying grass and other plants, is largely produced by coumarins (originally isolated from tonka beans – in French coumarou) and widely used in perfumery. They are chemically categorised as benzopyrone lactones and are important phytochemicals, with strong antioxidant activity in the laboratory and likely effects in modulating inflammation. They were most often associated with the calming effect linked to their use in stuffing mattresses and pillows and plants, high In coumarins were commonly used for these properties.
Resinous
Resins are most familiar as tacky discharges from pine trees (and as the substance in amber, and rosin for violin bows). They were most valued however as the basis of ancient commodities like frankincense and myrrh (two of the three gifts of the Three Wise Men to the baby Jesus) and getting access to their source was one benefit to Solomon for marrying the Queen of Sheba (now Ethiopia). Resins were the original antiseptic remedies, ground and applied as powders or pastes to wounds or inflamed tissues, and were also used for mummification. With alcohol distillation it was found that they could be dissolved in 90% alcohol and in this form they remain a most powerful mouthwash and gargle, for infected sore throats and gum disease. They never attracted much early research interest because they permanently coat expensive glassware! For use in the mouth, gums and throat hey are best combined with concentrated licorice extracts to keep the resins in suspension and add extra soothing properties. It appears that they work both as local antiseptics and by stimulating white blood cell activity under the mucosal surface. They feel extremely effective!
Salty
The salty flavour is immediately distinctive. A grain dropped onto the tongue is instantly moistening and a sprinkle on food enkindles digestion. This easily recognisable flavour has its receptors right at the front of the tongue. The salty flavor creates moisture and heat, a sinking and heavy effect which is very grounding for the nervous system and encourages stability. People who are solid and reliable become known as ‘the salt of the earth'.
Sharpness
The sharp taste of some fruits, and almost all unripe fruits, as well as vinegar and fermented foods, is produced by weak acids (the taste is generated by H+ ions from acids stimulating the sour taste buds). Sour taste buds are hard-wired to generate immediate reflex responses elsewhere in the body. Anyone who likes the refreshing taste of lemon or other citrus in the morning will know that one reflex effect is increased saliva production. Other effects are subjective rather than confirmed by research but there is a consistent view that they include increased digestive activity and contraction of the gallbladder.
Sweet
In the days when most people never tasted sugar, ‘sweetness’ was associated with the taste of basic foods: that of cooked vegetables, cereals and meat. In other words sweet was the quality of nourishment, and ‘tonic’ remedies. Describing a remedy as sweet generally led to that remedy being used in convalescence or recovery from illness. Interestingly, the plant constituents most often found in classic tonics like licorice, ginseng are plant steroids including saponins, which also have a sweet taste.

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