The thing most people think about when they think of hops is beer. So if the first thing that popped into your mind when you read this blog title was a big  glass of your favorite IPA, then you probably are not alone. But hops, a close relative of the hemp plant, is much more than something that gives beer its bitter bite – it’s actually a plant with a long history of human use.

Okay – we can start with beer

Hops (its botanical name is Humulus lupulus) was actually one of the first documented food additives, and its use to extend beer’s shelf life predates its uses for health purposes. In the Middle Ages (1100-1450 AD), after trial and error with many other herbs, it was found that brewing beer with hops preserved it much longer.

As a bonus, hops added a pleasant bitter flavor and aroma. It was so effective that by the 1500s the legal definition for beer in Germany included only the ingredients water, malt, and hops.1

Although brewing techniques have advanced significantly over the centuries, hops has remained an enduring part of the recipe, with variations on the plant imparting a wide range of bitterness and variety of flavors – as well as preservative properties – to one of our favorite beverages.

Historical uses

The most well-documented use of hops in cultures around the world is as a sedative or sleep aid.* Native American, traditional Chinese, and Ayurvedic medicines all described its uses for anxiousness, restlessness, and insomnia.*2

Hops-filled pillows were prescribed by herbal physicians in Europe as sleep aids. This use still prevails today, as the official German Commission E Monograph for hops discusses the approved indications for mood and sleep disturbances.*3

Upset stomach and indigestion are also common traditional indications of use, although they are not supported by modern scientific data.* (But there are a lot of other things you can do to support digestion that are supported by science!)

A cousin of Cannabis

Just like humans, plants have relatives. For example, apples, blackberries, and roses are all related as part of the Rosaceae family, and the Brassicaceae (or Cruciferae) family, includes broccoli, watercress, kale, and cabbage. Hops and hemp both belong to the Cannabaceae family.

They actually look somewhat alike, especially the leaves and flowers, and – thanks to having some of the same chemical constituents, like terpenes – also smell and taste similar. Some of the common and complementary compounds in hops and hemp include:

  • Terpenes
    • Just like hemp, hops contains an array of terpenes that contribute to its aroma, flavor, and health properties. Terpenes shared by both plants include myrcene, humulene, pinene, and beta-caryophyllene (link here to beta-caryophyllene blog when published). Beta-caryophyllene in particular helps to maintain gut health and supports a healthy inflammatory response.*
  • Flavonoids
    • Hops contains a group of flavonoids that include prenylnaringenin, isoxanthohumol, and xanthohumol. These compounds have drawn interest based on early research showing potential chemoprotective and detoxifying properties.* Prenylnaringenin may also act as a phytoestrogen similar to those in soy.*4
  • Alpha and Beta Acids
    • The alpha acids (humulones) and beta acids (lupulones) are best known for giving bitter properties to beer, but probably have the most health-supportive data. They have been shown to benefit immune and GI health,5 support a normal inflammatory response and brain health,6 and may be protective for the liver.*7

Wanting to enjoy some of the benefits of hops? One option is to enjoy a good beer. The “hoppiest” beers tend to be the most bitter – India pale ales (IPA), American pale ales (APA), and extra special bitters (ESB). Even big ales, such as barley wines and imperial stouts, pack a hidden hop punch. You can also get some of the supportive health benefits of hops in Thorne’s Hemp Oil +, which contains a specialized hops extract providing alpha and beta acids.*


References

  1. Koetter U, Biendl M. Hops (Humulus lupulus): a review of its historic and medicinal uses. http://cms.herbalgram.org/herbalgram/issue87/article3559.html. [Accessed September 4, 2019]
  2. Zanoli P, Zavatti M. Pharmacognostic and pharmacological profile of Humulus lupulus L. J Ethnopharmacol 2008;116(3):383-396. doi:10.1016/j.jep.2008.01.011
  3.  Blumenthal M, Goldberg A, Brinckmann J. Herbal Medicine: Expanded Commission E Monographs. 1st Edition. American Botanical Council; 1998.
  4.   Stevens J, Page J. Xanthohumol and related prenylflavonoids from hops and beer: to your good health! Phytochemistry 2004;65(10):1317-1330. doi:10.1016/j.phytochem.2004.04.025
  5.  Karabín M, Hudcová T, Jelínek L, Dostálek P. Biologically active compounds from hops and prospects for their use. Compr Rev Food Sci Food Saf 2016;15(3):542-567. doi:10.1111/1541-4337.12201
  6. Ano Y, Dohata A, Taniguchi Y, et al. Iso-α-acids, bitter components of beer, prevent inflammation and cognitive decline induced in a mouse model of Alzheimer’s disease. J Biol Chem 2017;292(9):3720-3728. doi:10.1074/jbc.M116.763813
  7. Mahli A, Koch A, Fresse K, et al. Iso-alpha acids from hops (Humulus lupulus) inhibit hepatic steatosis, inflammation, and fibrosis. Lab Invest 2018;98(12):1614-1626. doi:10.1038/s41374-018-0112-x