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Hops Humulus Lupulus

The Plant

Hops are of the relatively small family of Cannabaceae; cannabis and hops are are cousins, both sharing a key ingredient called terpenes. The specific name Lupulus is derived from the Latin, lupus that means wolf. The English name Hop comes from the Anglo-Saxon hoppan meaning to climb. Pliny the ancient Roman naturalist explains that when hops grow amongst young willows, it strangles them with its light, climbing embraces, as the wolf does a sheep.

The humulus plant, known commonly as hop, is a dioecious meaning it has the male and female reproductive organs in separate plants. Hops is a twining, perennial vine that is fast-growing with rhizomes that develop from axillary buds and grow horizontally; it has large leaves and cone like flowers that we call hops. It is cultivated commercially for these female fruits which are used by breweries to preserve and flavour beer. The plants, produce a fragrant oil called lupulin, from which its bitter, tangy, floral and citrus flavours come. The plant gives off an earthy, pine-like aroma that is commonly compared to the smell of a pine forest.

Hops need a minimum of 120 frost-free days to flower and produce a good crop, it grows back from the rootstock every year and needs support and plenty of room to sprawl. During the first year, the plant is establishing its root system and only a few flowers are produced. In the second year, the plant will produce a normal crop of hops that are used primarily as a bittering, flavouring and stability agent in beer. Hops balance what would otherwise be an overly sweet, boozy brew, they don't actually contribute to alcohol content. The higher the alcohol content, the more hops brewers tend to add during fermentation to disguise the taste and smell of alcohol and because hops are a bittering element that counteract its natural sweetness.

Hops are also used to make herbal medicine. The herb is high in bitter substances; the two primary bitter principles are known as humulone and lupulin and are natural preservatives. Hops are used medicinally as infusions or tea and in tincture form. To preserve the volatile oils in hops, you need to steep hops at a temperature below boiling.

Actions: Hops has multiple properties: Analgesic, antidepressant, antibacterial, anti-fungal, anti-inflammatory, antispasmodic, antiviral, appetite stimulant, diuretic, febrifuge, galactagogue, hypnotic, sedative, bitter stomachic, soporific tonic, nervine. It is also chemo preventive and is a valuable alternative or natural remedy to support the classical pharmacological therapy due to its important activities on the nervous system and anti-inflammatory properties.

Precautions: Generally considered safe. There are no known contraindications or potential interactions with other medications. There are some reports of persons experiencing allergic skin rash after handling the fresh flowers; this could have been from pollen sensitivity. Hops are rich in estrogenic substances and may interfere with pre-existing hormonal therapy. In view of this, hops are contraindicated in the case of breast cancer. It should be avoided in conditions of marked depression as this may be accentuated. Unfortunately hops can be quite dangerous if ingested by dogs and more rarely, cats; the compounds in the hops can cause a malignant hyperthermia, which results in a rapid rise of body temperature.

Hops history goes beyond beer

Of course hops are more than a brewer’s must-have. Their cultivation dates back to at least 860AD and the therapeutic use of hops for treating anxiety, insomnia and restlessness was first noted in Europe in the 9th Century. Hops appear to have been used in Dutch breweries in the beginning of the 14th Century. Hops was introduced in England in the 16th Century, but was soon banned by King Henry VIII, whose public believed it spoiled the taste of drinks, caused melancholy and endangered the people. Accordingly, hops were not used in the composition of beer for more than a century later. The hop got off to a bad start in England but herbalists have held beer’s famous ingredient in high regard for more than 1000 years as a sedative and digestive tonic. Culpeper said that hops’ medicinal uses made “beer better than ale”. Hops gained acceptance in England as an ingredient in beer and as a medicinal herb in 17th Century.

The Romans grew hops as a Roman garden plant and ate the young shoots in spring, in the same way as we do asparagus; the tender first foliage, blanched, is a good potherb. The leaves and flower heads were also used to produce a fine brown dye. The tough and flexible stem of the plant is used in Sweden in the manufacture of a coarse, durable cloth and paper has also been made from the stem, or bine, as it is termed. American Indians traditionally made a sedative from the blossoms and they also applied heated, dried flowers to relieve toothaches. Cherokee healers used hops as a painkiller for rheumatism and a gynaecological aid for breast and womb problems. In India and China hops are used to treat leprosy, tuberculosis and digestive problems.

Hops the healthy nerve tonic

Recent studies have confirmed that Humulene and Lupulin in the Hop plant have notable sedative properties that raise the neurotransmitters gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA) and serotonin. These work to soothe the central nervous system and regulate the body's circadian rhythm. Indeed hops do have a calming effect, treating stress, anxiety, nervous tension and hyper-excitability as well as hysteria. At bedtime, soporific hops induce sleep, especially in cases of nervousness and restlessness and one can turn to hops for safe sedation after long periods of insomnia. A hop pillow is a popular way to treat insomnia whereby dried hops are used to fill cloth pillows or dream pillows to help induce sleep and when mixed with mugwort, help induce colourful dreams.

Hops are also indicated for other nerve related disorders such as palpitations, nervous and irritable coughs, amenorrhea with nervous association and in males for premature ejaculation and sexual neuroses. Many herbal preparations combine hops with other herbal sedatives such as valerian, passionflower or skullcap, which serves well as a remedy to alleviate tension headache. It is fascinating that hops can also be smoked and can exert a psychoactive effect and just like the hemp plant, it is the female inflorescence of the hops that is used for this effect.

Hops are a superb bitter digestive

Soothing the stomach and promoting healthy digestion have been the strongest historical use of this herb and indeed hops are a primary digestive that effectively stimulate appetite, dispel flatulence and relieve intestinal cramps. Hop tea is recommended for nervous digestive problems, such as diarrhoea and nervous dyspepsia and colitis. The bitter principle in the hop proves to be one of the most efficacious plant bitters being a general tonic for digestion, jaundice and sluggish liver conditions. Cold hops tea, taken an hour before meals, is particularly helpful as a digestive tonic and daily use of hops tea has been reported to ease chronic constipation. The antiseptic and anti-inflammatory properties of hops are also used for infections of the upper digestive tract, dysentery and also to expel worms.

Hops are diuretic and stimulate the kidneys which is one reason why beer drink- ers need to urinate so often. The herb’s diuretic properties are useful for urinary system conditions and can be taken for various problems with water retention and excess uric acid to promote urination, giving prompt ease to an irritable bladder. Hops tea is also said to be excellent in cases of delirium tremens. (A condition sometimes caused by alcohol withdrawal.)  

Hops even like skin

As an external remedy, an infusion of hops used in combination with chamomile flowers makes a helpful fomentation for painful swellings, inflammation, neuralgic and rheumatic pains, bruises and boils. Hops may also be applied as a poultice when a local antiseptic is relevant for skin abrasions, skin ulcers and frostbite. Flowers may be heated and applied to the face as a compress to relieve headaches and toothaches. Hop leaves, called bracts, contain antioxidants that appear to be helpful in fighting tooth decay. The antiseptic and cleansing compounds in hops have also been shown to prevent bacteria that lead to acne and blemishes, while the Xanthohumol found in hops combats the signs of skin aging by increasing collagen and elastin production.

Herbal relief for menopause

Hops are now recognised for their strong estrogenic activity, making them a gynaecological aid. Research reveals they contain phytoestrogens that have effects on hormone-sensitive conditions such as breast, uterine, cervical or prostate cancer and endometriosis. When used in combination with other herbs, hops may help alleviate menopausal symptoms, such as hot flushes and sleeping difficulty because of its estrogen-like activity. Hops have been found to alleviate menopausal discomfort after 16 weeks of treatment.

They are also been used to relieve muscle spasms, pain and reduce fever as well so a formula containing hops will help reduce symptoms of rheumatic diseases, such as osteoarthritis, rheumatoid arthritis and fibromyalgia.

Interestingly the herb is considered an anaphrosisiac (subdues sex drive) for men, an action we may notice with excessive beer drinkers.  A remedy that curbs sexual appetite could be useful when seeking to mitigate excessive libido.

Effects of hops have been studied

A study examined the effects of drinking non-alcoholic beer with hops at dinnertime. The researchers found that women who drank it showed improvements in their sleep quality. The participants also reported reduced levels of anxiety. Other research has found that hops can help curb the appetite and reduce body fat around the belly.

Another study suggests that the intake of bitter hop acids improves cognitive function, attention and mood in older adults. Further study of hop extracts in relation to Alzheimer's pathology could lead to novel treatments and prevention strategies for the condition.

Interesting a recent study published in Oxford's Alcohol and Alcoholism journal, showed that hoppy beer is significantly less harmful to the liver than most types of liquor and even beer without hops. This indicates that it has a beneficial effect on the liver, but not of course in the case of excessive beer drinking. The concentration of alcohol and volume consumed is the key differentiating factor. If you drink enough of any type of alcohol (even weak ones), it will be damaging to the liver.

Researchers at Oregon State University say that the compound xanthohumol, found in hops, inhibits a protein in the cells along the surface of the prostate gland. The protein acts like a switch that turns on a variety of cancers, including prostate cancer.

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