Hops are what give beer its bitter, malty flavor, but its use isn’t limited to breweries. It also has a long history in herbal medicine, dating back to the 9th century in both Europe and Asia. Hops have been used to treat variety of ailments ranging from improper digestion to leprosy.
Hops are the female flowers of the hop plant, or Humulus lupulus. These plants grow in temperate climates in the northern hemisphere, appearing in North America, Europe, and Asia. Once hops became an important ingredient for beer manufacturers, scientists began looking at what effects it can have on the body. The most common areas of study for hops include anxiety, sleep disorders, menstrual symptoms, and cancer treatment.
- Hops give beer its malty, bitter taste and also help to filter it.
- A combination of hops and valerian is used as a sleep aid in Germany.
Anecdotal evidence that hops have potential to help with sleep started emerging long ago. In Europe, people began noticing that field workers cultivating the hop plant tended to fall asleep on the job more than usual. The job was no more physically demanding than any other field work, so people began to wonder: are hops sedative? While hops did seem to have a calming effect on people who were exposed to them, early studies found no solid evidence to support the claims.
More recent studies have taken a closer look at hops and their effect on anxiety and sleep disorders, which often go hand in hand. Several scientific studies have found evidence to support the sedative claims that Europeans observed many years ago. While the findings have been mostly favorable, scientists haven't quite discovered why.
While the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) doesn’t regulate herbal supplements, Germany's equivalent — Commission E — has approved hops to treat restlessness, anxiety, and sleep disturbances.
Two Become One
While hops have been shown to be effective for treatment of anxiety and sleep disorders on its own, scientists have found that they are most effective when combined with an herb called valerian. Valerian has a lot in common with hops, and has a long history of use as an herbal treatment for insomnia. Valerian is also approved by the Germany's Commission E, but why valerian functions the way it does is still a bit of a mystery.
The combination of valerian and hops is believed to be more effective as a sleep aid than valerian by itself. However, research is fairly limited, and scientists still haven't quite figured out why they're getting the results they're getting.
Beer, Sleep, and Much More
In addition to sedative properites, hops also have estrogen-like properties. Similar to soy, hops contain phytoestrogens, which are plant-derived substances that share the properties of estrogen. As such, scientists have explored the potential of hops to treat menopausal symptoms, though there has been some speculation that the use of phytoestrogens can increase bleeding in postmenopausal women. Also, there is the same concern with the use of hops in people with thyroid disease and estrogen-positive breast cancer. While hops are generally considered safe, one should always consult a medical professional before starting any new dietary supplement.
Many people use the claim that a glass of red wine a day is good for your health as an excuse to drink. These findings don’t mean you should be drinking an extra pint of beer each night. In fact, most studies use either hops supplements or non-alcoholic beer. Talk to your doctor if you think you might need hops, and get your fill from sources that won’t damage your liver.