The Common Hops (Humulus lupulus) is a hardy, twining climbing vine. When female flowers mature into fruiting heads, the pale green, cone-like female flower clusters (seed cones or strobiles) are harvested.
Humulus is from the Latin word for “soil:” humus. This refers to the fact that if it doesn’t climb on anything, it grows on the ground.
The word lupulus is from the Latin “small wolf,” reflecting the vine’s habit of “strangling” other plants like a wolf does to sheep.
Humulus lupulus is native to the Northern hemisphere (Europe, western Asia, and North America). Long before hops were used as a beer additive, giving beer its aroma and bitter flavor, they were used medicinally in Europe as a sedative. North American Natives also used hops to treat sleeplessness.
Hops are regarded as psychoactive in the Sedative/Hypnotics/Narcotics (“downers”) category. It is one of the hypothetical candidates for the original soma plant, a magical plant mentioned in the Rigveda and the Gita.
To this day, Humulus lupulus is used in medical herbalism to treat insomnia and calm stress. It relaxes the central nervous system, easing tension, anxiety, worry, and restlessness.
Other Humulus species include:
- Humulus japonicus (Asian) – only used for ornamental purposes
- Humulus yunnanensis (China) – may be a distinct species
Hops & Beer
Hops may have been originally added to beer for their natural preservative properties.
Some historians claim that the use of hops in beer was invented by Christian monks in the Middle Ages who were interested in the anaphrodisiac qualities of the plant (its tendency to reduce sexual desire). In their minds, drinking lots of beer helped them resist the devil’s temptation and avoid succumbing to their natural urges.
The first documented use of hops in beer is from the 9th century; beforehand, other bitter herbs and flowers were used, including henbane (Hyoscyamus niger) seeds, Cannabis, clary sage (Salvia sclarea), belladonna (Atropa belladonna), and wormwood (Artemisia absinthium). These are hallucinogenic herbs which were used in pagan rituals. Clary sage and wormwood have a high thujone content, Cannabis has THC, while henbane and belladonna contain tropane alkaloids.
In the 16th century a regulation was enacted in Germany and the states of the former Holy Roman Empire, limiting the ingredients in beer to just water, barley, and hops. This may have been at least in part in order to outlaw the psychoactive herbs used by the Pagans. Hops is also psychoactive, but at least not hallucinogenic.
Hops & Cannabis
Hops is the closest relative of Cannabis.
Both hops and Cannabis belong to a special family, Cannabaceae or Hemp Family. Indeed, one of the scientific names given to hops was Cannabis lupulus.
Cannabis sativa can be grafted onto Humulus lupulus and H. japonicus.
No trace of THC however has yet been found in hops.
Both Cannabis and Humulus are rich in terpenes which are both safe and well-tolerated as well as possess anti-inflammatory, antioxidant, analgesic, anticonvulsive, antidepressant, anxiolytic, anticancer, antitumor, neuroprotective, anti-mutagenic, anti-allergic, antibiotic and anti-diabetic attributes, among other properties.
These are some of the uses of Humulus lupulus in medical herbalism:
- Calms nervousness and relaxes the central nervous system.
- Insomnia & sleep disturbances.
- Relief of menopausal symptoms, such as hot flashes, night sweats, and insomnia.
- Discomfort due to worry, tension, restlessness, or anxiety.
- Support during withdrawal from benzodiazepines.
- Strong hypnotic / sedative – induces a deep and healing sleep state.
- Nervine relaxant – relaxes the nervous system.
- Strong antispasmodic – treats muscle spasms or cramps.
- Carminative – treats discomfort caused by flatulence.
- Antimicrobial against fungus & bacteria.
- Astringent – tannins tighten exposed body tissue.
- Bitter – the bitterness stimulates the digestive process.
- Estrogenic – chronic consumption can result in feminization of the male body, for example to gynecomastia, enlarged breasts in men.
Some of the constituents in hops inflorescence (strobile):
- oleoresin (lupulin) – a mixture of essential oil and resin, which contains bitter alpha-acids such as humulone, adhumulone, cohumulone, posthumulone, and prehumulone and beta-acids such as lupulone along with their auto-oxidation products. These are the primary active constituents responsible for hops’ sedative and antibacterial properties.
- Lupulone is a bitter substance in the yellow hops granules. It is antibiotic, has calming effects, and inhibits premature ejaculation.
- Humulone strongly affects the GABA receptor. Recently, a 2020 study reported found that humulone potentiates GABAA receptors, potentially shortening the time it takes to fall asleep and increasing total sleep time.
- 2-methyl-3-buten-2-ol – a degradation product of the alpha-acids in hops with strong sedative and relaxing properties by acting on the GABA receptor, raising the levels of this inhibitory neurotransmitter.
- humulene – its name is derived from Humulus lupulus since it was in this plant that this anti-inflammatory and anticancer volatile oil was initially discovered though it exists in many aromatic plants, including Cannabis.
- caryophyllene – a constituent of many essential oils, including that of Cannabis sativa. This is a unique terpene since it is the only phytocannabinoid found in a non-cannabis plant. It possesses anti-inflammatory, anti-allergic, and anticancer properties. Plants containing this chemical have traditionally been used to treat conditions such as insomnia, depression, nervousness, delirium, anxiety, and digestive disorders.
- myrcene – another essential oil common to both hops and Cannabis (as well as many other herbs). It is claimed to have sedative properties.
- pinene – found in cannabis and hops and exhibits antidepressant and sedative activities.
Hops contain flavonoids, including:
- chalcones, such as the bitter and anticancer substance xanthohumol.
- glycosides of kaempferol and quercetin. The latter is regarded as a narcotic substance.
- potent phytoestrogens (e.g., 8-prenylnaringenin, isoxanthohumol) – thanks of these, hops may be used for hormone replacement therapy and for relief of menstruation-related problems.
- 6-prenylnaringenin shows potent modulatory activity GABAA receptors
Hops may be particularly effective for treating sleep disturbances in combination with another hypnotic herb, valerian. Together, these herbs can shorten sleep latency and reduce nocturnal awakenings with an effectiveness that is similar to that of benzodiazepines without causing any rebound insomnia or excessive daytime sleepiness.
Much of the research on hops has been performed on preparations that contain hops and other sedating herbs.
For example, in a 2008 double blind, randomized, placebo-controlled sleep-EEG study published in the European Journal of Medical Research, a single dose administration of a valerian/hops fluid extract was found to improve sleep. The researchers were interested to find if such a preparation requires long-term consumption to be effective or if a single dose can be enough. The participants who received one dose of the valerian/hops preparation (2 ml liquid extract) slept longer and deeper than the participants who took the placebo and they slept deeper than on the previous night on which they did not take the preparation.
Hops Vs. Zolpidem
As I mentioned previously, hops along with other sedating herbs may not fall in effectiveness from pharmaceuticals.
A parallel group, double-blind, randomized, controlled trialreported in a 2013 article published in the Indian Journal of Pharmacology titled Efficacy and safety of a polyherbal sedative-hypnotic formulation NSF-3 in primary insomnia in comparison to zolpidem. The participants received either a preparation made with standardized extracts of Valeriana officinalis and Passiflora incarnata along with Humulus lupulus or 10 mg zolpidem at bedtime for 2 weeks. Both interventions produced a similar improvement leading the researchers to conclude that the herbal formula is an “effective short-term alternative to zolpidem for primary insomnia.”
Hops for Women
Potent estrogenic substances in hops, such as 8-prenylnaringenin, may bind to estrogen receptors, making this herb a potential substitute for hormonal replacement therapy.
How to Use Hops for Sleep
The simplest way would be to drink an IPA (Indian Pale Ale), a type of beer with high hops content. The sedative effects may even be enhanced by ethanol.
Ideally though you would go for a non-alcoholic beer even if we ignore the cariogenicity of alcohol, since alcohol intoxication can induce a sleep which is fragmented with multiple awakenings during the second half of the night.
In a clinical trial described in a 2012 article published in PLOS One, a peer-reviewed open access scientific journal published by the Public Library of Science, the sedative effect of non-alcoholic beer was demonstrated on a group of healthy (yet stressed) female nurses who ingested a third of a liter of non-alcoholic beer containing hops with supper for 14 days. The intervention was shown to improve the nurses’ night sleep quality: they fell asleep faster and were more relaxed and less anxious.
Alternatively, you can get some dried hops and brew yourself a tea. Keep in mind however that the active constituents in the dried plant material are continuously broken down by oxidation when exposed to light or air. Therefore, use fresh dried flowers which are no older than 1 year.
To brew a hops potion, steep 1-2 teaspoon hops strobiles in 1 cup boiling water in a covered container for 10-15 minutes. Drink 30 minutes before bed.
A 1:5 in 40% or 60% tincture or a 1:1 in 45% fluid extract can also be prepared.
If the bitterness is too much for you, then hops powder can be taken in capsules. Dose is 0.5-1 g dried strobiles.
Do not drive or operate heavy machinery under the sedating effects of hops and remember that hops may potentiate the effects of alcohol or other sedatives.
Do not take without consulting with your doctor first.
Do not take hops if you suffer from the following conditions:
- Hypothyroidism – hops may have a too sedating an effect on body function.
- Significant depression – hops may accentuate this mood state. As Hildegard Von Bingen, one of the earliest (12th century) documented users of hops in beer, wrote in her Physica – “it causes melancholy to increase in man, and it makes the mind of man sorrowful.”
However, a 2017 randomized, placebo-controlled, double-blind, crossover pilot study found that daily supplementation with a hops dry extract can have beneficial effect for healthy young adults with at least mild depression, anxiety, and stress symptoms, significantly improving all these symptoms over a 4-week period.
Alternative Ways to Work with Hops
Magickly, hops is sometimes burned as incense. It represents the element of water and the planet Mars (Culpeper).
Hops are used in aromatherapy to promote calm and to relieve difficulty in sleeping and calming nervous tension. It is said that King George III of England and Abraham Lincoln relied upon hops pillows to relax and improve their sleep.
A sachet of fresh dried hops can be placed under the pillow or inside a cinched cotton or satin drawstring sachet bag and beneath the pillowcase.
In homeopathy, the agent Humulus lupulus is used primarily as a sedative.
Procuring Hops for Sleep
If you’re going to wildcraft hops, then it is recommended to use protective equipment in order to avoid a dermatitis which can occur when handling fresh hops.
Otherwise, most people will probably prefer to purchase dried hops or a ready-made preparation.
If you’re getting dried hops, then keep in mind that there are two main types of hops:
Hops of the bittering type have higher concentrations of the active ingredients (alpha acids such as humulone), and therefore are also more bitter, and presumably more sedating. European (noble) hops have lower concentrations than the new American ones.