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If you’ve ever retreated from the heat of a blistering day, pried the cap from a frosted bottle of beer, and reveled in that first long, slightly bitter, thirst-vanquishing draught, you are acquainted with Humulus lupulus, or hops. Since ancient times, hops have been tossed into fermented beverages to improve their flavor and prolong their shelf life. The first brewers relied on wild hops for their raw material; however, given humankind’s proclivity to inebriation, a thriving industry now revolves around hop cultivation and propagation.

It isn’t clear where the word “hops” originated. It may stem from the Anglo-Saxon term “hoppian,” meaning “to leap” – perhaps referring to the plant’s prodigious ability to creep and twine and intercalate itself onto and into any available upright structure. Hops owes this climbing prowess to its aggressive, mercurial growth habit (under ideal conditions a hop vine can add a meter to its length in one day) and to its rasp-like stems and tendrils. These characteristics reportedly earned the plant its specific name, lupulus: the early Romans, upon observing wild hops’ unbridled subjugation of willows and other scrub plants, were reminded of wolves among sheep and dubbed this “wicked and pernicious weed” lupus salictarius.   

The bittering and preservative attributes of hops reside in their strobiles – the flowers of the female vine – which resemble small, pale-green, soft-sided pinecones. Hop strobiles are the repository for an impressive number of nutritional and pharmacologically active agents, including vitamin B6, manganese, choline, inositol, antioxidant flavonoids, tannins, alpha- and beta-bitter acids (humulone, lupulone, etc.), volatile compounds (humulene, myrcene, beta-caryophyllene, etc.), resins, oligomeric proanthocyanidins, and phenols (e.g., caffeic and chlorogenic acids). Many of these constituents give rise to hops’ diverse medicinal properties: anodyne (relieves pain), diuretic, febrifuge (breaks fevers), hypnotic, nervine (relaxes jangled nerves), sedative, soporific (induces sleep), tonic, anthelmintic (kills worms), anaphrodisiac (reduces libido) and stomachic (improves appetite and digestion).

Traditionally, hops have been used internally for a wide array of ailments, including headache, earache, toothache, muscular pain, arthritis, jaundice, worms, stomach ulcers, gonorrhea, poor circulation, poor appetite, gout, fluid retention and coughs. Hops’ bitter acids exert selective antibacterial and antifungal activities, a serendipitous characteristic that presumably enhances yeast multiplication while simultaneously suppressing the growth of undesirable microbes in brewing vats. This same attribute makes hops invaluable in poultices for ringworm, wounds and skin ulcers (particularly venous stasis ulcers of the lower extremities).

Where hops excel, however, is in calming jittery nerves and encouraging sleep. Indeed, the German Commission E has approved hops for treating nervousness and insomnia. If you’re an intractable insomniac who’s largely impervious to valerian, skullcap, passionflower, lavender, chamomile or kava kava, hops may be just what you need. A cup of hop tea or 1 to 2 ml of hop tincture or extract in a cup of warm water before bedtime can induce sleep when nothing else works. (If you can’t abide the bitter taste of hop tea, a hop-stuffed pillow is a popular folk remedy for insomnia.)

Hops are a delicate, evanescent herb, so use fresh or well-preserved strobiles when preparing infusions and tinctures. If the strobiles in your favorite herbalist’s bins are brown, look elsewhere. The same precaution applies to pellets, if you buy your hops in that form. (Freezing or vacuum packing your fresh or pelleted hops will significantly prolong their usefulness.)

If you suffer from depression, use hops with caution; their calming effect could conceivably worsen your condition. If hops are used in excess, their estrogenic effects could suppress the male libido…although you wouldn’t guess it from observing the behavior of beer drinkers at a bar. As with all herbs, hops can be sensitizing for certain individuals. (Hop picker’s disease, a severe form of contact dermatitis caused by continuous exposure to hops’ abrasive stems and strobiles, is one example of a sensitivity reaction.)

If you’re interested in growing your own hops for brewing or medicinal use, this link provides some good general information.

To your good health. Skoal!     

Sources

Physicians’ Desk Reference for Herbal Medicines, 2nd Edition: Hops. Thomas Fleming, PharmD, Chief Editor. 2000  


 
 
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Back in the mid-1970s, while hawking a popular breakfast cereal on TV, Euell Gibbons uttered a phrase that secured his place as a consummate wild-food expert and launched an entire generation of would-be foragers and simplers:

“Ever eat a pine tree? Many parts are edible.”

I can’t say I’ve dined on many conifers – although I’ve downed my share of pine-nut stew and absorbed a bottle or two of spruce-tip beer – so I can’t confirm whether it’s possible (or even desirable) to satisfy your appetite with pine parts.  However, I can attest to the medicinal value of the family Pinaceae, which includes pines, cedars, hemlocks, larches, spruces and firs. During my brief stint as a timber faller, I learned that dried, powdered pitch provides excellent hemostasis for lacerations, and I once chewed and swallowed a few Ponderosa pine needles to relieve a nasty case of heartburn. (It’s amazing what you’ll do when you’re grubbing out a fire line and the volcanic remains of an army-surplus C-ration are seething in your gullet.)

As a class, the conifers share many medicinal uses. When applied externally, preparations of bark, pitch or sap alleviate a wide array of dermatologic ills, including abrasions, lacerations, burns, bruises, psoriasis, athlete’s foot and rashes due to prickly heat, chapped skin or allergic dermatitis. Native Americans used infusions of leaf tips and bark to treat coughs, colds, fevers, headaches, earaches, sore throats, heart problems, lung congestion, tuberculosis, ulcers, arthritis, indigestion, sexually transmitted diseases and cancer. Various conifer species have been employed as washes for making infants thrive, as contraceptives following childbirth, and as laxatives, diuretics, eyewashes, blood purifiers and abortifacients. Young aboriginal women used leaf-tip or bud infusions as a beauty wash, and drinking the tea was reputed to keep adolescent girls youthful. Conifers were also believed to confer protection from sorcerers – although they apparently didn’t protect young men from the wiles of their female companions.

While modern research hasn’t yet confirmed Pinaceae’s myriad beneficial properties, several studies hint that a thousand years’ worth of empirical data is probably based in fact. For example, arabinogalactan from larch trees has demonstrated immunostimulatory properties in a handful of clinical trials. A study published in the September 2010 issue of Nutrition Journal showed that larch arabinogalactan, when compared to placebo, increased the antibody response in healthy volunteers who were injected with pneumococcal vaccine. And a January 2011 Current Eye Research study revealed that larch arabinogalactan stimulated proliferation and reorganization of injured corneal cells, suggesting that it might be valuable for treating certain human eye disorders; interestingly, the larch extract exerted this healing effect without the toxic side effects associated with chemicals that are currently used in many eye medications.

Other attributes of the Pinaceae family have garnered some interest in the scientific community, too. For instance, the same proanthocyanidins that protect conifers from fungal infections (cedar’s resistance to rot is legendary) could serve as the basis for potent antifungals in human medicine. In addition, these compounds have demonstrated powerful antioxidant, immunomodulatory and cardioprotective properties in cell culture and animal studies.

All things considered, Mr. Gibbons may have been onto something 40 years ago – although he was simply standing on the shoulders of others who had gone before him. Once again, the admonition to “let food be thy medicine” seems apropos.  

Sources
  1. JK Udani, BB Singh, et al. Proprietary arabinogalactan extract increases antibody response to the pneumonia vaccine: a randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled, pilot study in healthy volunteers. Nutr J. 2010;9:32
  2. S Burgalassi, N Nicosia, et al. Arabinogalactan as Active Compound in the Management of Corneal Wounds: In Vitro Toxicity and In Vivo Investigations on Rabbits. Curr Eye Res. 2011;36(1):21-28