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