Hops (Humulus lupulus) – a wolf in sheeps clothing

At one point in the not too distant past, the UK grew around 70% of the hops used in our brewing industries, mainly in Kent and a busy harvest time provided seasonal work for many.

Autumn remnants of a hop field after harvest

Autumn remnants of a hop field after harvest

Aside from adding a bitter flavour to beer and preserving its shelf life, hops make for some interesting and useful medicine. They have a long and reputable history as an aid to restful sleep and to soothe anxiety and nervous tension. Hop ‘pillows’ are still made today for insomnia sufferers by stuffing a light fabric bag with dried hops and placing it on top of the pillow (inside the pillowcase) when you turn in for the night. Replace when the effects wear off with a new batch of strobiles.

Hops are also strongly oestrogenic in their action. It is well documented that women who travelled to the hop fields for harvest season began to menstruate within a day or two, whether their period was due or not. Menopausal symptoms such as hot flushes, insomnia and anxiety can all be helped with the use of hops (as part of a herbal formula) and a component named 8-PN has been identified and isolated for its specific oestrogenic activity. This strong oestrogenic activity has the effect of dampening sexual desire in men and has also been implicated in difficulty maintaining erections. On the positive side however, there are good implications in the use of hops for prevention and treatment of prostate cancer.

Hop strobiles are rich in oils and resins which give them their bitter taste but also have the effect of stimulating digestive processes. Traditionally classed as a bitter tonic, they can be used to increase the appetite and can help in cases of nervous indigestion (including irritable bowel syndrome) where they settle and calm the gut, encourage digestive secretions and  generally improve faulty digestion

Lush hop strobiles ripe for picking

Lush hop strobiles ripe for picking

The hop is a perennial vine that dies right back in the winter before rampantly twining up into the hedges, fence panels and telegraph poles again the following spring. The young spring shoots can be collected and eaten as you would asparagus but the hop ‘flowers’ (called strobiles or cones) are the parts collected and used. Harvest the strobiles when they are fat and firm (August – September in the UK) and use fresh, or dry them carefully (checking daily for mould etc) in a warm dry place to store for future use.

They can be taken fresh or dried as a tea, made into a hop pillow (or bedside pot pourri with dried lavender for example), preserved in alcohol as a tincture or used as a pain relieving poultice for external use in rheumatism, toothache and neuralgia for example. A level teaspoon of dried hops to each cup, drinking about half a cup up to 3 times daily is the standard remedial dose. For insomnia, take one cup an hour or so before bedtime. Hops mix well with other herbs such as valerian root, passion-flower or lemon balm for anxiety and insomnia and with other bitters such as dandelion root  for digestive complaints.

Dried hop strobiles ready for use in teas or hop pillows

Dried hop strobiles ready for use in teas or hop pillows

Personally. I can’t take hops for more than a few days or so at any one time as they tend to bring me down quite rapidly whilst others I know are far more tolerant of longer term doses. I cannot fault their action on restlessness and an over-thinking, racing mind though! As in all cases of self medication and experimentation with medicinal plants,  be sensible and monitor yourself carefully.

A few notes of caution…….

  • If you suffer from depression do not take hops as a medicine as it can worsen the condition considerably. Even if you have a tendency to get depressed or feel ‘blue’ from time to time, use hops cautiously and at the first signs of feeling low, stop using immediately and you’ll soon bounce back.
  • In men, if taking hops regularly as a medicine and you notice an undesired low libido, difficulty in maintaining an erection or breast enlargement, simply stop taking hops.
  • Never take hops with other over the counter or prescribed sedative or anti-anxiety medicines.

I include a link to one of my favourite herbal sites … loaded with articles and discussions on hops and their many uses http://www.henriettes-herb.com/search/node/hops

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