Hops, the aromatic herb that IPA lovers rejoice over, and the key bitter flavoring additive to beers since ancient times—is also a plant with remarkable healing qualities. This native British plant is thought to have been introduced by way of Scotland and was known even to the ancient Romans who ate the young sprouting shoots as a garden green. Its Latin name, Humulus Lupulus, is believed to be derived from the word “humus” from the moist fertile soil it grows in and the Latin word for wolf— “lupus” due to its ability to climb incessantly and encompass other plants and trees as a wolf is said to do to sheep. (1)
The freshly dried flowers of hops, called strobiles, contain the various bitter and aromatic components that gave rise to the use of this herb for flavoring beer in the early 14th century in the Netherlands and the 16th century in England. Prior to this in Viking times, a variety of other bitter and aromatic herbs such as wormwood, ivy and marjoram were commonly used to make fermented herbal beers, a tradition which has lasted to modern times in the form of hop infused beers—especially the India Pale Ale, a style of beer that is high in a particularly bitter and aromatic strain of hops. (1)
Aside from its use as a flavoring agent however, Hops has a long tradition of medicinal use in helping sleep, calming the nervous system, relaxing muscular tension, stimulating digestion and as an overall herbal sedative for states of mental tension. With that, let’s dive into how hops can be used to support health and calm a weary mind, and how an IPA can do your soul good :)
Traditional Uses of Hops Nervous System Support
Hops has much in common with valerian with its properties as a sedative, and an antispasmodic herb (relaxes muscular tension)—giving credence to its traditional usage for sleeplessness, muscular aches related to stress, and all manner of nervous system hyperactivity. Interestingly, pillows filled with hops are an old-time folk remedy for insomnia, with adherents such as King George III and Abraham Lincoln using it for helping with sleeplessness caused by nervous tension. For anyone who has smelled dried hops flower the aroma is quite intense and calms the mind in a way similar to the fragrance of lavender.
Imbibing a strong IPA, hops tincture or making a hot infusion of hops brings on an immediate sense of calm relaxation, and a feeling of sleepiness that is very noticeable. In my experience it feels like a warm heavy blanket that pushes an overactive nervous system into a state of rest. It has a strong downward moving energy, that is particularly welcome for when mental unrest continues past sunset. (2)
Hops also has traditional use as a digestive support tonic, due to its high content of intense bitters and overall sedative property on the nervous system. Bitters from plants such as hops, gentian and wormwood have a long history of use for jump-starting digestion and increasing secretion of digestive juices throughout the gastrointestinal tract. Interestingly, our tongue has bitter receptors on it which are interfaced with the nervous system—that when activated cause the digestive system to prepare for the presence of food. Even the taste of bitter alone is thought to activate the parasympathetic nervous system “rest and digest” function through stimulating the Vagus nerve (the key connection between the central nervous system and digestive nervous system).
Hops has a long history of use specifically for “nervous stomach” or when digestion is upset by chronic stress and mental overactivity. Through its strong bitter and aromatic components, it is thought to stimulate saliva, digestive juices and help intestinal muscles with states of indigestion, bloating, poor appetite or other signs that the digestive process is weakened. (2)
Preparation & Dosage
Dried hops flower is typically prepared as a hot infusion, tincture or used as a key ingredient in brewing beer.
For hot infusion, hops flowers should sit in boiled water for at least 30 minutes for maximum potency. Typically, anywhere from 5-10g of dried hops can be used, to make a strong digestive bitter or a nightcap. (3)
To tincture this herb, simply put ground up dried hops in a solution of your alcohol of choice, and let sit for 1 month, shaking up daily. Typically 1 part of hops (in grams) to about 5-8 parts of alcohol (in ml) is a good amount to tincture with, with that said make sure that the alcohol at least covers the plant material by about an inch in the container you leave it in (large mason jars work great for this). At the end of the month strain out the hops plant material and you have a ready-made tincture for yourself! Typically, a teaspoon or so of the tincture is used, or 1-3 ml (few dropperfuls).
Thanks for reading, I hope this has given you appreciation for how a seemingly common herb used to flavor beers has a rich tradition of healing use! So, go on and enjoy your IPA’s craft beer lovers, they’re medicinal ;)
Resources & Further Reading:
1) Margaret Grieve. A Modern Herbal. Published in 1931. Accessed online at https://botanical.com/botanical/mgmh/mgmh.html
2) Matthew Wood. The Earthwise Herbal Vol 1. 2008. Published by North Atlantic Books.
3) Peter Holmes. The Energetics of Western Herbs Vol 2. 1983. Snow Lotus Press