Medicinal Hops for Health Benefits

While we know it best for the bitter flavor it imparts to beer, we celebrate hops as an increasingly valuable herbal medicine – and as the 2018 International Herb of the Year.

Step into a hop field and you will witness a gorgeous feat of herbal engineering. Whether flourishing in towering lush columns or luxuriously sprawled on garden trellises, Humulus lupulus displays strength and beauty. Pungent and sharp, hops’ unique bouquet creates an impression, while its remarkable medicinal properties have stood the test of centuries. It’s no wonder that The International Herb Association has chosen hops as 2018’s Herb of the Year.

Garden Growth

Many folks are surprised to learn that Humulus lupulus is a member of the Cannabinaceae family, a small group of aromatic flowering plants that includes the cannabis genus. Both share some similar sedative characteristics; however, hops have a much milder effect. Native to Northern Europe, hops was widely cultivated for beer brewing, with England’s southeastern region once the largest exporter. An introduced species to Scotland and Ireland hops now thrives in most countries throughout the northern hemisphere, Asia, and Australia.

Growing from a stout branched root, Humulus is a hardy perennial and vigorous climber, reaching at least 20 feet in a growing season. Its fibrous yet flexible stems contain downward-pointing bristles that facilitate its twining growth, placing hops in the category of “bine” instead of a vine. Rough and stalked, its dark-green serrated leaves are heart-shaped and often lobed. Lower leaves are opposite; upper leaves exhibit single or alternate leaf patterns.

Being dioecious {male or female}, both plants are needed for pollination. Female plants produce catkins or strobiles one-and-a-quarter-inch lovely, yellow-green oblong bracts with papery overlapping scales. Inside these bracts, glands hold powdery, golden pollen containing lupulin, the source of hop’s bitter character. Hops are harvested at summer’s end for brewing and medicine.

Hops prefer partial to full sun and deep rich soil, growing in Zones 5-10. Plant them in rows 7-8 feet apart, training the bines to climb lines or other supported structures. Cut back bines to the ground every fall after harvest. If you’re cultivating it for home use, be careful. Hops are very invasive.

Hops in History

The name Humulus lupulus is believed to originate from humus {rich soil} and lupulus, from the Latin lupus, meaning wolf. Its common name hops derive from the Anglo-Saxon hoppan, meaning “to climb.”

Scientists discovered its distinct yellow pollen in excavated prehistoric sites in Britain, revealing its use by ancient people. Hops grew in popularity over the centuries, in part because of medieval beer brewers, who began using the strobiles in the 19th-century. Before hops, brewers used “gruit,” a mix of bitter aromatic herbs such as mugwort, ground ivy, dandelion, and wormwood to flavor their ale. When brewers discovered that hops preserved the ale while imparting a pleasant flavor, they soon began to replace these other herbs. Rumors also circulated that some gruit contained hallucinogenic, aphrodisiacal herbs {perhaps due to the thujone content found in wormwood}, while hops tended to quell the male libido, making it “safer” to consume. By the 14th-century, brewers used hops almost exclusively. The rest of northern Europe adopted this practice, sparking the large-scale cultivation of hops that still exists today.

Hops were not without its detractors, however. Henry VI and Henry VIII both banned it, calling it a “wicked weed that spoils the taste of the drink and endangers the people.” Hildegard von Bingen wrote that hops were “not very useful in benefiting man because it makes melancholy grow and weighs down his inner organs.”

Despite its critics, hops were well-established for centuries as a medicinal herb, serving as a treatment for a myriad of symptoms. Medicinal beers or “draughts” were brewed with hops and other herbs to ease pain and settle nerves and digestion. In 1653, Nicholas Culpepper recommended hops for the “heat of the liver and stomach” as well as for skin infections and headache. In England, they combined it with bread to make a poultice for stubborn sores and ulcers. Pillows of hops were prescribed to guide some of our most distinguished world leaders off to dreamland, including King George III and Abraham Lincoln.

English and Dutch colonists brought European hops to North America in 1629, where Native American tribes were already using our wild species, Humulus lupulus var. lupuloides in warm poultices for an earache and dental pain, and to ease the discomfort of pneumonia. A tea from the blossoms provided sedation and relief from intestinal pain, fever, and urinary disorders.

The United States Pharmacopoeia {1831-1916} listed hops as a treatment for anxiety, but it was used for almost every ill: as an external poultice to relieve chest colds, internally for bronchitis, and inhaled for sore throats. Mixed with lobelia and thornapple {Datura stramonium or jimsonweed} it remedied constipation. As a tea, it relieved headaches, menstrual pain, indigestion, and cystitis. A hops mouthwash targeted thrush, and flannels dipped in a hot infusion served as a compress for mumps. More strangely, people applied hops in heated bags to the wrists and feet to sweat fevers and sometimes fried it in lard to apply if for breast pain.

Hops Stranger Side

For generations, folk remedies included hops. It was believed that placing a hops-filled pillow under your bed would alleviate rheumatism, and women wore an amulet bag filled with hops around the neck to prevent morning sickness. One interesting custom suggested visiting a hops vine for seven consecutive mornings and biting the end of a shoot to cure epilepsy.

Traditional lore associated hops with sleep, dreams, and protection against bewitchment. Often people blamed malevolent forces and night visitations for their interrupted sleep and nightmares, and hops-filled pillows yet again came to the rescue, sometimes combined with other sedative herbs to promote peaceful sleep and ward off night terrors. Mothers would wash nursery room floors with a strong infusion of hops to help fussy children sleep through the night. Burning the herb at night also served to ward off evil spirits. Mixing hops and calendula flowers in a pillow would grant the sleeper dreams of lucky numbers. Combined with other “dreamy” herbs like mugwort and lavender, hops could stimulate vivid imagery and promote dream recall. In Celtic folklore, hops were connected to the wolf spirit, used to both conjure and tame this wild energy.

Modern Medicine

If beer makes you sleepy, blame it on the hops. Its soporific, nervine effect is a go-to remedy when nothing else works for stubborn insomnia. Hops relax the whole nervous system, calming anxiety, stress, and even nervous digestive disorders, thanks to its components humulone and lupulone, which mimic the active chemical in valium. In 2013, a study from the Indian Journal of Pharmacology found that hops combined with valerian and passionflower had an equal effect on sleep latency {the amount of time it takes to fall asleep}, sleep length, and night-waking as zolpidem [AAmbien}. And it’s considered a safe short-term alternative.


Aromatic and bitter hops is a classic digestive remedy. Because it stimulates gastric juices, it promotes healthy appetite and assimilation, while its antispasmodic and anti-inflammatory properties relax the smooth muscles to ease painful gas and cramping, especially when associated with anxiety. This bitter property also makes it an excellent hepatic, increasing the flow of bile and toning the liver, encouraging optimal function. Traditionally, a cold infusion of hops was taken one hour before a meal to activate absorption, and sherry steeped in hops created a superb vintage digestif.

Hops’ antibacterial and antiseptic properties have been a proven, time-honored remedy in eradicating intestinal parasites in humans and livestock.

Hormone Balance:

A 2016 study conducted by the midwifery department of Tabriz University in Iran confirmed the traditional use of hops for hormonal difficulties. A randomized placebo control group used to evaluate Humulus extract on menopausal symptoms found that women taking the extract had significantly fewer hot flashes than women in the placebo group. Researchers concluded that hops can be an effective treatment for early menopausal symptoms.

Yet these hormonal virtues aren’t limited to women. Preliminary research in Germany discovered that the flavanoid called xanthohumol found in hops blocks testosterone, thought to be a contributing factor in the onset of prostate cancer, prompting further investigation.

Pain Relief:

Less well known are the anodyne {pain-relieving} qualities of hops. Myrcene, humulene, and caryophyllene, the primary terpine properties in the herb, work together to provide anti-inflammatory and analgesic action. Combined with valerian, hops has made its way into traditional cough syrups to alleviate pain and calm spasmodic coughs that can accompany colds, flu, and allergies. Hops may be used internally and externally as a poultice or compress to soothe the inflammation and discomfort from cramps {including menstrual cramping}, and the pain of arthritis, earaches, and dental issues.

Wound Healing and More:

Topically, a hops poultice effectively alleviates chronic skin inflammations, mild wounds, ringworm, eczema, and painful swelling. In 2014, researchers found that the bracts of the hops strobile contain antioxidants that inhibit the dental bacteria responsible for cavities and gum disease. Recently, hops has become a trendy addition to natural deodorants for eliminating odor-causing microbes.

Essential Oil of Hops:

Sharp, bitter, earthy, and the hints of citrus, essential oil {EO} of hops is intriguing. The terpines concentrated in the oil create a highly antiseptic, anti-inflammatory, sedating, and pain-relieving action. For inhalation, hops EO works best when diffused, calming nerves, insomnia, and respiratory issues. To boost its effectiveness on sleeplessness, apply several drops to your pillowcase. For topical pain relief or to alleviate skin irritations, add a few drops to a soothing salve, carrier oil, or unscented lotion. Because its fragrance may not appeal to everyone, hops blends well with citrus oils, balsams, pines, nutmeg [also excellent for insomnia}, and spicy scents.

Hops Flower Essence:

To those needing a boost of self-esteem, youthful energy, and balance, hops flower essence imparts its exuberance and robust “personality.” Hops renew enthusiasm for living, creativity, new ideas, and travel while keeping one focused and centered. Great for overactive, frenetic minds, the herb helps to corral scattered energy, providing a feeling of control. Hops flower essence is wonderful for adults and adolescents who experience chronic over-stimulation, but also fatigue caused by this long-term, jittery stress.


Pregnant and nursing women, prepubescent children, those with estrogen-sensitive diseases, and those on hormonal medications should avoid hops due to its phytoestrogen content. This herb is contraindicated in people suffering from depression. Hops may interfere with sedative medications and alcohol.

Throughout history, hops has been a venerable staple in home remedies. The next time you’re struggling with sleep, anxiety, or a case of nervous digestion, consider reaching for hops. This time-tested herb may just provide the relief you need.

Here are 4 recipes for you to try. We use all at our home remedy apothecary:

Digestive Hops and Herbs Vinegar

In this recipe, we temper strong hops and dandelion with chamomile and warming ginger for a vinegar that you can use as a mild digestive bitter or add to vegetables and salads. Use malt vinegar for sweetness [hops and malt are a traditional combination} or apple-cider vinegar for a crisper taste.

1 part hops {to taste}

1 part chamomile {to taste}

1/2 part dandelion leaf

1/4 part dry ginger root

1/8 part dried orange peel

Malt or apple-cider vinegar

In a glass jar combine herbs and cover to top with vinegar. Cap with a plastic or glass cover {vinegar is corrosive}. Store in a warm place for one to five days, shaking often, and testing for desired strength. Starin and bottle. Keep in the refrigerator for up to a year.

Sleep-Well Tincture

In combination, hops and valerian create a powerful sleep remedy. The addition of passionflower and skullcap quiets overactive minds and relaxes the body. Use this during bouts of insomnia to help facilitate peaceful, restorative sleep.

1 part hops

1 part valerian root

1/2 part passionflower

1/2 part skullcap

Combine herbs in a canning jar of your choice and cover with your favorite 80- to 100-proof alcohol to the top and cover. Store in a warm, dark place, shaking often, for four to six weeks. Strain and bottle. Dose: 20-30 drops one hour before bed and again upon retiring. Repeat dosage if you awake during the night. Use for up to two weeks.

Hoppy Lemon-Honey Simple Syrup

Try this for a bittersweet zesty cocktail, aperitif, or with mineral water. For extra zing, add a pinch of freshly grated ginger.

1/2 cup water

1/2 cup honey

2 Tbls dried hops

1 tsp fresh lemon zest

Combine water and honey over low heat until well-mixed. Add hops and lemon zest. Remove from the heat, stir, cover, and steep 30 minutes. Test; if you prefer a stronger flavor, steep longer.

Slumber Pillow

Get creative with this craft pillow, using different fabrics. These pillows also make great gifts for loved ones struggling to find sleep.

2 parts dried hops

2 parts dried lavender

2 parts dried mugwort

1 part dried chamomile

1 part dried roses

1/2 part dried marjoram

1/2 part dried catnip

Combine these aromatic, relaxing herbs and spoon into a 4 x 4-inch pillowcase, muslin bag, or sock. Secure the open side and place next to your pillow at bedtime for calming sleep and pleasant dreams.