Apologies to Pharrell and all who cringe at puns. But I am feeling both happy and hoppy today! It was my son’s first day back at school and the hops which entwine their way through the Life Lab fence were ripe for harvesting. Since Caprice, the lovely Life Lab doyenne allows me to pick from the garden, I paused on my way out with my scissors and quickly had a bag filled with fragrant strobiles, as their strange papery female blossoms are correctly known.
Most people could tell you that hops are what give beer its distinctive bitter taste, but it’s less commonly known that they are a useful and effective herbal remedy. One of the earliest known records of Humulus lupus being used in beer dates from the 11th Century when Abbess, herbalist, composer and all-round wonder woman, Hidegaard von Bingen wrote about their use. Previously a variety of different bitter herbs had been used to balance the sweetness of malt (not least Mugwort which gets its name from this practice: mug-wort = mug plant). Hops were found to be far more effective at preserving beer, due to their highly anti-microbial action. But we can be pretty sure that before anyone thought of adding hops to beer, the herb was already being used medicinally.
Modern day herbalists like myself principally use hops as a tea or tincture in sleep remedies. The strobiles are cooling and have excellent sedative properties. I tend to use a fairly small proportion in a sleep mix, usually about 10-20%, as they blend well with other herbs which relax the mind and body. The cooling nature of hops, together with their oestrogenic (estrogenic if you’re in the US) property makes hops a great choice in peri-menopause when hot flushes (or flashes) can lead to soaked sheets and disturbed sleep. It’s also traditional to include dried hops with other herbs such as lavender in a sleep pillow, which can be slipped inside a pillow-case to aid deep and restful sleep.
I also use hops from time to time for unexplained lower abdominal pain in women. It’s important to get any pain like this checked out by a doctor, but if, as sometimes happens, all the tests and scans come back clear and the pain persists, it can be helpful.
There are a couple of things to know before you take hops. Firstly, the condition charmingly known as ‘brewer’s droop’ is not just down to the alcohol in beer — just as hops are oestrogenic (and, indeed, there are saucy tales of hops’ aphrodisiac properties in female hop pickers of the 19th and early 20th century in Kent, England – ask me sometime and I’ll tell you…), for men, the plant can be a powerful AN-aphrodisiac, suppressing both desire and ability.
Something else I bear in mind before giving someone hops is that, in common with all UK-trained herbalists, I was taught never to give them in depression, which they have a reputation for exacerbating. I’ve had many conversations with colleagues over the years about where this came from, and there are some who disagree with this proscription. For myself, I suspect that the cooling, suppressing nature of hops makes them profoundly unsuitable in deep, dark, hopeless depression, but that they may actually be quite useful for the ‘hotter’ more anxiety-led kind. Depression is such a blanket term for a range of different symptoms. But there are lots of very effective sedative and relaxing herbs, so I generally steer towards avoiding their use in anyone who is depressed, and I’d strongly recommend similar caution if you are self-medicating with herbs.
If you’d like to see whether hops might help you have a better night, here is a recipe for a nighttime tea, to help soothe you to sleep. As ever, if you are on medication, have a serious illness or are pregnant or breastfeeding, talk to your doctor or a qualified herbalist before using herbs.
SWEET SLEEP TEA
½ tsp tsp Hops
1 tsp Passionflower
1 tsp Chamomile
½ tsp Lemon Balm
½ tsp Linden flower
A little honey to sweeten if liked
Place all the herbs in large warmed teapot. Pour over nearly-boiling water and cover with the lid. Steep for 5-10 minutes then strain and pour into a mug. Drink a cup an hour or so before bed then pour another cup to take to bed, you can drink a little and then have some beside the bed to drink if you wake in the night.