Hops are used for more than just beer. In fact, they are one of the most widely cultivated plants and make a beneficial essential oil, containing a combination of terpenes which include humulene, myrcene, and caryophyllene. These three terpenes give the essential oil a powerful aroma and range of health benefits.1
The History of Hops
Both hops essential oil and the plant have been used around the world for hundreds of years. Documentation of hops cultivation dates back to 736 AD in the Hallertau region of Germany, while the first records of using hops in the brewing of beer begin in the late 11th century. Though hops are best known for their role as a source of flavor in brewing beer, providing a citrus or bitter flavor, they have also been used in herbal teas, soft drinks, and herbal remedies.2
In the past, public perception of hops differed depending on the region of the world. In the early 16th century, Britain saw hops as a “wicked weed” and condemned its use, and it was almost completely banned in Norwich in the late 15th century. In Germany, on the other hand, use of hops became an act of rebellion by German Princes at the start of the Reformation, protesting the Catholic Church’s taxation on gruit, a mixture of herbs and botanicals used to flavor and preserve beer.3
While today brewing remains the most common use for hops, it is also found in a range of supplements and remedies marketed for sleep and relaxation. The essential oil derived from hops is an important component of many aromatherapy treatments.
Hops are climbing perennials that take up a considerable amount of space, often made to grow up and along strings in large fields. Hop vines must grow at least 15 feet before they produce side shoots with cones, but can grow up to a foot a day and as tall as 40 feet in a single season. Though each vine of the plant can be either male or female, only the female vine produces the cones (flowers) used for hops.
Hops contains a combination of proteins, nutrients, water, cellulose, alpha acids, beta acids, terpenes, and flavonoids. Each of these elements play key roles in the different uses for hops. For example, alpha acids provide beer with its bitter taste during brewing and are likely responsible for the relaxing effect of hops.4
Composition of Hops
Hops oil contains the terpenes myrcene, humulene, and caryophyllene. Each of these terpenes is found in other commonly cultivated plants and are used in health and beauty products.
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Myrcene is used most often in perfumes as it is thought to have a pleasant smell, though it most often appears in combination with other terpenes to create balance. Because myrcene molecules spontaneously combine to form larger molecules in the air, it is usually stabilized with other compounds before use in products. It can also be converted into myrcenol, an important part of the lavender fragrance.5
Humulene is abundant in hops essential oil, making up between 25 and 40 percent. A particular variety of the hops plant known as “noble hop” has a significantly higher concentration of humulene and varieties known as “bitter hops” have much lower humulene levels. Humulene is currently being studied for its potential anti-inflammatory properties.
The third terpene, caryophyllene, is also found in black pepper and is considered the source of its spiciness. It is found in cloves, basil, lavender, cinnamon, and oregano, and has been studied extensively for its anti-inflammatory properties.
Uses for Hops
Hops oil is most often used as a source for pain relief. Its combination of anti-inflammatory and sedative properties make it one of the best essential oils for this purpose. The oil can primarily be used topically or via aromatherapy for pain relief. However, a few drops added to an herbal tea can also be used for mild pain relief.
The hops essential oil can be mixed with a carrier oil and applied topically to the area in pain in order to create a powerful pain-fighting effect. For example, massaging the hops oil mixture on the temples can relieve a headache or a migraine, while massaging the oil into the muscles can alleviate pain after exercise or a long day at work.
Placing the oil in a diffuser as part of an aromatherapy treatment can provide general mild pain relief with the added, more noticeable sedative effect. It is best to use this method shortly before heading to sleep to allow for a full night’s rest undisturbed by muscle or joint aches.6
Hops oil is also used as a natural treatment for the pain associated with menstrual cramps. The sedative properties cause the muscles in the area to relax, reducing overall discomfort.
Insomnia or Restlessness
Because of its sedative properties, thought to be caused by alpha acids, hops oil is one of the go-to natural remedies for insomnia or restlessness. Not only does it help with falling asleep, but it reduces stress and encourages relaxation, resulting in a more comfortable and peaceful sleep.
The best way to use hops oil as a sedative is through an essential oil diffuser. In diffusers, a small amount of oil is placed in the diffuser with water. The diffuser then runs through the night, creating a light mist with a combination of hops essential oil and water. Some diffusers, like advanced nebulizing diffusers and portable diffusers don’t require water to achieve the same effect. Traditional diffusers provide continual benefit from the properties of the essential oil throughout the night, while portable diffusers provide these benefits at any time.
Though hops cannot resolve all respiratory issues, it can help reduce the seriousness of many, and those that are caused by irritation and inflammation in the lungs in particular. The hops essential oil helps to relax and soothe irritated areas while its compound properties reduce inflammation.
Hops essential oil also has anti-viral properties, making it a powerful tool in fighting or preventing colds. For example, a nightly course of hops essential oil during the week could potentially eliminate a cold before it ruins your entire weekend. At the same time, reduction in irritation and inflammation can help reduce respiratory-related symptoms of the cold.
Once again, the best results come from using the oil in an aromatherapy session, usually with a diffuser. Alternatively, some people place a few drops of the oil on a cloth and place it near the drain while taking a hot shower. The oils join the steam in the shower, helping open up nasal passages and improving breathing.
Skin and Hair Health
Hops essential oil can be used to treat skin conditions, improve the appearance of skin, and improve hair health. In all these cases, the essential oil might be mixed with other oils or ingredients and then applied to the particular area.
The antiviral and anti-inflammatory properties in hops essential oil are known to reduce skin irritation as well as symptoms of psoriasis. By combining the oil with small amount of water, the solution can be applied topically to the skin in the affected area.
Certain volatile compounds in hops oil react with hair follicles in ways that make for stronger, thicker, and better-looking hair. A natural hair treatment can be made using hops essential oil, apple cider vinegar, and water.
Stress and Anxiety
The relaxing and sedative qualities of hops essential oil is what it is best known for. It is a powerful nervine and works wonders on stress-related conditions and nervous tension. The use of essential oils is steadily becoming one of the most popular stress control techniques.
The antiviral and anti-inflammatory properties of hops oil make it good for fighting ulcers. However, it is most effective when combined with other essential oils that have antibacterial properties, such as peppermint or lavender.
Safety and Precautions
No essential oil is without potential risks. Hops essential oil should always be used in moderation and never consumed directly. It is important to always add only small drops to drinks, carrier oils, or diffusers. Hops oil contains some volatile compounds. Individuals with sensitive skin should be careful with the amount of oil they use.
Though hops is a plant that most of the world associates with brewing beer, its use and benefits are much more widespread. With the long list of benefits mentioned above, hops deserves a spot in your aromatherapy routine.