Anecdotal stories of hop farmers falling asleep on the job raised awareness of the sleep-promoting power of hops (Humulus lupulus) that are used in nearly every type of beer. Although drinking alcohol to help you sleep is not a good idea, hops do appear to have natural sedative properties that may promote sleep.
A 2012 study investigated whether non-alcoholic beer brewed with hops would have a sedative effect on a work-stressed population. Researchers recruited 17 healthy female nurses who worked at least one night shift each week and reported high levels of stress.
The study took place over three weeks and sleep was measured using wrist-worn actimeters which measured activity and rest. Questionnaires were used to measure stress and anxiety. The first week served as the control week. During the second and third weeks, participants drank 330 ml (11 oz.) of alcohol-free beer each night with their evening meal.
Researchers found that during the two-week period when the alcohol-free beer was consumed, participants moved far less frequently during the night. This suggests that sleep quality improved after consumption of the alcohol-free beer.
The study also found that the time it took to fall asleep dropped from an average of 20 minutes during the control period to just 12 minutes when the alcohol-free beer was consumed. Anxiety levels also fell during the two week intervention period.
Why do hops appear to promote sleepiness?
Hops are thought to increase the activity of gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA) — a neurotransmitter that promotes relaxation and sleep. In fact, popular sleeping pills such as zolpidem (Ambien) work by increasing the activity of GABA by helping the neurotransmitter bind to receptors in the brain.
As pointed out by the authors of this study, hops have also been found to influence serotonin production — a neurotransmitter than influences sleep regulation, melatonin production, and mood.
The benefit of hops without the beer
Since alcohol is best avoided before bed, and because not all of us enjoy non-alcoholic beer (or beer in general), there are other ways to enjoy the benefits of hops.
Hop supplements for sleep
Hop supplements that also include valerian have been found to improve sleep. A 2007 study found that 500 mg of valerian extract combined with 120 mg of hop extract helped participants fall asleep faster compared to a placebo or valerian extract alone.
Hop tea for sleep
Hops are extremely bitter! If you want to make your own sleep tea, try an equal blend of hops with chamomile, and add a dash of honey.
Hop aromatherapy for sleep
The aroma of hops may be enough to improve sleep. The freshest hops will normally be found at homebrew stores, but some herbal retailers may be able to get hold of fresh hops. You can make your own hop pillow or simply stuff a handful of fresh hops into a sock and keep it near your bed. A number of ready-made essential oil blends for sleep also include hop extract.
Although more research needs to be done before we can consider hops to be a remedy for sleep disorders such as insomnia, there does appear to be mounting evidence that they can promote relaxation — and the good news is, you don’t need to be a beer lover to enjoy the potential benefits!