Just in time for football season, there’s good news about beer. According to a study in the Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry, a compound in hops could protect the brain against Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s diseases.
Hops are what give beer its bitter, malty flavor, but its use isn’t limited to breweries. It also has a long history in herbal medicine, dating back to the 9th century in both Europe and Asia. Hops have been used to treat variety of ailments ranging from improper digestion to leprosy.
Hops are the female flowers of the hop plant, or Humulus lupulus. These plants grow in temperate climates in the northern hemisphere, appearing in North America, Europe, and Asia. Once hops became an important ingredient for beer manufacturers, scientists began looking at what effects it can have on the body. The most common areas of study for hops include anxiety, sleep disorders, menstrual symptoms, and cancer treatment.
Researcher Jianguo Fang and colleagues already knew that oxidative damage plays a role in brain diseases. They speculated that they could thwart or at least delay brain diseases if they could protect brain cells, or neurons.
Fang’s team wanted to study xanthohumol, a compound found in hops, because it has been hailed for its anti-cancer, anti-oxidation, and heart protective properties. It’s also known for its antiviral and anti-inflammatory capabilities. Xanthohumol is a flavonoid, a family of compounds that has antioxidant effects.
In their lab tests on rats, Fang’s team noticed that xanthohumol protected neuronal cells. They said that xanthohumol showed a moderate ability to neutralize reactive oxygen species (ROS). When we take in oxygen, it’s metabolized into ROS, which are messenger molecules that can regulate signaling in cell activity — including cell death.
Despite the health benefits of xanthohumol, that’s no excuse to guzzle beer. As is the case with almost everything, moderation is key. Fang said the amount of beer that would need to be consumed to enjoy the benefits of xanthohumol is less than one cup. Fang said certain brews have more xanthohumol than others, especially some dark beers.
Beer isn’t the only place to find xanthohumol. Xanthohumol is also in some soft drinks, such as Julmust and Malta. Fang’s research team is hoping their study paves the way for more research on how xanthohumol can protect human brains from Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s, as well as other brain disorders.
Last year, Oregon State University researchers reported in the Behavioral Brain Research journal that xanthohumol can boost cognitive function in young mice, but not in older animals.
Another 2014 study found that the antioxidant polyphenols in hops — known as bracts — could fight cavities and gum disease. The research, also published in the Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry, showed that the antioxidant-rich bracts in hops are discarded during the farming process. That leaves a lot of potentially beneficial bracts to be used for dental health.
Beer could also be helpful for staving off rheumatoid arthritis (RA), according to a study published last year in Arthritis & Rheumatology. Researchers found a link between moderate drinking over the long-term and a reduced risk of RA.
A 2010 study in the Journal of the Science of Food and Agriculture reported that beer is a significant source of dietary silicon, which is important for boosting bone mineral density. The year before, scientists reported at an American Association for Cancer conference that xanthohumol is able to block the effects of testosterone, which may help in prostate cancer prevention.
Anecdotal evidence that hops have potential to help with sleep started emerging long ago. In Europe, people began noticing that field workers cultivating the hop plant tended to fall asleep on the job more than usual. The job was no more physically demanding than any other field work, so people began to wonder: are hops sedative? While hops did seem to have a calming effect on people who were exposed to them, early studies found no solid evidence to support the claims.
More recent studies have taken a closer look at hops and their effect on anxiety and sleep disorders, which often go hand in hand. Several scientific studies have found evidence to support the sedative claims that Europeans observed many years ago. While the findings have been mostly favorable, scientists haven’t quite discovered why.