Hop to It
IPAs or lagers, stouts or saisons—all your favorite beers lend their distinct flavors to the hop plant, but new research from Oregon State University suggests hops can play an important role in fighting cancer.

High in sugar and carbs, alcohol and its consumption is best avoided for those in treatment for cancer. Not only is sugar cancer’s preferred fuel, helping cancerous cells to multiply, but drinking alcohol raises the risk of getting cancers of the mouth, throat, liver, colon and rectum, breast, and others, according to the American Cancer Society (ACS). This is because alcohol causes damage to body tissues, acting as an irritant and causing inflammation. Alcohol can also lead to weight gain and affect how the body absorbs nutrients — two factors that are directly linked to cancer. ACS recommends people who drink limit themselves to two drinks per day for men and one drink per day for women in order to offset this increased risk of cancer.

But there is some good news — a recent study from Oregon State University has shown that hops, the main ingredient in beer creating the distinct flavor and color to your favorite lager, may have opened a new avenue in
cancer research.

A March 2019 study from Oregon State University published in the International Journal of Molecular Sciences found that certain compounds produced by hops inhibit cancer cell growth. But this isn’t the first time hops have been studied for use in cancer treatment. According to the study, hops have been a player in cancer research for more than 20 years due to the compound xanthohumol, or XN. Known as a “prenylated flavonoid,” XN occurs naturally in hops. Prenylated flavonoids are compounds found in plants with antibacterial, anti-inflammatory and antioxidant effects on the body, according to a May 2014 study in the journal Pharmaceutical Biology.

Dr. Sashini Seeni, a general practitioner of medicine at DoctorOnCall, explains XN’s anti-cancer effects by email: “[XN is] cytotoxic or an apoptosis (cell death) trigger. The cytotoxic trait means it directly poisons and kills these cancer cells and maybe other normal cells around it.” Seeni says apoptosis is programmed cell death. “In normal cells, when the cells have abnormalities, they will undergo apoptosis to avoid dysfunction” says Seeni.

Cancerous cells have become so because they’ve lost the ability to undergo apoptosis, either through genetic abnormalities, inflammation or any other factor that leads to defective functioning of the cell cycle. XN can possibly fix the cell dysfunction that causes cancer and the metastasis of tumors. However, Seeni notes, “[we’re] still in the experimental stage to figure out the exact mechanism of how xanthohumol can induce this property back into the cells.”

While XN may have been found to inhibit cancer cell growth, it also metabolizes into “8-PN” — what the Oregon State study called “the most potent phytoestrogen currently known.” Phytoestrogens are similar to female sex horomones and help some tumors grow — the opposite of XN’s desirable effects. However, XN derivatives dihydroxanthohumol (DXN) and tetrahydroxanthohumol (TXN) do not metabolize into 8-PN. This is why the Oregon State study focused on XN-derivatives DXN and TXN compounds found to induce apoptosis in some cancers, functioning similarly to XN. “Our findings suggest that DXN and TXN could show promise as therapeutic agents against colorectal and liver cancer in preclinical studies without the drawback of metabolism into a phytoestrogen,” the study states.

A March 2019 study from Oregon State University published in the International Journal of Molecular Sciences found that certain compounds produced by hops inhibit cancer cell growth.

Phytoestrogens can be dangerous because they can increase a person’s risk for developing hormone-dependent cancers. “In the host, 8-PN acts as a strong agonist for estrogen receptors located in cells throughout the body,” the study states. Hormone-dependent cancers include breast and colorectal cancers, among others. But as DXN and TXN do not metabolize into 8-PN, they do not carry the same potential for harm presenting exciting opportunities for future studies.

According to the World Health Organization, liver and colorectal cancers are both on the list for top-five cancers causing death — in 2018, colorectal cancer accounted for 862,000 deaths and liver cancer accounted for 782,000 deaths. This is why breakthroughs in treatment for these increasingly prevalent cancers is so important.

The cancer-fighting compounds aren’t the only benefit found in these hardy little buds. While the phytoestrogens found in hops may be cause for concern for some cancer fighters, these very compounds can help treat disorders that affect a major percentage of the population. A 2006 study from the journal Phytomedicine notes that hops have a well-established record in treating anxiety and insomnia. And these healthful effects are further supported by a rich history of cultivation for medicinal and not-so medicinal use. The Phytomedicine study notes that hops are at a “higher state of evolution compared with many other botanicals.” Why? Because if there is one thing humankind has longed to perfect, it’s a delicious glass of beer.

Due to recent successes in studying the cancer-fighting compounds in hops, the likelihood of additional research is promising. Hops have been cultivated for thousands of years. They have been used to brew beer since at least the ninth century, and their medicinal properties have emerged over time. It is because the hop is so integral to our everyday life — beer drinker or not — that we already know so much about this humble little plant. “Given the history of long-term and present use in humans with no significant adverse effects, an initial hypothesis is that hops are safe,” says the Phytomedicine study. Safe for the health-conscious, the esteemed brewer, and, hopefully soon enough, the cancer fighter.



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