Is beer good for you?

Dr. Fred Stevens recently discussed the structure and function of xanthohumol while holding a molecular model of the compound with Oregon State University graduate student Ines Paraiso.

As you kick back with a cold glass of beer on these late summer days, you’re probably not thinking much about scientific research. However, there are fascinating studies underway regarding an extract from hops that might prove useful in preventing or easing various medical conditions.

Xanthohumol (zan-tho-hue-moll), a compound found in hops and beer, is the focus of research at the Linus Pauling Institute and the College of Pharmacy at Oregon State University and at S.S. Steiner Inc., the Yakima Valley affiliate of the international Hopsteiner company. Scientists are looking at the potential for everything from cancer prevention to improving glucose tolerance, while studying ways to increase the concentration of the compound in hops.

But before you get too excited and start toting home extra kegs, consider this caution: “Just drinking beer has no therapeutic effects as far as I know,” said Dr. Fred Stevens, a principal investigator with the Linus Pauling Institute. In excess, the calories and alcohol in beer can even have a negative impact, he said. Xanthohumol is being studied only in a concentrated form, with a single dose that could be equivalent to drinking 175 liters — or more than 350 pints per day, Stevens explained.

It’s the latest chapter in the age-old interest in potential medicinal effects of alcohol or its components. WebMD’s Medscape site reports that clay vessels found in China and dating as far back as 7000-6000 B.C. appear to prove early uses of alcohol.

“Alcohol-based herbal remedies are a part of all major Chinese works on herbal prescriptions and medicine …,” the site goes on to say. The “oldest known brewery,” dating to about 3400 B.C., is believed to have been in Egypt, where “both beer and wine were integral to ritualistic life, tied to health and religion.” Moving on to the Renaissance and Enlightenment periods, “there was a continued belief in the restorative and medicinal properties of beer and wine … ” Medscape notes.

Today, the saga continues. Hopsteiner maintains more than 4,000 acres of the Golden Gate Hop Ranches around Granger, Mabton and Prosser in the Lower Yakima Valley, said Dr. Paul Matthews, a biochemical geneticist with the company. Here, they grow and handle hops to market around the world. On this land, Matthews and a team of about 10 people perform studies in experimental fields, striving to develop more sustainable hops with disease resistance, unique flavor and a higher content of the xanthohumol compound, to help lower the cost of the substance.

“I joined Hopsteiner to work on it (xanthohumol), because it looks so promising,” said Matthews, who was hired by the company 18 years ago and has been featured in publications such as The New Yorker for his leading research.

While Hopsteiner grows the hops, researches ways to increase xanthohumol content, and provides financial support for biomedical research, it is Dr. Stevens and his associates in the Linus Pauling Institute and the Oregon State University College of Pharmacy who do the hands-on biomedical research.

Stevens, who came to the United States in 1995 from the Netherlands, is internationally known for his research and has authored or co-authored more than 130 scientific papers. He also serves as a professor of pharmaceutical sciences and associate dean for research in the OSU College of Pharmacy. Stevens and Hopsteiner have a longstanding working relationship.

Stevens’ studies on xanthohumol focus on the anti-inflammatory properties of the compound, which is in some ways similar to curcumin (an extract which has been much discussed in recent years), he said.

“Many diseases are driven by chronic inflammation,” Dr. Stevens explained. Xanthohumol was first discovered, or “isolated,” in hops in 1913. The compound makes up only about 1 percent of hops. A variety of scientific papers were issued in the 1990s and first years of this century on potential medical applications.

Now, there are both “preclinical” and clinical studies on the compound underway at Linus Pauling institute and the College of Pharmacy, in partnership with the National University of Natural Medicine in Portland, Ore. Scientists are looking at something called “metabolic syndrome” which Stevens describes as a “set of conditions’’ that can lead to diseases such as diabetes and heart disease including high blood pressure.

Bottom line, xanthohumol is showing promise in reducing inflammation, which can promote such illnesses, plus improving glucose tolerance. It also may help with cirrhosis of the liver and intestinal disease. The compound may even inhibit enzymes in the body which are responsible for activating cancer-causing agents.

As research continues, some dietary supplements that contain this intriguing natural substance are already on the market. However, such a supplement might only have between one and five milligrams of the compound, while a research dose would equate to more like 175 or even 350 milligrams per day, Stevens said.

A quick phone check of two Beems Nutrition stores, Mill Creek Natural Foods and a GNC store, both in Yakima, failed to find any xanthohumol products in stock. One store representative, however, qualified this by saying that they had “thousands of products” and she just wasn’t sure.

Online, an array of xanthohumol products are advertised, ranging from capsules to “softgels,” powders and extracts, in varying strengths. In addition, some beers such as “Xan Wellness” (no longer produced), from Germany, have attempted formulas with a higher xanthohumol content. However, consumers should use caution and check with their own physicians before experimenting with products, the experts advise.

Meantime, the studies go on.

“I’ve worked with it (xanthohumol) now for 20 years,” Stevens said. “Every time we’ve found a positive effect … I’m very excited about the research.”

Although one medical product is available for intestinal issues, for other medical conditions, “it will take a long time before we can see xanthohumol being used on prescription,” Dr. Stevens said. However, he added, if the price of the compound comes down, “then supplements with higher doses of xanthohumol will be more likely to appear on the market sooner.” And that’s where Yakima Valley researchers could play a part.

So, next time you hoist a glass of beer, make a toast to the Yakima Valley hop industry and its role in significant medical research.