Can hops help reduce the risk of breast cancer?

By John Murphy, MDLinx
Published July 15, 2016

Key Takeaways

Can hops, the ingredient that gives beer a bit of bitterness, be used to prevent breast cancer? That’s the finding from a study that tested a hop extract to lessen estrogen metabolism in post-menopausal women. This modulated effect on estrogen lowered breast cancer risk, according the study published online in the journal Chemical Research in Toxicology.

In recent years, some women have turned to dietary supplements of hop extracts as a “natural and safe” alternative to hormone replacement therapy (HRT) for relieving their postmenopausal symptoms. Although HRT is the conventional treatment for treating postmenopausal symptoms, extended use of the estrogens in HRT is linked with increased breast cancer risk, the researchers noted.

A prior study by these researchers suggested that hop extracts can also modulate the estrogen carcinogenesis pathway. For this study, they tested a hop extract enriched with key bioactive compounds on two different breast cell lines to find out what effect these would have on estrogen metabolism.

One compound, 6-prenylnarigenin (6-PN), enhanced the estrogen detoxification pathway in both breast cell lines.

“We need to further explore this possibility, but our results suggest that 6-PN could have anti-cancer effects,” said lead investigator Judy L. Bolton, PhD, Professor and Head of Medicinal Chemistry and Pharmacognosy at University of Illinois at Chicago’s (UIC) College of Pharmacy, in Chicago, IL.

So, because hops are an ingredient in beer, will drinking beer help prevent breast cancer? Don’t belly up to the bar and order a round just yet, Dr. Bolton cautioned.

“The hops extract we used is what is thrown away when making beer,” she said. “These compounds will be in beer, but the levels would be very low and probably have no effect on women’s health.”

In fact, she said, even commercial hops supplements may not have enough 6-PN to provide the protective breast cancer effect. (The hop extract used in her study was custom made with high levels of 6-PN and other key compounds.)

“It’s an important point and brings up one of the major problems with the dietary supplement industry, which is a lack of standardization of extracts to bioactive compounds,” Dr. Bolton said. “A major goal of our UIC/NIH Botanical Dietary Supplements Center is to standardize botanical extracts used for women’s health to their active compounds.”

In other words, supplement responsibly.

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