Wild lettuce is a plant that has been used for centuries in traditional medicine as a pain reliever.
A cousin of common lettuce, wild lettuce was often called “opium lettuce,” for its opium-like properties. It was traditionally used for whooping cough and for its sedative qualities.
In this article, we will look at the health benefits of wild lettuce, its safety, and its history.
Table of Contents
What is Wild Lettuce?
Wild lettuce is a biennial herb that is part of the Asteraceae family – the same family as sunflowers and daisies. The plant is indigenous to North Africa, West Asia, and Southwestern Europe, although you can now find it growing in many parts of the northern hemisphere.
The scientific name for wild lettuce is Lactuca virosa and it is commonly called bitter lettuce or lettuce opium. Although not interchangeable with common lettuce, they share some of the same active constituents.
In traditional medicine, wild lettuce was used for its pain-relieving and sedating effect on the body. As an infusion or tincture, it has been taken to encourage sleep, especially when rest is needed in relation to pain or an injury. It was also used as an antispasmodic (i.e. a muscle relaxer), specifically to ease dry coughs.
Modern research shows that the two primary sesquiterpene lactones present in the plant, lactucin, and lactucopicrin, may be responsible for the plant’s analgesic (pain-relieving) and sedating effects. This is why many people use wild lettuce for pain management.
Although wild lettuce can be toxic to humans in higher doses, hundreds of years of traditional use show that it can be supportive in lower doses.
Further, while there is a lack of human clinical trials looking at wild lettuce, animal studies and lab-based research on its active constituents point to Latuca virosa having a number of health benefits.
Health Benefits of Wild Lettuce:
Although there is limited research on Lactuca virosa, there are some animal studies that indicate that wild lettuce benefits health in a number of ways.
Below are some research-backed studies that involve wild lettuce or its isolated active constituents.
1. Sedating Properties
Various studies have shown that the active constituents in wild lettuce may have sedating properties. In fact, it was traditionally used as a natural sleep aid.
In an animal study, a crude preparation of wild lettuce helped to sedate/relax the body of mice. The extract that had the most potent effect was the latex from one-year-old plants.
In another trial, researchers found that lactucin and lactucopicrin work to slow the brain activity of mice. This relaxing effect could prove beneficial for improving sleep quality. Although these phytochemicals are present in Lactuca virosa, the specific compounds used in this study were isolated from chicory leaves and roots.
Researchers discovered that latex extracted for three different Lactuca spp. varieties had significant sedative effects on mice. While Lactuca virosa was not directly used in this study, it carries similar amounts of lactucin and lactucopicrin which were deemed responsible for the sleep-like effects. This study found that these phytochemicals may have an effect on sleep due to their affinity toward a GABAergic mechanism.
Another study using seed and leaf extracts from a species of Lactuca (Lactuca sativa) found that the extracts had sleep-potentiating activity. Lactucin was believed to exhibit the most potent sedative properties and greatest effect on sleep duration.
In the Eclectic Materia Medica (1922), a traditional herbal text, Dr. Felter mentions wild lettuce has calmative and hypnotic (i.e. sleep-inducing) effects. He states that wild lettuce could be useful for those that experience insomnia from over-working.
Highly esteemed herbalist Christopher Hobbs mentions that wild lettuce is a mild sedative and nervine. He further explains that wild lettuce has a calming effect and is best combined with other sedative herbs.
Summary:Traditional knowledge indicates that wild lettuce and its active constituents have sleeping-inducing properties. Initial animal trials seem to support this claim. Human clinical trials are needed to verify the benefits of wild lettuce for sleep.
2. Pain-Relieving Properties
Many individuals use wild lettuce for pain relief.
Traditional use and modern clinical research have demonstrated wild lettuce’s potential as an herb with analgesic (pain-relieving) effects.
An animal trial found that various extracts made from wild lettuce have analgesic properties. In the study, the mice were given 30mg of extract before being subjected to a hot plate test. The extract from the aerial parts prolonged the onset of a pain response by 119.7% and the extract from the roots prolonged the onset of a pain response by 103.3%.
In a study looking at lactucin and lactucopicrin, it was discovered that lactucopicrin demonstrated an analgesic effect on mice. A dose of 30mg exhibited the same pain-relieving effects as 60mg of ibuprofen.
David Hoffman, a highly-revered herbalist, mentions that wild lettuce can be a supportive pain-reliever for those with dysmenorrhea, rheumatism muscle pains, and colic pains.
Summary:Animal studies indicate that the phytochemicals in wild lettuce, namely lactucin and lactucopicrin, appear to have pain-relieving properties. Human clinical trials are needed to verify these findings.
3. Antitussive Properties
Due to its relaxing properties, it appears that wild lettuce may be beneficial as an antitussive (i.e. cough-relieving) herb.
Due to its muscle relaxing properties, Christopher Hobbs describes wild lettuce as a useful herb for cough medicine. Wild lettuce helps to relax the bronchioles, which works to remedy coughing.
Herbalist David Hoffman mentions that Lactuca virosa can be holistically helpful for those with whooping cough or any cough that is dry and irritated.
In 1814, a German physician documented several medical accounts of wild lettuce. He described the herb as being highly effective for reducing the spasmodic effects the cough has on the diaphragm. After administration, the cough was less violent and therefore prevented vomiting.
A pharmaceutical company in the 1930s isolated Lactucarium from wild lettuce and created an antitussive drug called Lactucyl. There was 0.2g of both lactucin and lactucopicrin in the drug which was deemed successful in supporting people with emphysema and tuberculosis.
Summary:Traditional usage indicates that wild lettuce has an antitussive effect. Human clinical trials are needed to verify this claim.
4. Additional Benefits
Wild lettuce was traditionally used for a variety of different disease states, including:
- For Surgical Anesthesia – In a 13th-century medical account in Arabia, a surgeon used wild lettuce (along with other herbs) as an anesthetic and pain reliever. An extract of the herbs was soaked into a sponge and held over the nose and mouth so the extract could be absorbed by the mucous membranes during surgery.
- As a Substitute for Opium – Herbalist Maude Grieve mentions that Lactuca virosa used to be used as a “feeble opium” and sedative as it was a slightly weaker analgesic than opium. In comparison to opium, wild lettuce did not upset the stomach.
- Used as a Hypnotic – In the King’s American Dispensatory circa 1898, doctors Felter and Lloyd describe wild lettuce as calmative and hypnotic. They also mention that it can be used as a substitute for opium.
Summary:Wild lettuce has been tied to a wide variety of health benefits. Human clinical trials are needed to verify these findings.
Wild Lettuce Safety:
Safety Class: 1
Interaction Class: A
When taken in recommended doses, wild lettuce is safe and generally well tolerated.
Wild Lettuce is not listed as GRAS (generally recognized as safe) by the FDA.
People with sensitivities/allergies to herbs in the Asteraceae family should avoid using wild lettuce. A skin patch test is recommended to check for an allergic reaction prior to use.
When taken intravenously or eaten in larger amounts, wild lettuce can cause a range of detrimental health effects such as abdominal pain, fever, chills, low back pain, neck stiffness, headache, hallucinations, vomiting, coma, and even death.
If reported immediately, recovery is likely with no lingering, long-term symptoms.
Pregnancy & Lactation:
Due to a lack of evidence, clinical studies, and safety data, pregnant and breastfeeding women should avoid wild lettuce.
Standard dosing for wild lettuce is as follows:
Hot Infusion (tea): Add 1 cup of boiling water to 1- 2 tsp of dried herb and allow to infuse for 10-15 mins. Drink 1 cup 3x per/day.
Tincture (1:5): 1-2 ml, 3x/day
Fluid Extract (1:1): 0.5 – 4 ml, 3x/day
Lactucarium Tincture: 2 ml, 3x/day
Wild lettuce is not on the United Plant Saver’s “at-risk” list (sensitive to the impact of human activities).
Due to cultivation which has lessened the narcotic effects of this herb, wild Lactuca virosa contains stronger active constituents.
Naming & Taxonomy:
Wild lettuce’s scientific name is Lactuca virosa. Other plants in the lettuce family include Lactuca serriola (prickly lettuce) and Lactuca sativa (common lettuce). Although not related directly, some plants in the Lactuca spp. share many of the same active constituents.
Lactuca virosa is in the Asteraceae family and is considered a biennial, which means it takes two years to complete its growing cycle.
The word “lactuca” comes from the Latin word for “milk”, which refers to the milky latex that is produced by the plant.
The wild herb is prevalent in most regions of the Northern hemisphere, thriving in sunny locations. It is commonly cultivated in Germany, Scotland, France, and Iran.
The leaves form in the first year of growth, while the stem and flowers bloom during the second year. The flowers are a sunny yellow, similar to a dandelion. Wild lettuce prefers rocky dry soil and will bloom from June to August. Seeds are able to germinate easily.
A white, bitter latex, called lactucarium, is produced by the roots, leaves, and stem, however, only the leaves are used in traditional medicine.
Other common names include bitter lettuce, tall lettuce, laitue vireuse, acrid lettuce, and lettuce opium.
History & Traditional Use:
Historically, wild lettuce has been a highly beneficial herb for medical procedures, such as surgeries. Due to its pain-relieving and sedative qualities, there are accounts of wild lettuce extract being used in “anesthetic sponges” (placed over a person’s mouth and nose) in 13th century Arabia.
As a native plant to Europe, accounts of wild lettuce were documented during the times of Dioscorides, Hippocrates, and Galen in Ancient Greece. Traditionally, these physicians used Lactuca virosa as an antitussive (cough support), sedative, and analgesic.
This herb is also found in Dutch, German, and Spanish pharmacopeias throughout the 19th century. During the same time period, the first isolation of lactucarium’s two main constituents, lactucin, and lactucopicrin occurred. This discovery led to further research about the plant’s (and its constituents) health benefits and uses.
Currently, wild lettuce is used mainly in homeopathy for coughs, sedation, and pain relief.
While there should be precautions taken around consuming wild lettuce, this herb has been known for its pain-reducing and relaxing health benefits. As stated above, using wild lettuce for pain relief is a popular natural remedy for pain management.
It is recommended to take wild lettuce as a tincture, tea, or extract. While active constituents are not very strong in any of these preparations, higher doses, and intravenous administration are not suggested due to toxic effects.
If you are considering the use of wild lettuce, it is important to do so in moderation. Remember to first consult your physician if you are thinking about making any changes to your daily routine.
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