What Is Wild Lettuce?

This cousin of dandelion may help treat chronic pain

Wild lettuce capsules, tincture, extract, powder, dried herb

Verywell / Anastasia Tretiak

Wild lettuce is more than just lettuce grown in the wild; it a specific species of plant used frequently in herbal medicine. Wild lettuce (Lactuca virosa) is closely related to dandelion and is believed to have sedative and analgesic (pain-relieving) effects. It is often used as a natural remedy for stress and chronic pain.

Wild lettuce can be found in central and southern Europe, Australia, the Punjab region of India and Pakistan, and along the coast of Great Britain.

Also Known As

  • Bitter lettuce
  • Opium lettuce
  • Poisonous lettuce
  • Rakutu-karyumu-so

Some refer to wild lettuce as the "poor man's opium" as it is said to trigger mild-altering effects if consumed in excess.

What Is Wild Lettuce Used For?

Wild lettuce contains two compounds—lactucin and lactucopicrin—that act on the central nervous system. Wild lettuce has the highest concentration of lactucopicrin of all plants, although dandelion root and chicory root are also good sources.

In addition to its sedative and analgesic effects, lactucopicrin is believed to act as an acetylcholinesterase inhibitor, meaning that it blocks cholinesterase enzymes responsible for slowing communication between brain cells. Wild lettuce is also said to exhibit potent antimicrobial activity.

Based on these properties, practitioners of alternative medicine believe that wild lettuce can prevent or treat the following health conditions:

  • Alzheimer's disease
  • Arthritis
  • Asthma
  • Atherosclerosis (hardening of the arteries)
  • Cough
  • Insomnia
  • Joint pain
  • Malaria
  • Menstrual pain

Despite the plethora of health claims, there is little evidence that wild lettuce can prevent or treat any medical condition. Most of the current evidence is largely hypothetical or anecdotal.

That is not to suggest that wild lettuce is without benefit. Here is some of what the current evidence says.


Despite long-standing claims that wild lettuce is a potent painkiller, there has been little actual research conducted to support this effect.

The study most commonly referred to was published in the Journal of Ethnopharmacology back in 2006. For this study, the researchers provided lab mice with either lactucin, lactucopicrin, or ibuprofen (a nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drug) in oral form. The mice were then submitted to a hot-plate test and a flick-tail test (in which their tails were literally flicked) to assess their response to pain.

Of the compounds tested, lactucopicrin was the most potent and required half the dose per kilogram compared to ibuprofen. Lactucin and lactucopicrin also appeared to have a sedating effect as evidenced by the dulling of the animals' reflex activity (i.e., physical response to external stimuli).


A 2004 study published in the Journal of Ethnopharmacology suggested that lactucin and lactucopicrin isolated from the common chicory plant have anti-malarial properties. It can reasonably be assumed that the same would be seen with wild lettuce, although it is unclear how active the compounds would be against malaria.

By contrast, sweet wormwood (Artemesia annua), another plant rich in lactucin and lactucopicrin, contains a highly active antimalarial agent called artemisinin. Unlike sweet wormwood, wild lettuce does not contain any artemisinin.

Alzheimer's Disease

The lactucopicrin in wild lettuce appears to be a robust acetylcholinesterase inhibitor. Among its benefits, a 2018 study in the Journal of Ethnopharmacology found that lactucopicrin increased neuritogenesis in brain cells extracted from lab rats.

Neuritogenesis is a phenomenon in which nerve cells sprout projections, called neurites, that connect one nerve cell to another. The more neurites there are, the stronger the transmission of nerve signals.

This suggests, but not proves, that wild lettuce may help preserve brain function in people with Alzheimer's disease and other neurodegenerative disorders like Parkinson's disease. Further research is needed.

Possible Side Effects

Because so few studies have been conducted, the long-term safety of wild lettuce is unknown. If consumed in reasonable amounts, wild lettuce is generally regarded as safe, although it may cause mild indigestion, jitteriness, or drowsiness.

Some people may experience skin irritation if wild lettuce is applied to the skin. This is especially true for people with latex allergy.

Even though wild lettuce is used for therapeutic purposes, the latex excreted from the plant is highly toxic. This can deliver mildly euphoric sensations progressing to extreme agitation if overused. A 2009 study published in BMJ Case Reports detailed eight incidences of poisoning that occurred after consuming large quantities of raw wild lettuce.

Due to the potential harms, wild lettuce should not be used in pregnant women, nursing mothers, or children. There is also evidence that wild lettuce can aggravate conditions like benign prostatic hyperplasia (enlarged prostate) or narrow-angle glaucoma, both of which are influenced by acetylcholinesterase inhibitors.

It is unknown if wild lettuce interacts with other drugs. With that said, you should avoid wild lettuce if you are taking sedatives or any sedating drug, including alcohol, opiates, and older antihistamines like Benadryl (diphenhydramine).

When to Call a Doctor

Call 911 or poison control, or seek emergency care if any of the following occurs after consuming wild lettuce. Most cases are not life-threatening but may require hospitalization.

  • Blurred vision
  • Bloodshot eyes
  • Rapid heartbeat
  • Shortness of breath
  • Dizziness or fainting
  • Confusion or hallucinations
  • Extreme anxiety and agitation
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Abdominal cramps
  • Severe sweating
  • Inability to urinate
Wild lettuce dried herb
Verywell / Anastasia Tretiak

Selection, Preparation, and Storage

Wild lettuce is most commonly sold in the United States as a dietary supplement, most often in capsule form but also as tinctures, extracts, powders, and dried herbs.

There are no guidelines for the appropriate use of wild lettuce, but manufacturers of capsule formulations typically recommend 400 to 500 milligrams (mg) per day.

Dosages of tinctures and extract vary based on the concentration of the solution. Dried herbal and powdered formulations can be used to make tea by steeping 1 to 2 tablespoons of the dried herb or 1 to 2 teaspoons of the powder into a cup of boiling water.

Caution should be used when working with dried Lactuca virosa as you are unable to control the dose and may consume more than you realize. Moreover, there is no way to know if the dried herbs have been tainted with pesticides, heavy metals, chemical fertilizers, or other harmful substances.

By contrast, wild lettuce capsules offer more consistent dosing, particularly if they have been certified by an independent certifying body like U.S. Pharmacopeia (USP), ConsumerLab, or NSF International. Although certification is uncommon with many herbal supplements. manufacturers are increasingly embracing the practice as consumers of supplements become savvier.

Certification does not mean that a supplement works. It simply confirms that the contents are pure and that the supplement only contains the types and amount of ingredients listed on the product label.

There are even brands certified organic by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), reducing your risk of toxic exposure.

Because supplements are not stringently regulated in the United States, certifications like these are your best assurance that a supplement is safe.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • Are there safe alternatives to wild lettuce?

    For musculoskeletal pain, white willow bark is thought to soothe the joint pain associated with osteoarthritis, and devil's claw is used to reduce pain caused by rheumatoid arthritis. Others swear by cannabidiol, also known as CBD oil, the non-psychoactive compound in marijuana that is believed to reduce pain and inflammation. Check with your doctor before using any supplement to learn about side effects and possible drug interactions.

  • Can you eat raw wild lettuce like you do other lettuces, such as romaine or iceberg?

    Due to the risk of toxicity, raw wild lettuce should not be consumed. Even though the plant is uncommon in the United States, it has reportedly been introduced in parts of California and Alabama.

  • What does wild lettuce look like?

    Wild lettuce plants can reach 3 to 8 feet in height. It has green leaves and pale yellow flowers. The seeds are attached to a pappus that resembles the puffy white "fluff" of a dandelion.

  • Where can you buy wild lettuce?

    Wild lettuce can be found online and in stores that sell supplements. It's sold in capsule form as well as dried herbs, liquid extract, and powders.

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6 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Wesolowska A, Nikiforuk A, Michalska K, Kisiel W, Chojnacka-Wojcika E. Analgesic and sedative activities of lactucin and some lactucin-like guaianolides in mice. J Ethnopharmacol. 2006;107(2):254-8. doi:10.1016/j.jep.2006.03.003

  2. Bischoff TA, Kelley CJ, Karchesy Y, et al. Antimalarial activity of lactucin and lactucopicrin: sesquiterpene lactones isolated from Cichorium intybus L. J Ethnopharmacol. 2004 Dec;95(2-3):455-7. doi:10.1016/j.jep.2004.06.031

  3. Venkatesan R, Shim WS, Yeo EJ, Kim SY. Lactucopicrin potentiates neuritogenesis and neurotrophic effects by regulating Ca2+/CaMKII/ATF1 signaling pathway. J Ethnopharmacol. 2017 Feb 23;198:174-83. doi:10.1016/j.jep.2016.12.035

  4. Besharat S, Besharat M, Jabbari A. Wild lettuce (Lactuca virosa) toxicity. BMJ Case Rep. 2009;2009:bcr06.2008.0134. doi:10.1136/bcr.06.2008.0134

  5. U.S. Department of Agriculture Natural Resources Conservation Service. Lactuca virosa L. bitter lettuce.

  6. North Carolina State University Cooperative Extension. Lactuca.