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 is a 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.

This article explores how wild lettuce is used in complementary and alternative medicine, including whether there is any evidence that it can prevent or treat symptoms. It also looks at the possible risks of using wild lettuce and how to choose and use this herbal remedy safely.

Also Known As

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


What Is Wild Lettuce Used For?

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.

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; this means that it blocks cholinesterase enzymes responsible for slowing communication between nerve cells. Wild lettuce is also said to kill a wide range of bacteria, viruses, fungi, and other microorganisms.

Practitioners of alternative medicine may use wild lettuce to help with symptoms of the following health conditions:

Despite the health claims, there is little evidence that wild lettuce can prevent or treat any medical condition. Most of the current evidence is limited to small, low-quality studies.

Pain

There has been little research conducted to support the use of wild lettuce for pain symptoms.

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 compared to ibuprofen. Lactucin and lactucopicrin also appeared to have a sedating effect as evidenced by the slowing of the animals' reflexes.

Effects on Nerves

Wild lettuce appears to be a robust acetylcholinesterase inhibitor. Acetylcholinesterase is an enzyme that terminates certain types of nerve activity, so inhibition of acetylcholinesterase prolongs nerve activity.

Additionally, 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.

Further research is needed to see whether this has any practical application in neurodegenerative disease.

Possible Side Effects

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 a latex allergy.

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.

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

Precautions

Due to the potential harms, wild lettuce should not be used by pregnant women, nursing mothers, or children. There is also evidence that wild lettuce can aggravate narrow-angle glaucoma, which is influenced by acetylcholinesterase inhibitors.

You should also avoid wild lettuce if you are taking sedatives or any sedating drug, including alcohol, opioids, or 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:

  • 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

Most cases are not life-threatening but may require hospitalization.

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. As a general rule, never exceed the dose on the product label.

Dosages of tinctures and extract vary based on the concentration of the solution.

Dried Herbs and Powders

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.

Safety and Certification

Look for products that 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.

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

There is no recommended dose of wild lettuce. Capsules may be the safest form because the dose is consistent. Never exceed the dose on the product label.

Summary

Wild lettuce (Lactuca virosa) is a plant used in herbal medicine to relieve pain and prevent or treat symptoms of a variety of unrelated medical conditions, including asthma, arthritis, cough, and menstrual pain. To date, there is little evidence that wild lettuce can prevent or treat any medical condition.

Wild lettuce is generally considered safe but may cause reactions in people with a latex allergy. It can also cause drowsiness and should not be used with alcohol or sedatives. When used in excess, wild lettuce can lead to toxicity and poisoning.

There is no recommended dose for wild lettuce. Capsule supplements may be safer than tinctures, powders, or dried herbs as you can control the dose. To ensure purity, opt for brands that have been certified by third-party organizations like U.S. Pharmacopeia, NSF International, or ConsumerLab.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • Are there safe alternatives to wild lettuce?

    White willow bark is thought to soothe the joint pain associated with osteoarthritis, while 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. Check with your doctor before using any supplement or herb to treat pain.

  • Can you eat raw wild lettuce like you do other lettuces?

    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 is sold in capsule form as well as dried herbs, liquid extracts, and powders.

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5 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. 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

  3. 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

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

  5. North Carolina State University Cooperative Extension. Lactuca.