The Health Benefits of Wild Lettuce

This cousin of dandelion may help treat chronic pain

Wild lettuce

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

Also Known As

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

Health Benefits

Wild lettuce contains two compounds, known at 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 that slow communications 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

Wild lettuce is often referred to as the "poor man's opium" as it is said to trigger mild-altering effects if consumed in excess.

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:

Pain

Despite long-standing claims that wild lettuce is a potent painkiller, there has been little actual research conducted to evidence 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 Advil (ibuprofen) 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 of Advil. Lactucin and lactucopicrin also appeared to have a sedating effect as evidenced by the dulling of the animals' locomotor activity (i.e., physical response to external stimuli).

Malaria

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 2016 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.

When to Call a Doctor

Call 911 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.

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).

Selection, Preparation, and Storage

Wild lettuce is most commonly sold in the United States as a dietary supplement. There are no guidelines for the appropriate use of wild lettuce, but manufacturers typically recommend between 400 milligrams (mg) to 500 mg per day. Liquid extracts are also available, with dosages varying based on the concentration of the solution.

Dried wild lettuce can also are sold online, the products of which can be used to make teas and home decoctions. However, dried Lactuca virosa should be used with extreme caution given that you are unable to control the dose. Moreover, there is no way to know if the herbs have been tainted with pesticides, heavy metals, chemical fertilizers, or other harmful substances.

By contrast, wild lettuce capsules offer consistent dosing. There are even brands certified organic by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), reducing your risk of toxic exposure.

How to Choose Supplements

Because herbal remedies are so loosely regulated in the United States, you need to use your best judgment when selecting the appropriate brand.

If possible, opt for supplements that have been voluntarily submitted for testing by an independent certifying body like the U.S. Pharmacopeia (USP), ConsumerLab, or NSF International. Although independent certification is uncommon in the herbal supplements industry, larger manufacturers have started to embrace the practice.

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, Alabama, Iowa, and Washington, D.C.

Common Questions

Are there safe alternatives to wild lettuce?

There are a number of natural remedies that can help reduce musculoskeletal pain. These include white willow bark (said to soothe the joint pain associated with osteoarthritis) and devil's claw (often 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 treat anxiety, pain, and movement disorders.

Each of these substances has side effects but tend to have a lower potential for toxicity. Mind-body therapies like meditation, yoga, and progressive muscle relaxation (PMR) can also help.

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Article Sources

  1. eFloras.org. (2019) 7. Lactuca virosa Linnaeus, Sp. Pl. 2: 795. 1753. Flora of North America (Vol 19-21). Oxford, England: Oxford University Press; pages 260-2.


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