If someone told you that lettuce can ease your pain as well as opium, you might wonder if you heard them correctly.
But it’s actually true. A strain of lettuce that looks like a cross between a dandelion and a thistle is actually an age-old painkiller.
Wild lettuce (Lactuca virosa), also known as “poor man’s opium” or “Lettuce Opium”, has been around for centuries. It garnered its Latin prefix “lac,” which means milk, because of the plant’s bitter white sap.
This milky sap contains sesquiterpene lactones, which are essentially the active chemicals responsible for its opiate and pain relieving properties. According to one study, just a 30 mg/kg mg dose of lactucopicrin, the active compound, is comparable to a 60 mg/kg dose of ibuprofen (1).
Pain Killing Superstar
Wild lettuce dates back to Ancient Greece when around 430 BC, Hippocrates, the Father of Medicine, described the opiate-like effects of its sap. The Egyptians apparently used this potent lettuce to increase their sex drive, likely due to the plant’s stimulating effects at higher doses (2).
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By the 19th century, doctors used wild lettuce in place of opium when supplies were low. It was also used during the US Civil War when laudanum (a liquid opium preparation) was not available for pain (3).
The Polish also studied wild lettuce extensively during this time, as doctors noticed that even though it had opioid effects, it seemed to have none of the side effects of the highly addictive drug. The results of this research were published in several 19th-century Polish journals. “The action of the substance was weaker than that of opium, but free of the side-effects, and medical practice showed that in some cases lactucarium produced better curative effects than opium.” (4).
By 1898, Lactuca virosa was listed in the United States Pharmacopoeia and in 1911, in the British Pharmaceutical Codex (5,6). Wild lettuce lost favor among the medical community in the US in the 1940s, but by the 1970s, it regained popularity among the “hippies” as a legal psychotropic, sometimes mixed with catnip or damiana.