Did you know that there’s a type of lettuce that was long considered a safer alternative to opium? In the 19th century, people widely used wild lettuce or “opium lettuce” for pain relief. But is it really safe and effective? Keep reading to find out what the research says about its health benefits and risks.
What is Wild Lettuce?
Wild lettuce is not a widely-known herb. If you’ve just heard of it for the first time, its historical use might shock you.
Judging by its name, you may assume that wild lettuce is similar to the lettuce enjoyed in salads. Indeed, they belong to the same family. But classification aside, wild lettuce has little in common with the greens you can find in supermarkets .
Wild lettuce (Lactuca virosa) is a plant native to Europe and Iran. Today, it is also found in West Asia, North America, and North Africa. It is a biennial plant, which means that it flowers in the second year of its life cycle. It can grow up to 2 meters high and has yellow flowers. Overall, wild lettuce thrives in sunny, coastal regions [2, 3].
Wild lettuce is also known as “opium lettuce.” It was commonly used since the 19th century as an alternative to opium due to its fewer side effects. The herb was used for whooping cough, as a pain reliever, and sedative or tranquilizer [4, 5, 6, 7].
Lactusa virosa in Latin means “poisonous milky extract.” The whole plant is rich in a milky juice that flows freely when the leaves or stems are scratched. The juice has a bitter taste and a bad smell. When left in the open, it dries, hardens, and turns brown. The resulting product is known as lactucarium [8, 8].
Nowadays, many wild lettuce products are available. These include tinctures, teas, oils, and capsules purported to help with pain, insomnia, anxiety, and other conditions.
Some people chasing a “natural high,” also eat, smoke or inhale wild lettuce leaves. Mistakenly, users believe it’s safe just because it’s “natural.” However, wild lettuce can be toxic if incorrectly prepared. It can also interact with sedative drugs. For people seeking to use it medicinally, becoming informed is key to avoiding the dangers .
- Natural pain reliever
- Likely safe when properly prepared
- May be toxic
- Hard to prepare sap from harvesting the wild plant
- Possibly hallucinogenic
- Side-effects include vomiting, nausea, and anxiety
- Allergic reactions
- Likely unsafe for pregnant or breastfeeding women
- Interacts with sedative drugs
Wild Lettuce for Pain Relief
When scratched, wild lettuce stems and leaves produce a milky juice. This juice is dried and hardened, which turns it into a brown, gummy product known as lactucarium or lettuce opium .
In the midst of the opioid epidemic, some people are turning to wild lettuce as an almost forgotten natural alternative.
Back in the 19th century, when opium and cocaine were still being used as over-the-counter drugs, wild lettuce was described as: “highly esteemed to quiet coughing and allay nervous irritation, a good safe remedy to produce sleep, to be used when opium and other narcotics are objectionable” .
Only a limited body of animal-based research gives us some hints.
In mice, lactucin and lactucopicrin from wild lettuce promoted calmness and blocked pain stimuli at relatively low doses (2-15 mg/kg). At higher doses of 30 mg/kg, these compounds had similar pain-relieving effects as 60 mg/kg of the common painkiller ibuprofen [15, 11].
On the other hand, lactucarium also promotes mild euphoria and can even cause hallucinations. Hence, some people eat, inhale, inject or smoke wild lettuce leaves, seeking a “wild lettuce high.” Its abuse can be dangerous and may even trigger an addiction [10, 12, 8].
Read more about how to use it safely in the “Wild Lettuce Side Effects & Safety” section below.
Commercially-available wild lettuce products claim to help with many conditions, including:
- Urinary tract infections
- Gut inflammation
- Skin inflammation and sunburns (as ointments)
- … and even cancer
None of these are sufficiently supported by the research.
Anxiety, Insomnia, and Restlessness
Therefore, wild lettuce sap may promote sleep and reduce stress, anxiety, and restlessness.
Research reveals sesquiterpene lactones may lower inflammation and help with asthma and arthritis. In addition, they might soothe cramps, relax muscles and combat oxidative stress. Their virus-, bacteria-, and cancer-fighting properties are another area of investigation [17, 18, 19].
Research into the specific compounds found in wild lettuce is limited. It may not provide the same health advantages.
Other historical data suggests it can soothe an irritable cough and reduce breathing difficulties .
Wild lettuce seed oil is believed to enhance circulation and prevent hardening of the arteries (atherosclerosis), although no studies back the claims .
Identifying Wild Lettuce
Wild lettuce is a biennial herb, which means that it takes 2 years to flower and give seeds; it flowers in July and August. Wild lettuce is found near rivers and waste grounds and can grow up to 6 feet. The plant has basket-like, yellow flowers, and spiny, bright green leaves which sprout from a light stem. Sometimes the stem is purple-spotted [2, 8].
Since it grows freely in warm regions, people are seeking to spot it in the wild and prepare their own remedies. Still, it’s not that simple to identify. Wild lettuce has two especially tricky look-alikes: dandelion and prickly lettuce.
Dandelion (Taraxacum Officinale) usually grows up to 1.5 feet, whereas wild lettuce can grow up to 6 feet. The flowers also give it away: dandelions have just one flower, which is around 1.5 inches wide, whereas wild lettuce has multiple small flowers just ¼ inches wide.
Next, it’s important to take a good look at the leaves. Dandelions produce leaves at the ground level. These are clustered into a rosette, while their flower stalks are tall and without leaves. Wild lettuce produces leaves all the way up the stalk [24, 3, 3].
vs. Prickly Lettuce
Prickly lettuce (Lactuca serriola) is very similar to wild lettuce and their flowers are almost identical. You’ll spot the main difference in the leaves. The leaves of wild lettuce are spread out more; they are also more rounded and less divided [24, 3, 3].
How to Use Wild Lettuce
Even if you managed to identify wild lettuce, the plant can be difficult to prepare – especially as a tincture for pain relief. The main challenges are:
- Wild lettuce has to be harvested at the right time. Once collected, extracting the sap takes time, patience, and knowledge. Just blending the whole plant is unlikely to have a pain-relieving effect, as the main active compounds are concentrated in the sap.
- Ingesting the fresh plant or harvesting it before the usual time (such as in May instead of in August/September) can be toxic 
- The active components are only slightly soluble in water, meaning that tea and water extracts (resin) are unlikely to have a pain-relieving effect 
- Data are lacking on the best preparation method
- Its effects have not been determined in clinical studies
Wild lettuce products are commercially sold as extracts (liquid or encapsulated), powder from wild leaves, dried leaves for tea, tea bags, tinctures, resin, and seed oil.
How To Make Tea
As mentioned, wild lettuce tea prepared from the dried leaves is unlikely to offer you pain relief. The leaves are low in the active compounds, and these, in turn, don’t dissolve well in water .
Still, some people like to drink it just for the taste or to soothe gut inflammation .
If you’re among them, you can use 1-2 teaspoons of the dried leaves to make tea. Pour boiling water over the leaves, let steep for 5-10 minutes, and strain into a cup.
Resin/Water Extracts vs Tinctures
Lactucarium – the sap from wild lettuce – is soluble in alcohol. Thus, tinctures and alcoholic extracts are more likely to have a pain-relieving effect.
Some sources recommend simply blending the plant whole plant and heating it to make a water or resin extract. This is fine if you’re seeking the herb’s gut-soothing effects or you’re interested in making ointments to reduce skin inflammation and sunburns. The boiled herb is also used as an enema. But if you’re looking for pain relief, this method simply won’t work .
The scientific literature clearly tells us that the painkilling compounds are low in wild lettuce leaves. What’s more, they don’t dissolve well in water. That’s why tinctures for pain relief are traditionally prepared from the sap and dissolved in alcohol .
Having this in mind, effective wild lettuce tinctures are not easy to prepare. Buying alcoholic extracts or tinctures from reputable sources is probably the best way to go for the majority of people. To prepare a tincture for pain relief yourself, you would need to first go through the delicate process of extracting the sap .
If you are experienced in wild herb harvesting, you may have managed to collect the sap from the plant. Some people recommend dissolving the sap straight into alcohol (such as vodka), while others recommend drying it first. It’s unclear which method is more effective .
There is no standardized dosage for wild lettuce products, as the dose depends on the product, age, and health condition of the user. The following dosage is recommended anecdotally and has not been confirmed in scientific studies:
Wild lettuce tea: 1-2 teaspoons of dried wild lettuce leaves in 1 cup of water, up to 3 times a day.
Resin: 1.5 grams of resin, as often as needed.
Both the tea and resin are very low in painkilling compounds .
Tincture: 12-24 drops, 2 to 3 times a day.
Animal studies accomplished pain relief with 2-15 mg/kg of the extract. For a person weighing 160lbs, the lowest effective dosage would equate to about 150 mg/day. However, this dosage may not translate from animals to humans. We don’t recommend high doses due to the lack of safety data and possible toxicity .
Most users were happy with wild lettuce. They reported it relieved:
- Low back, shoulder, and chronic pain
- Bulging disc
- Joint pain
- Migraines/ Headaches
However, some users reported that the wild lettuce did not affect them at all. Others experienced its psychoactive effects.
Many wild lettuce supplements are widely available but not standardized. This, in part, explains why their effectiveness can vary to such an extent.
Wild Lettuce Side Effects & Safety
Risk of Poisoning
Wild lettuce can be toxic. At least 8 cases of people experiencing side-effects after eating raw wild lettuce have been reported. Side effects included :
- Chills or sweating
- Stomach pain
- Back and neck pain
- Headaches and dizziness
- Nausea and vomiting
- Loss of consciousness
- Blurred vision and/or extreme sensitivity to light
- Urinary retention
- Heart complications
- Mild liver complications
However, all 8 cases above involved eating fresh wild lettuce, which is known to be toxic. The plant has to be properly prepared to be used medicinally. What’s more, the plant was harvested in May, instead of the usual harvesting time in July or August, which likely added to its toxicity [12, 8].
In addition, eating or smoking wild lettuce leaves may cause hallucinations .
If improperly washed, wild lettuce poses a risk of rat lungworm disease .
Due to the lack of studies on wild lettuce or its supplements, other potential side effects are unknown.
This all goes to say that wild lettuce needs to be prepared and used with care, under the guidance of qualified practitioners.
People who are allergic to the daisy (Asteraceae) family plants, such as chamomile, dandelion, marigolds, and wormwood, should avoid wild lettuce. Taking it may cause serious allergic reactions [26, 27].
Pregnancy and Breastfeeding
Pregnant and breastfeeding women should avoid wild lettuce due to the lack of safety data and the plant’s psychoactive properties.
Other Health Conditions
Despite the lack of solid scientific evidence, some sources state that people with glaucoma and enlarged prostate should avoid wild lettuce products. This is probably because wild lettuce contains some tropane alkaloids, which can worsen prostate enlargement, urinary tract diseases, and glaucoma [14, 28, 29].
Wild lettuce has a calming effect and may induce sleepiness. Taking it together with sedative drugs may cause excessive sleepiness or drowsiness. It is recommended to avoid consuming wild lettuce products with sedative drugs (including clonazepam, lorazepam, phenobarbital, and zolpidem) .
People who are already struggling with opioid/painkiller addiction should not take wild lettuce lightly. Consult your doctor to avoid dangerous interactions with your meds and do not assume that wild lettuce is a miracle painkiller. Its effects are most likely mild and haven’t been researched for opioid addiction or withdrawal.
Wild lettuce can be safe if harvested, prepared, and dosed right. To avoid the dangers, we recommend consulting a qualified herbalist alongside your doctor before using it .
Limitations and Caveats
Studies about the benefits of wild lettuce are extremely sparse. They are based on animal data or historical documents, rather than clinical trials. Additionally, most of them are decades old.
More modern research on the health benefits and risks of wild lettuce is needed.
Wild lettuce is available on Amazon. The dried leaf and alcohol-free extracts are common, while the alcoholic extract is hard to find.
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Wild or “opium” lettuce is an almost forgotten natural painkiller. Once widely used as a safer alternative to opium, only a couple of recent animal studies suggest that it can relieve pain and help with insomnia. The available research still gives people hope in the midst of an opioid epidemic.
You can give it a try if you’re seeking natural pain relief, but don’t expect too much. It’s best taken as an extract or tincture. Consult your doctor first, especially if you’re on any other painkillers or sedatives.