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Uses: As a pain killer, for Insomnia, nervousness, hysteria, muscle spasms, colic pains, painful menstruation, bothersome coughs, and painful digestion.
No medicine cabinet is complete without a painkiller of some sort. For those times when someone burns a finger, slams a hand in the car door, or does anything else to cause shooting pains, wild lettuce will ease the hurt until the body can heal itself.
This plant has a rather telling common name, opium lettuce. What more does a person need to know? When it comes to pain, wild lettuce will take care of the situation. It is native to central and southern Europe and ranges from there all the way to the northern tip of Asia. Like many healing weeds, it can now be found growing just about anywhere the colonials touched ground. The part used in medicine is the leaves, which are gathered in June or July, before the plant shoots to seed.
As you might have guessed, Lactuca virosa is the wild forebear of the item we chop and dice into salad bowls. Though it is currently accepted as a safe food, this was not always the case. Prior to the Victorian age, wild lettuce was well known as a painkiller and sedative. When there appeared in the market cultivated varieties devoid of the medicinal elements found in wild lettuce, social commentators were not pleased. In fact, they became quite vocal as to the incredible danger this represented to society. It would be as if someone today introduced a salad variety of marijuana. There was great concern that lettuce would cause childlessness or would produce children with subnormal intelligence. A whole list of horrible things were supposed to happen if people proceeded with this shameless eating of lettuce. Obviously, the public needn’t have worried as they did. For one thing, no one would choose to sit down to a salad made of the medicinal variety, unless he had a penchant for the taste of match heads. The lettuce scandal passed; unfortunately so did awareness of wild lettuce’s pain-killing abilities.
The scientific name for wild lettuce, Lactuca virosa, relates to part of the plant’s physiology. If you scrape the leaf or stem of the plant, it immediately ejects a milky white latex, and the name lactuca comes from the Latin word for milk, as in lactation. At various times in history, the plant was purposefully wounded, and its milk was collected, dried, and molded into balls. These balls were known as lactucarium, and the substance was collected and taken much like opium. In fact, the drug was called lettuce opium and was widely used.
Wild lettuce is just about as old a painkiller as opium. When the Roman emperor Augustus fell seriously ill he was treated with Lactuca virosa. He survived his run-in with the grim reaper and had a temple and a statue erected in the plant’s honor. Sadly, the statue does not survive, and I can’t think of any other such monument celebrating the virtues of a vegetable. Clearly we are talking about a different space and time.
In the 16th century, Gerard said this of wild lettuce: " it procures sleep, asswages paine, moves the courses in women, and is drunke against the stingings of scorpions and bitings of spiders. The seed taken in drinke, like as the garden lettuce, hindreth generation of seed and venereous imaginations."
Wild lettuce is a sedative, and as such, it should come as no surprise that when people drink the tea, they don’t have much sexual desire. Gerard’s statement to this effect represents the notion that was commonly held by his contemporaries. The notion carried through to the Victorian era. Remember, they were the ones who said that eating lettuce would cause childlessness. Like many Victorian beliefs, the fear of wild lettuce has never been substantiated scientifically.
The milky substance ejected by the plant has been found to contain lactucic acid, lactucopicrin, lactucin, sesquiterpene lactone, flavonoids based on quercetin, coumarins, cichoriin, and aesculin, n-methyl-b-phenethylamine, and up to 60 percent latex, which is the raw ingredient in rubber. The plant’s high latex content led to its experimental use as an alternative source of rubber, particularly during World War II. However, it takes a lot of lettuce to make a tire, and the fledgling industry never got off the ground.
Whereas wild lettuce bombed out in the rubber business, it has been substantially more successful in the medicinal one. Maude Grieve wrote in 1931 that "the drug resembles a feeble opium without its tendency to upset the digestive system. It is used to a small extent as a sedative and narcotic." One little-known fact about heroin use is that when the drug is first taken, it causes vomiting, which is perhaps the body’s way of saying that this is the wrong thing to do. Even the opium derivatives tend to upset the stomach, something that our friend wild lettuce would never do.
In its catalogue of medicinal plants published in 1917, the Servall Company asserted that wild lettuce was "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." This was written at a time when you could still get opium and cocaine over the counter. Then as now, there are many reasons why such narcotics are "objectionable" when you are dealing with pain, not the least of which is the fact that they are highly addictive.
Much like passion vine, wild lettuce is used to slow down the nervous system. For this reason, it is very effective in cases of insomnia, nervousness, hysteria, muscle spasms, colic pains, painful menstruation, bothersome coughs, and painful digestion. However, because the drug is a little on the strong side, its primary use is for pain. As with any painkiller, caution should be used when taking this drug. It would be embarrassing to be admitted to a drug rehabilitation center for a psychological dependence on lettuce.
The Lactuca virosa, Linné, is the only species recognized by the Br. Pharm. 1885, and is directed by the U. S. P. as the source of Lactucarium (see Lactucarium). Several other species, however, yield this product. Lactuca sativa, or common lettuce of the gardens, is supposed to be a native of the East Indies; it is extensively cultivated in Europe and this country. According to Prof. J. M. Maisch, the L. canadensis, var. elongata (wild lettuce), of our country possesses narcotic principles similar to the others. Mr. H. Flowers (Amer. Jour. Pharm., 1879, p. 343) observed in a growing specimen of this plant a strong, narcotic odor of the milky juice, but a remarkable change in the taste, from sweetish to bitter, took place later in the season. Lactucarium, or lettuce-opium, so-called, is obtained from the plants "by cutting the stem of the lettuce at the time of flowering, imbibing the milky juice that flows out by a sponge or by cotton, and squeezing it out into a vessel containing a little water. It is then left in a dry place until it concretes into a solid mass" (Thompson's Org. Chem.). The juice, in drying, loses about half its weight of water. By making another cut a short distance below the first, and so proceeding several times daily, the whole of the juice contained in the plant may be collected. There are several other modes recommended for procuring the lactucarium, but no one of them obtains an article equal to that collected by the above plan. After the middle period of inflorescence, the juice, becomes thicker, but deteriorates in its medicinal principles.
As found in commerce, lactucarium is in roundish, compact, rather hard masses, weighing several ounces, of a reddish-brown color externally, of a bitter, narcotic, and somewhat acid taste, and an odor approximating that of opium. It is asserted that two species—L. Scariola, Linné, and L. altissima, Bieberstein—furnish a superior article of lettuce-opium.
Chemical Composition.—The chief constituent of lactuca is lactucarium (see Lactucarium). Potassium nitrate is an additional constituent. Mr. T. S. Dymond (Pharm. Jour. Trans., 1891, Vol. XXII, p. 449), having observed mydriatic action with extracts of Lactuca sativa (common garden lettuce) and L. virosa, the former being collected while flowering, succeeded in isolating therefrom an alkaloid (not exceeding 0.02 per cent), which he identified as hyoscyamine. Specimens of English and German lactucarium, on the other hand, did not contain a trace of the alkaloid. The occurrence of an alkaloid in so widely-used a vegetable need not, however, cause alarm. It is probably in insignificant quantity in the early stages of growth of the vegetable.
Lactuca virosa L. and Lactucarium: A molecular-pharmacological essay of analgesic potency
Lettuce opium, the condensed brown latex from Lactuca virosa L. (Prickly lettuce) has been used for
many years as an analgesic and antitussic agent since its rediscovery by Kore in 1792. In ancient
Egypt and Greece the effects of Lactuca virosa and other Lactuca species have already been known.
Phytochemical tests (TLC, HPLC) described the drug as a system of many compounds. With a view
to find a possibility to account for pharmacological effects of the drug, the material was tested for its
ability to inhibit the activity of NEP (enkephalinase), which is the common name given to the enzyme
that cleaves methionine5- or leucine5- enkephalin at the Gly3- Phe4- bond.
For determination of the NEP activity we used a two-step assay according to Bormann and Melzig
(2000). Tests with aqueous and methanolic extracts of the dried latex showed a distinct inhibiting
effect on NEP in a concentration-dependent way. We tested two sorts of lettuce opium, one gathered
from the annual plant and the other from the biannual plant. A distinction was found between both
sorts: annual lactucarium showed a more pronounced inhibition, in particular the aqueous extract.
On account of well-known inhibitory potency of flavonoids on NEP the extract was tested for their
presence by TLC. We could exclude the presence of flavonoids. Additionally we tested opioid
receptor binding in mice brain membranes by receptor binding assay. We didn’t notice any effects of
the drug on opioid receptors.
(ZPT 23, Nr. 1, S. 40–45
Lactuca virosa L. und Lactucarium
Molekularpharmakologische Untersuchungen zur Erklärung der analgetischen Potenz
I. Funke, W.-E. Siems, R. Schenk, M. F. Melzig)