Enter wild lettuce, an old-school pain reliever that seems to be making a comeback. (Back in the 19th century, it was best known as an opium substitute.) “Wild lettuce—a cousin to the lettuce we typically eat in salad—is a tall, leafy herb with small yellow buds,” says Jacqueline Schaffer, MD, board-certified medical doctor and author of Irresistible You. Wild lettuce is commonly found in North America and parts of England, and looks like a cross between a thistle and a dandelion—and unlike regular lettuce, this particular strain has some serious skills in the pain relief department.
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“There are reports that the active chemical compound of wild lettuce is, as in the past when it was first discovered, currently being used as a substitute for opium in the U.S.,” says Edison de Mello, MD, board-certified integrative medicine physician and founder/medical director of the Akasha Center in Santa Monica, California.
But the real question is: does this blast from the past deserve a spot in your medicine cabinet?
How Wild Lettuce Relieves Pain
There’s a bitter, milky white substance in the stem and leaves of wild lettuce that contains two active compounds, lactucopicrin and lactucin, both of which attach to opioid receptors and produce pain relief,” says Steven Gundry, MD, author of The Plant Paradox. “It’s reported pain relief benefits have ranged from migraine and menstrual cramp relief to traditional pains like headache or joint and muscle pains.” (One study found that a 30 mg/kg dose of the lactucopicrin compound is comparable to a 60 mg/kg dose of ibuprofen.)
Wild lettuce can be taken in an extract or herbal supplement form. Similar to opium, wild lettuce can also produce sedative and anti-anxiety effects. The compounds are actually used by the pharmaceutical industry to make drugs that treat conditions such as asthma, urinary tract diseases, painful menstruation, and joint pain—all conditions that improve with muscular and vessel relaxation, says de Mello.
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Wild Lettuce Versus Traditional Pain Relievers
“For those who prefer more natural methods of pain relief, wild lettuce is a good alternative,” says Schaffer. Traditional pain medications contain chemicals that may trigger side effects that can harm the body. NSAID (Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drug) painkillers, like ibuprofen and naproxen, for example, can damage the gut wall and cause leaky gut, says Gundry—not to mention increase the risk of heart attacks and autoimmune diseases.
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But just because wild lettuce falls under the umbrella of “all-natural” doesn’t mean that popping it to relieve your aches and pains is risk-free—especially considering there’s limited research on its effects on human health. What we know so far: “Some people may experience dizziness or skin irritation from the herb,” says Schaffer. “Additionally, people who are allergic to ragweed, pregnant, or going into surgery should avoid taking wild lettuce.”
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Like other pain meds, it’s important to only use it under the guidance of a practitioner who’s familiar with both the benefits and potential side effects of the herb, some of which can be severe, says de Mello. Take the wrong dosage, for example, and you run the risk of experiencing breathing difficulties, abdominal pain, severe headache, extreme drowsiness, and even liver damage.
Taken under the guidance of a doctor or pharmacist, wild lettuce can be an ideal remedy for pain relief and anxiety-related issues, says Schaffer. “Some of the benefits of taking wild lettuce (in a tea or capsule form) are most commonly experienced by migraine and arthritis sufferers, and those who experience insomnia and anxiety,” she says.
But, unlike other OTC remedies, it’s not a pain reliever you should self-treat with. Because there are very few scientific studies to back its safety, consulting with your doctor for the recommended dosage is a critical step in your quest for natural pain relief.