Lettuce opium or Lactucarium comprises dried out latex or milky juice produced by numerous species of lettuce, which is collected from the plant's stem when it is cut off when it is in blossom. Generally, the most used source of lettuce opium is the supposed wild lettuce (botanical name, Lactuca virosa L.). However, it is also collected from other sources, including garden lettuce (Lactuca sativa L.) and also the associated species, such as Lactuca serriola L. and Lactuca sagittata - all belong to the plant family Asteraceae. In fact, all members of this plant family yield lettuce opium, which is also known by its Latin name lactucarium.
The ancient Egyptians took lactucarium or lettuce opium in the form of a medication, as, for long, people believed that the herb possessed soporific (a substance that induces sleep) attributes. Nevertheless, this belief was founded on the comparable appearance of the white milky juice emanated by the lettuce plant when it is cut and that which is produced by the opium poppy. In addition, the smell, flavour as well as the common look of lactucarium too has resemblance to those of opium. By 1892, it was reported that the extracts of different species of lettuce enclosed hyoscyamine (a toxic alkaloid), but this was not present in commercially available lactucarium. However, subsequent researches have not corroborated these observations. An appraisal of lettuce opium was performed in 1944, which led Fulton to come to the conclusion that ‘contemporary medicine regards the sleep inducing attributes of lettuce opium to be a false notion, and the remedial action is unsure or nought'.
More lately, Brown and Malone studied one of the contemporary preparations of lettuce opium and came to the conclusion that ‘the pain relieving, tranquilizing and other therapeutic properties of lettuce opium or lactucarium appears to be founded on imaginary tale, instead of reality'. While the conclusions arrived at by Fulton as well as Brown and Malone are definitely realistic, a somewhat surprising disclosure concerning the elements contained by lettuce was done in 1981. Scientists have stated that researches employing an exceptionally responsive radioimmunoassay (a test modus operandi that combines immunologic plus radio-labelling techniques to calculate minute quantities of a substance, as a hormone, protein, or drug, in a body fluid or tissue sample) method identified tiny amounts of morphine (about 2 nanograms to 10 nanograms per gram of the herb in dry weight) in the hay as well as lettuce.
Nevertheless, prior to becoming extremely keyed up regarding this finding, it ought to be borne in mind that a nanogram is equivalent to a billionth of a gram. Besides, equal amounts of morphine were also discovered in very improbable natural sources like human milk and cow's milk. In effect, the amounts of morphine found in milk or lettuce would actually be far too little to apply any understandable physiological consequence. Rational individuals may carry on consuming lettuce in their tomato and bacon sandwiches, but they are unlikely to smoke lettuce opium in their pipes ever.
While the ancient Egyptians used lettuce opium, this herb was introduced in the form of a medicine in the United States way back in 1799. Even in the 19th century Poland, this natural medication was prescribed as well as researched at length. Herbalists in Poland considered lettuce opium as a substitute for opium, but much milder and devoid of the side effects of opium. In effect, in a number of cases lettuce opium was preferred to opium. Nevertheless, initial endeavours by scientists in isolating an active alkaloid proved to be failures. In effect, the 1898 United States Pharmacopoeia as well as the 1911 British Pharmaceutical Codex have defined as well as standardized the use of lettuce opium in tinctures, lozenges and syrups in the form of a sedative for curing irritable cough or in the form of a gentle hypnotic (any medication that induces sleep) for treating insomnia. The usual description of lactucarium in the above mentioned codices necessitated the production of the remedy from Lactuca virosa, but, at the same time, it was identified that lesser amounts of lactucarium may also be produced in the same manner from Lactuca canadensis var. elongata and Lactuca sativa. In effect, lettuce opium or lactucarium acquired from Lactuca quercina and Lactuca serriola was found to be of finer quality.
A different research undertaken during the same period discovered two active bitter principles in lettuce opium - lactucopicrin and lactucin, but observed that these amalgams obtained from fresh latex of lettuce plant were unsteady and were not to be found in the commercially available lactucarium preparations. As a result, gradually lettuce opium became less popular and till the time the members of the American hippie movement published articles during the mid-1970s promoting this substance in the form of a legalized drug that produced ecstasy, occasionally blended with damiana or catnip.
In addition to the latex obtained from lettuce plants, the seeds of this genus too have been employed to provide relief from pain. In Avicenna's ‘The Canon of Medicine', lettuce seed was catalogued in the form of an anaesthetic. In effect, this medical textbook served in the form of a reliable manual from immediately after 1000 AD till the 17th century.
While the popularity as well as general use of lactucarium or lettuce opium in the form of an analgesic (pain reliever) has declined over the years, it is available till date, occasionally promoted in the form of a legal psychotropic (a mood altering medicine).
The seed of common lettuce continues to be employed in Iran, Avicenna's native land, in the form of a folk medication, and a raw extract obtained from the seeds was found to possess pain relieving (analgesic) and anti-inflammatory consequences in carrageenan and standard formalin tests conducted on rats in laboratory.
Milky juice or latex.
Traditionally, lettuce opium has been employed for treating several medical conditions varying from assisting the circulatory system to treating enlarged/ distended genitals. In Europe, herbalists employ lettuce opium as a substitute for opium in cough mixtures. A tincture is prepared with the herb in homeopathy for treating infections of the respiratory tract, such as asthma, cough, laryngitis and bronchitis as well as infections of the urinary tract. The juice extracted from the stem covering the herb produces a therapeutic extract called thridace - the exploit as well as effectiveness of this substance is greatly in doubt.
Preparations with lettuce have been used extensively in traditional Chinese medicine. The dried out juice extracted from the plant is an antiseptic and, hence, prescribed for external application to wounds. The seeds of the herb have been used in the form of galactogogue with a view to enhance the flow of breast milk in nursing mothers. Moreover, it has been maintained by some herbalists that the flowers as well as the seeds of the herb are helpful in lowering fevers. More lately, products of lettuce opium have been sold in the form of legal highs or as substitutes to narcotics with the intention to be smoked by itself or in conjugation with marijuana to augment effectiveness as well as taste of the herb.
A physician based in Philadelphia, J. R. Coxe was the first to introduce lettuce opium to traditional American medicine way back in 1799. In effect, lettuce opium was widely used in the form of an analgesic and sedative for about a century after its introduction into traditional American medicine and subsequently the herb was no more preferred for this purpose. By the middle of the 20th century, lettuce opium gradually became insignificant. However, all of a sudden, lettuce opium was revived by the members of the American hippie movement during mid-1970s in the form of a legal psychotropic or a medication for altering the mind.
A wide assortment of preparations using lettuce opium were advertised extensively in counter-culture publications, either in the form of an unadulterated substance or blended with potency enhancing herbs, for instance damiana or catnip. These products were meant to be smoked with a view to generate a sensation of ecstasy as well as happiness (precisely speaking, being on a ‘high'). As years passed, a section of people have made recurring endeavours to demonstrate the tranquilizing as well as the analgesic (pain relieving) actions of lettuce opium as well as to discover the active principles that may perhaps be responsible for these effects of the herb.
The findings of an all-embracing pharmacological research involving lettuce opium, which were published in 1940, revealed that the freshly obtained milky juice enclosed two bitter principles - lactucopicrin and lactucin. It was found that these two substances had specific sedative or depressant actions on the central nervous system (CNS) in little animals. Nevertheless, it was also found that these two amalgams were somewhat volatile and the lactucarium that is available commercially possessed very little, if any, or no action.
Side effects and cautions
There is no report of clinically significant adverse actions of smoking lettuce opium. Nevertheless, there exists a potential relation between ingestion of lettuce and a local oral allergic effect.