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Since ancient times, physicians have used Lactuca virosa, also known as the wild lettuce plant, for its analgesic and sedative properties. Drug regulatory systems consider the species a homeopathic herb, and in the United States, no statutes govern growing, owning or purchasing the plant. Lactuca virosa originated in Europe and was later introduced to the United States, where it is most commonly found in Alabama, California, and Iowa.
Emperor Augustus, ruler of ancient Rome, reportedly suffered from a mysterious malady that his physicians treated with Lactuca virosa. The emperor was so pleased with the results that he constructed a statue of the plant in commemoration. In the 1700s, physicians documented opium lettuce usage, and a century later, Polish health care providers relied on the anesthetic and tranquilizing properties of the plant when opium was not available. Called by a variety of names, including bitter lettuce, wild lettuce, and Laitue vireuse, the plant is still used in ayurvedic and Chinese medicine.
Lactuca virosa extract contains lactucopicrin and lactucin. Researchers believe that lactucopicrin inhibits cholinesterase, the chemical that breaks down the neurotransmitter acetylcholine. This action generally produces a relaxing sedative quality that many use for treating anxiety and insomnia.
Studies reveal that lactucin demonstrates stronger analgesic and anti-inflammatory properties than some over-the-counter medications. Patients are reported to experience these pain relieving properties after treatment for abdominal colic, painful menstruation, or muscle spasms. European cultures claim that Lactuca virosa possesses cough suppressant properties, and Asian cultures use the chemical extract as a topical antiseptic.
Some believe that the seeds of Lactuca virosa enhance the flow of breast milk in nursing mothers, and there are those in Middle Eastern countries who insist that the plant contains anti-malarial benefits. The substance responsible for all of these purported healing properties lies within the plant. A sticky, milk-like latex substance contains the lactucopicrin and the lactucin. Individuals retrieve the resin by milking the main stalk and stems.
The resin is then dried or added to alcohol, forming a tincture. Individuals add a few drops of this tincture to hot water and drink the solution as a tea. Some use the leaves directly from the plant in salads, though the plant is notoriously bitter. The leaves and stems can also be dried and smoked as a cigarette.
Resembling a cross between a dandelion and a thistle, Lactuca virosa is grown as an annual or biennial. The plants may reach heights of up to 6 feet (1.8 meters) tall. The main stalk and stems range from green to purple and usually have a prickly appearance. The leaves may grow up to 18 inches (45.72 centimeters) in length.
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