Let food be your medicine
Wild lettuce (Lactuca virosa)
Also known as: Lettuce opium.
This species of lettuce has powerful opiate-like properties which have been used as an analgesic by ancient Arab, Greek and Roman physicians, botanists and researchers including Avicenna, Dioscorides and Pliny the Elder.
In the past hundreds of years, it has been blended with different herbs and used as an analgesic in surgeries. The compound in the dried form of this species of lettuce is called lactucarium which is made up of the substances lactucin, lactucopicrin and lactupicrin that have very effective sedative and pain-relieving qualities similar to opium but without the adverse side effects.
It is a tall plant with yellow blooms similar to dandelions and it is the stems and sap which are used medicinally, usually as infusions, syrups or tinctures, for the following conditions:
Anxiety: Relaxes the nervous system and calms the mind.
Asthma: Calms asthmatic attacks and reduces the severity.
Dry coughs and whooping cough: Prevents and relieves coughs due to its anti-tussive properties.
Headaches: Eases pain because it acts like a mild sedative.
Muscle pain and spasms: Alleviates muscle pain and has antispasmodic properties.
Spondylosis is a degenerative illness of the spinal joints and the discs that is aggravated by lack of exercise. Wild lettuce can provide relief from the pain caused by this condition.
Infusions are a simple way of extracting the active principles of herbs through the action of hot water. The preparation of infusions is similar to way we prepare tea. This method is used to extract the volatile components of the dried or green aerial parts of herbs and plants like flowers and leaves. Infusions may use single herbs or a blend of herbs, vegetables, fruits and spices and are drunk hot or cold. Certainly this is the most common and cheap method of extracting the medicinal compounds of herbs.
Pure vegetable oils such as almond, olive, rapeseed and sunflower are easily found at general grocery stores. They have the property of dissolving the active, fat-soluble principles of medicinal plants. This process is called infusion and can be carried out at room temperature or higher. Infusion is a slower process than alcohol extraction but has the advantage of resulting in an oil based solution of medicinal constituents that can easily be used to make creams and ointments. Hot infusion is recommended for the harder parts of the plants such as roots and stems while cold infusion is more suitable for flowers and leaves.
With some rare exceptions, like peppermint that is a familiar flavouring agent in tooth paste and chewing gum, infused or decocted herbs are not palatable, specially for children. In order to disguise their taste, infusion and decoctions can be mixed with honey. These syrups combine the soothing action of these solvents to the medicinal properties of the infusions and decoctions resulting in additional benefits specially for treating coughs and sore throats.
Most of the volatile components of medicinal plants and herbs are soluble in alcohol. By immersing dried or fresh parts of plants in alcohol, the active principles are easily extracted at concentrations that exceed those that can be achieved by infusion or decoction. Highly concentrate solutions that will last for one to two years are a convenient way to store and use medicinal plants constituents. Ideally tinctures should be made using pure ethyl alcohol distilled from cereals. However, since this product is not available to the public, good Vodka with 45-35% alcohol can be used.
The extraction is fairly quick. A 50% mixture of herbs and alcohol kept in a tightly closed jar will hold a tincture ready for use at the prescribed dosage. Never use methyl alcohol, methylated spirits, isopropyl alcohol or any other kind of unknown spirit to make tinctures.
Note: Wild lettuce should only be taken in very small amounts under the guidance of a professional herbalist as too much can cause dizziness, nausea and vomiting.
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