Lettuce has been cultivated as both food and medicine for thousands of years; yet, today, it is best known as a low-calorie salad ingredient with a light crunch. Some even mock this extraordinary plant species by calling it “rabbit food”. Fortunately, our ancient ancestors knew better, and modern science is backing up their beliefs. Below, I have listed the health and wellness benefits that have made lettuce popular around the world for millennia.
Most Noted Lettuce Benefits
- Anti-inflammatory properties
- Antioxidant properties
- Antimicrobial properties
- Relieves anxiety
- Helps induce sleep
- Lowers cholesterol levels
- Protects neurons
Lettuce contains anti-inflammatory properties that have been shown, in experimental models, to have “significant controlling power over inflammation induced by biocatalysts like lipoxygenase and carrageenan.”1 Lipoxygenase and carrageenan are natural inflammatory agents found in a variety of foods and even personal care products. Most anti-inflammatory drugs are designed to target these and similar inflammatory agents in the body. But, if you eat lettuce, you may be able to get all of the anti-inflammatory benefits of such drugs without the negative side-effects.
Studies have also shown that lettuce contains “antioxidants with significant free radical-scavenging capabilities.”1 In case you weren’t aware, free radicals are the natural and negative result of cellular metabolism. They “attack healthy tissues, cells and the DNA inside them.”1 Free radicals can even cause healthy cells to mutate, which can result in the development of various diseases. Antioxidants neutralize free radicals and prevent these mutations, protecting our health.
The antimicrobial properties of lettuce are contained in its sap, which is also referred to as “lettuce milk”. Not all, but certainly most, varieties of lettuce contain the slightly bitter tasting milky sap known as Lactucarium. Lactucarium doesn’t just kill microbes, it acts as a non-narcotic sedative and analgesic that relieves anxiety and helps induce sleep. “The neurological properties of lettuce have been suggested and exploited during ancient times and the Middle Ages in medical [treatises] such as the Unani system.”1 The Unani medicine system, a traditional system of healing and health maintenance, was founded on the writings of the ancient Greek physicians Hippocrates and Galen, and widely observed in South Asia. “Detailed research in recent times has led to the conclusion that lettuce possesses anxiolytic properties. When lab animals were given lettuce extracts, their locomotive actively was reduced, suggesting considerable anxiolysis.”1
Lettuce also lowers cholesterol levels that can lead to cardiovascular disease and stroke, in large part, due to its antioxidant content. Lettuce’s vitamin C and beta carotene content “work together to prevent the oxidation of cholesterol. When cholesterol becomes oxidized, it becomes sticky and starts to build up in the artery walls forming plaques. If these plaques become too large, they can block off blood flow or break, causing a clot that triggers a heart attack or stroke.”2 In addition, lettuce contains good amounts of folic acid (aka folate), another heart healthy nutrient, that is “needed by the body to convert a damaging chemical called homocysteine into other, benign substances. If not converted, homocysteine can directly damage blood vessels, thus greatly increasing the risk of heart attack and stroke.”2
While all of the above health benefits make lettuce well worth adding to the shopping list, its ability to protect neuronal cells may be the most impressive.
Neurons are the nerve cells that make up the nervous system. They control motor and sensory responses, pain, and even memory. Neurons form the physical connections that make up memory. And, unlike other cells, “neurons never divide, and neither do they die off to be replaced by new ones. By the same token, they usually cannot be replaced after being lost, although there are a few exceptions.”3 So, obviously, the death of neurons that make up memory will result in the loss of memory. “In some extreme cases, significant neuronal death can result in the onset of diseases like Alzheimer’s.”1 And studies have shown that extracts from lettuce could control neuron cell death due to its role in glucose/serum deprivation (GSD). “The research has also mentioned that lettuce has the potential to be used in neuro-protection as a common remedy for neurodegenerative diseases.”1 For those concerned about such issues, adding lettuce to the diet may be a simple and sensible dietary precaution against neuronal degradation. It certainly couldn’t do any harm.
There are six lettuce types commonly sold throughout the United States: Looseleaf, Butterhead, Cos (Romaine), Buttercrunch, Batavian (Summer crisp), and Heading (Crisphead).
- Looseleaf varieties include red oak leaf, green oak leaf, red salad bowl, red sails and blushed butter oak
- Butterhead varieties include burgundy Boston, merveille des quatre saisons (French four seasons), drunken woman frizzy headed, speckles, flashy butter oak, Tom Thumb and Skyphos
- Cos (Romaine) varieties include breen, Jericho and flashy trout back
- Buttercrunch varieties include Winter density and buttercrunch
- Batavian (Summer crisp) varieties include Nevada and mottistone
- Heading (Crisphead) varieties are iceberg, red iceberg and Summertime
There are also Chinese lettuce varieties, but the only one I’m certain can be found somewhat commonly in the United States is Celtuce. Each lettuce type and their varieties possesses a unique and distinctive taste and texture that makes them someone’s favorite lettuce. Be adventurous! Try them all, and discover which lettuce is yours.
A guest blog from holistic writer Andrea Lewis.
1 “Health Benefits of Lettuce”. Organic Facts, n.d. Web. April 2016
2 “Romaine Lettuce”. The World’s Healthiest Foods, n.d. Web. April 2016
3 “Neurons & Synapses”. The Human Memory, n.d. Web. April 2016
The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica. “Unani Medicine”. Encyclopaedia Britannica, n.d. Web. April 2016
“Lettuce Varieties and Types of Lettuce”. Grow It Organically!, n.d. Web. April 2016
“Lettuce Nutrition Facts”. Nutririon and You, n.d. Web. April 2016
“7 Health Remedies for Better Sleep”. Herbal Academy of New England, August 3, 2015