It’s common knowledge that lettuce is one of the most healthy foods you can eat. But most people don’t know that its beneficial properties go much further than just calorie-cutting. In fact, the ancient Egyptians, Greeks, Romans and medieval Europeans cultivated several lettuce varieties specifically for their medicinal properties. Today, modern science supports what our ancient ancestors already knew — that lettuce offers a multitude of lesser-known health benefits.
1. Anti-Inflammatory Properties
Dark leafy greens are an excellent source of vitamins A, E and K, which may play a critical role in reducing inflammation. Considered a pain-safe food, which won’t trigger migraines, headaches or other types of pain, lettuce contains certain proteins known to address inflammation and even bone-related pain. More research may be needed to understand the effects of lettuce on specific conditions like arthritis, however.
2. Lowers Cholesterol
Eating two cups of lettuce per day is highly recommended for those with high cholesterol. Lettuce may enhance the process of lipid peroxidation, which significantly lowers LDL cholesterol levels. Plus, lettuce is low in calories and fat yet high in micronutrients and fiber, making it a powerful dietary choice for weight loss. In these ways, lettuce may indirectly help prevent cardiovascular diseases, such as heart attack and stroke.
3. Improves Sleep
In Unani medicine, a South Asian tradition based on ancient Greek medical practice, lettuce is used to treat sleep problems. Lettuce extracts have been shown to contain depressant chemicals called lactucarium and lactucin. By preventing the stimulatory signals in muscles and neurons, these chemicals create a sedative effect and reduce heart rate. If you suffer from insomnia, lettuce extract may help you relax and fall asleep in a similar way to diazepam. More research may be needed to show whether raw lettuce, rather than its extract, may also be a sleep aid.
4. Antioxidants Prevent Cancer
Antioxidants are compounds that prevent and reduce damage caused by free radicals. These toxic compounds result from radiation, smoking, pollution, and even regular cell metabolism and are linked to chronic diseases like cancer, cardiovascular disease, neurodegenerative diseases, and aging. While the body can produce antioxidants on its own, the food we consume is another significant source of these free-radical-neutralizing agents. As a non-starchy vegetable, lettuce is a particularly good source of antioxidants. It has been linked to a lowered risk of several forms of cancer, including cancers of the stomach, mouth, throat, esophagus and lungs.
5. Improves Brain & Mental Health
Lettuce shows excellent promise for brain health, both psychological and neurological. Unani medicine has long used lettuce to treat anxiety, and the research today suggests that lettuce extract does indeed have anti-anxiety properties. In addition, the extract could be useful in preventing age-related cognitive decline, such as Alzheimer’s, due to its ability to regulate neuronal cell death and its high nitrate content. Nitric oxide is a critical player in endothelial health, which pertains to the lining of the heart and blood vessels. Endothelial dysfunction has been linked to age-related neurological disease.
6. Supports Vision Health
Macular degeneration refers to the thinning of the part of the retina responsible for the central field of vision. Lettuce is full of zeaxanthin and lutein, which are specific types of antioxidant carotenoids that protect your eyes from UV damage and prevent age-related macular degeneration. Lettuce is also high in vitamin A, which similarly reduces your risk of macular degeneration and cataracts.
7. Enhances Bone Strength
Three of the main vitamins found in lettuce are A, C and K, which help produce collagen and contribute in unique ways to bone health. Vitamin A and C play a crucial role in forming new osteoblasts, cells responsible for the development of bone. Vitamin C also neutralizes free radicals that threaten bone health. Vitamin K aids in the process of building cartilage and connective tissue and, as a result, creates strong bones. Therefore, consuming lettuce can reduce your risk of bone fracture, aid in developing new bone, and prevent osteoporosis in old age.
8. Prevents Diabetes
Because it is so low in calories and carbs, lettuce is very low on the glycemic index, a measure of how fast a food spikes blood sugar. In addition, lettuce can even treat type 2 diabetes, thanks to a micronutrient called lactucaxanthin. This carotenoid is linked to lowered glucose levels in the blood.
9. Reduces Issues in Pregnancy
Vitamin K is not just vital for bone health but also for a safe pregnancy and birth. Vitamin K helps blood to clot, which prevents excessive bleeding. If a baby does not receive enough vitamin K during pregnancy, they may experience a condition called vitamin K deficiency bleeding, which can lead to bleeding in the brain or even death. Pregnant women also need plenty of folate to prevent birth defects and fiber to treat constipation. Lettuce contains up to 64 micrograms of folate and about half a gram of fiber per cup.
10. Skin & Hair Health
Vitamin A, also known as retinoids in the beauty industry, helps shed dead skin cells and generate new cells. It also prevents collagen breakdown, thereby treating sun damage and potentially providing some resistance to sunburn. Vitamin C is an antioxidant that prevents skin cancer, strengthens the shape of collagen, and offers some UV ray protection as well. Vitamin K may increase hair strength, but more research is needed in this area. One cup of lettuce contains 2,666 IU of vitamin A, 3.3 mg of vitamin C, and up to 61 mcg of vitamin K.
Our ancient ancestors were undoubtedly onto something with their agricultural obsession with lettuce. Not only is it a delicious base for salads, a healthy topping on sandwiches, and a hydrating snack, but it also offers a wide range of medical and health benefits. Its abundance of vitamins improves everything from skin to sleep to bone health, while its antioxidants prevent common signs of aging and degenerative disease. Lettuce can even help prevent some of the major conditions plaguing our modern world, such as cancer, diabetes and cardiovascular disease. With more research, we will surely come to see that lettuce has many more hidden health benefits. If it’s not already, lettuce should most certainly be a staple in your diet and your home garden!