The psychological effects of the opium poppy plant were already known by the Ancient Sumerians 5000 years ago. Theophrastus, a Greek philosopher, botanist, and physician who lived in the 3rd century B.C. and was a disciple of Aristotle, was the first to describe the opium poppy plant sap, which he named opion (the Greek word for juice). Dioscorides recommended this plant for easing pains and pursuing drowsiness.
Arabic physicians, who during the Middle Ages spread the use of the opium poppy plant all over Europe and Asia, usually recommended it as an antidiarrheic. In the 18th century, its consumption increased both as a medicine and drug due to its euphoric effects. This situation became more severe in the late 19th century and the early 20th century, with the invention of hypodermic needles.
In 1803, a young German pharmacist isolated an alkaloid from opium which he called morphine, from the Greek god of sleep, Morpheus. After that, some other alkaloids and demi-synthetic derivatives were obtained, such as diacetylmorphine, also called heroin. The generalization of their use with non-medical aims has led to an actual social disease, drug addiction. All over the world, millions of heroin addicts suffer the severe toxic effects of these substances, having searched in them for what they thought would be pleasure. A 16th-century Spanish physician, Andres de Laguna, declared, “The opium poppy plant is a tasteful poison.”
Healing Properties and Uses
When an immature capsule of the opium poppy plant is cut, out flows a milky sap: Latex. When dried in the open air, it turns into a gummy, ochre (yellow) substance: opium. About 25 percent of opium weight comprises alkaloids (some 24 different ones), classified into two types, according to their chemical structure.
- Phenanthrene derivatives. Morphine (the most abundant), with intense analgesic action, codeine, with antitussive action, thebaine, with relaxing action, and others.
- Isoquinoline derivatives. Papaverine and noscapine, of antispasmodic action, among others.
Opium effects are the combination of those of each and every alkaloid of which it is made, though morphine effects are dominant, this alkaloid being the most abundant. The following are the most important effects:
- Analgesic. In patients suffering from aching, discomfort, or worry, it makes the pain disappear completely, followed by a state of sleepiness or mental obnubilation (stupor). Sydenham, a famous 17th century English physician, said: “Among the most powerful remedies that God bestowed to mankind to ease our sufferings, none is as efficient or as universal as the opium poppy plant.” However, at present, the analgesic power of opium has been surpassed by that of its demi-synthetic derivatives.
The significant disadvantage of opium and its alkaloids is their extraordinary ability to provoke addiction (physical dependence). After a few doses, the patient needs it urgently, and he finds there is no other substance to take its place. Thus, it must be used prudently and always for short periods, except among the terminally ill.
When a healthy person receives a dose of opium, he will undergo an exaggerated sensation of euphoria, followed by a feeling of dysphoria (anxiety, sadness, fear), nausea, or vomiting. The symptoms of physical dependence will also soon appear. A former drug addict said: “First, you take it to feel good. Then you must take it to avoid feeling bad.”
- Respiratory depression. Opium produces slow and superficial breathing mainly because of the morphine it contains, which acts on the respiratory centers of the brain. High doses produce respiratory failure and death.
- Antidiarrheic effect. The opium poppy plant reduces digestive secretions and retards the peristaltic movements of the intestines. Thus, it has been widely used against diarrhea and dysentery. Today, other products with less toxic effects are widely available.
Ripe capsules of the opium poppy plant (green ones with a higher proportion of toxic alkaloids) may be used:
- as an analgesic for persistent pain.
- As a sedative for toothache, utilizing mouth rinsings with a decoction of opium poppy capsules.
- As a sedative in cases of rebel insomnia.
It is worth remembering that the opium poppy plant does not heal the cause of aches or insomnia, which must be found and treated. The risk of addiction and toxicity of the opium poppy increase in accordance with its pureness.
- Opium is more dangerous than the plant capsules.
- Alkaloids extracted from opium (for instance, morphine) are more toxic than complete opium.
- Demi-synthesized alkaloids (heroin or diacetylmorphine, for instance), which are obtained through chemical processes from natural alkaloids of opium, are more toxic and are more capable of producing addiction.
Thus, opium, and of course its alkaloids, must only be used under medical supervision and, according to the respective country’s law, with a specific prescription.
An oil is obtained from the opium poppy plant seeds, which contain a fair amount of lecithin. This phosphorus-rich substance is recommended to reduce cholesterol in the blood and improve the nervous system’s functions. Opium poppy oil is entirely devoid of stupefacient alkaloids and may thus be used as cooking oil with great dietetic value. Its seeds are also employed in confectionery and bakery.
Opium Poppy Plant Scientific Facts
- Scientific name: Papaver somniferum L.
- French: Pavot.
- Spanish: Adormidera, amapola blanca.
- Environment: With its origin in the Middle East, it is grown as a medicinal herb in Turkey, Iran, China, southeastern Asia, and South Europe. It has been grown as an ornamental plant in some gardens in warm countries of Europe and America. It may grow wild on farmlands.
- Description: Annual plant of the Papaveraceae family, with a variable appearance. Hollow, stiff stem up to one meter high. With four white, purple, or lilac petals with a dark stain in their base. The fruit is a slightly oval capsule that contains many seeds.
- Parts of the plant used medicinally: Latex, capsules, and seeds.
How to use Opium Poppy
- Decoction, with two or to four ripe capsules per liter of water, boiled for five minutes. Up to three cups daily, one of them before going to sleep.
- Seed oil. One or two tablespoons (15-30) of raw oil, once or twice a day, salad dressing, or on other vegetables.
- Mouth rinsings. Up to 6 or 8 ripe capsules may be added to the same decoction as for internal use.
Wild Opium Poppy
The wild opium poppy, an autochthonous species of opium poppy, grows on the Iberian peninsula. Its properties are similar to those of Papaver somniferum L., though it has a lower percentage of active components than the latter. It has occasionally been farmed both in Spain and in France for the use of its medicinal properties.
WARNING! Never exceed the recommended dose. Never take it with any alcoholic beverage or liquor, as alcohol would boost its toxic effects.
George D. Pamplona-Roger, M.D. “Encyclopedia of Medicinal Plants.” George D. Pamplona-Roger, M.D. Encyclopedia of Medicinal Plants. Ed. Francesc X. Gelabert. Vols. 1 San Fernando de Henares: Editorial Safeliz, 2000. 164, 165, 166. Print. [opium poppy plant]