Helps Normalize Blood Sugar
Parts of the prickly pear cactus have been used in various ways throughout the world. The Aztecs extracted the milky juice from the plant and mixed it with honey and egg yolk to provide an ointment to treat burns. The Chinese dressed abscesses with the fleshy pad of the plant. The Indians used the fruit for food and also made syrup from it to treat whooping cough and asthma.
In Italy, the flowers have served as a diuretic. A tea made from the blossoms has treated colitis. In Israel, researchers found that the dried flowers may be used to battle an enlarged prostate.
In California, during the 1700s and 1800s, prickly pear cactus plants stood guard near the Spanish missions and on the large Spanish ranchos. In addition to the cooked stems and sweet fruits savored by diners, the cactus pads provided a source of sticky binding material for adobe bricks during construction. More recently, the Mexicans have used the plant to treat diabetes and obesity, as well as elevated blood cholesterol levels. They prepare the medicine by slicing cactus pads into strips and boiling them like string green beans.
Prickly pear cactus belongs to the genus Opuntia, a large group of cacti that contains over 300 varieties–some with spines, some without. A common type of prickly pear cactus, also known as Indian fig (Opuntia ficus-indica), grows in large thickets. Originally native to Mexico, it’s now cultivated in Mediterranean regions of Europe, the western United States, and throughout Latin America. Today the cactus is commercially grown in California.
The many-seeded, fleshy, and sweet fruit known as cactus apple or tuna can be eaten raw or made into a drink. Some people use the juice of prickly pear to make jellies and candies. The cactus fruits have long been highly prized, and were traded by Native Americans in Central America.
Normalizes Blood Sugar Levels
In Mexican traditional medicine, prickly pear cactus (nopal) is used for the treatment of diabetes and high cholesterol. Today nopal is a commonly called upon herbal agent for the treatment of Type 2 Diabetes by Mexican Americans as well as American Indians. The blood sugar- lowering action of nopal has been documented in a number of studies.
Extracts of prickly pear cactus have hypoglycemic effects when fed to animals with experimentally induced diabetes, as well as to healthy animals with elevated blood glucose levels. Researchers in Mexico found that patients with non-insulin- dependent diabetes mellitus who were given broiled nopal stems ex-
perienced a significant drop in blood glucose levels, while their insulin showed improved effectiveness. Furthermore, the regular use of sap from prickly pear cactus has been shown to improve the general symptoms of a diabetic patient.
Lower Lipid Levels
The use of prickly pear cactus may also lower blood lipid levels. In a recent study, the daily consumption of 250 grams of broiled prickly pear cactus lowered total cholesterol and LDL cholesterol levels (but not HDL cholesterol or triglyceride levels) in 15 young patients with familial hypercholesterolemia. Although there are many species of Opuntia, few varieties have been positively shown to be effective in normalizing blood sugar or blood lipid levels.
The stems of prickly pear cactus contain substantial levels of pectin and other soluble fibers. It’s the fiber content that is believed to be responsible for the ability of the cactus to lower blood sugar and blood lipid levels. Broiling the cactus stems apparently increases its ability to lower blood glucose levels. About 400-500 grams (one half pound) of broiled cactus stems is the typical dose needed for the effect. The high content of pectin also provides the consumer with a sense of abdominal fullness. This property may play a role in the use of prickly pear cactus for weight reduction.
Prickly pear cactus appears to be safe when consumed as food. When used medicinally to lower blood sugar levels, it has proven itself to be trustworthy and effective for individuals with diabetes while not triggering hypoglycemia. There is insufficient data to validate its effectiveness for other uses or to support its use during pregnancy or breast-feeding.
Winston J. Craig, Ph.D., R.D., is professor of nutrition at Andrews University, Berrien Springs, Michigan.