Prickly pear cactus, also known as opuntia, and nopal (in its native Mexico), is an edible cactus with a long history of culinary and folk-medicine use. The plant is found in Mexico, Arizona, and other parts of the American Southwest. It yields a fruit (known as a a fig, or tuna), high in minerals such as calcium, magnesium, and potassium. The fruit is also high in mucilaginous fiber, carotenoid antioxidants, and linoleic acid. In Mexico, the fruit has been used historically for treating skin wounds, digestive troubles, and urinary tract infections. It possesses anti-inflammatory properties, anti-viral compounds, and as has been shown in recent scientific studies, effective blood-sugar balancing and cholesterol-lowering abilities.
Nopal has been extensively studied in Mexico with regard to its blood-sugar balancing properties. Mexican researchers found that people with non-insulin-dependent
diabetes given broiled nopal stems experienced a large drop in blood
sugar levels. In traditional Mexican medicine, nopal is used for treating type-2 diabetes. Elsewhere, studies have shown that the fiber and pectin in the plant appear to lower blood sugar by decreasing the absorption of sugar in the stomach and intestines. The plant improves insulin sensitivity and also protects the liver from oxidation. Its regulation of blood sugar comes with no side effects, and certainly no liver damage, which is the main side effect of most pharmaceutical drugs for blood sugar.
As well as naturally regulating healthy blood sugar levels, nopal extract has positive effects upon cholesterol levels. Studies have shown that 250 mg extract daily will lower LDL and total cholesterol levels. HDL and triglycerides were not affected in studies.
Hangover & More
Another interesting benefit of nopal, clinically studied, is its reduction in the unpleasant effects of hangover. In a manufacturer-sponsored, double-blind, placebo-controlled, crossover trial, 64 healthy young adults received either prickly pear cactus extract 1,600 IU or placebo 5 hours before consumption of up to 1.75 g of alcohol per kg body weight in a party-like atmosphere. Prickly pear cactus extract did not reduce overall hangover symptoms, but it did reduce the risk for severe hangover by 50%. The groups receiving the extract reported nausea, anorexia, and dry mouth less frequently, but symptoms of headache, soreness, weakness, shakiness, diarrhea, and dizziness were similar to the placebo group. As part of this study, pre- and post-drinking levels of C-reactive protein (CRP), a marker of inflammation, were taken. The placebo group's CRP levels were raised 50% by alcohol, while the nopal extract group's levels were reduced to levels seen before alcohol (drinking). This shows that not only do hangover effects have something to do with inflammation, but that nopal acts as a potent anti-inflammatory.
Prickly pear cactus is increasingly turning up in skin care as well. It contains antioxidants which fight free radical damage that contributes to wrinkles, sagging, and uneven skin tone. It also has anti-inflammatory properties. Nopal is also rich with carotenoids, essential fatty acids, vitamins, minerals and other phytonutrients. Whatever you choose to call it, it's a desirable ingredient in skin care products and Mychelle features it in several products.
Evergreen Nutrition carries nopal singly and also in several blood sugar support blends (prickly pear, opuntia). It also pops up in some protein powders and superfood/greens blends. This southwestern favorite's valuable medicinal and cosmetic properties will no doubt become better known as time passes.
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