Natural products and health supplements have increasingly been used by the medical community and general population in recent years for improved well-being and overall prevention of diseases. Many common plants have now become a valuable source of nutraceuticals due to a large number of potentially active nutrients contained in them. Among such plants is the cactus plant or nopales. It belongs to the Cactaceae family, and has been used for hundreds of years by Native Americans to ward off illnesses.
Cactus is native to Mexico and the American southwest and considered a ‘new world’ plant. They are adapted to arid and hot environments with special anatomical and physiological features that help conserve water. The stems are flat and green like paddles, and the leaves have turned into spines. Most cacti contain alkaloids that are antiseptic and widely used to cleanse the skin and as an anti-bacterial agent. As a popular folkloric medicine, Native Americans use it to treat influenza, arthritis, diabetes, intestinal disorders, and exhaustion. It is also used as a hair tonic. It is popular in Mexico for preventing hangovers. The cactus is a good source of dietary fiber in soluble or insoluble form and aids in indigestion.
Cactus Used For Diabetes
In Integrative Medicine, cactus or prickly pear is prescribed to help control blood sugar levels in those with diabetes or pre-diabetes. Other plant products used to treat diabetes include fenugreek, bitter melon, and others. Cactus capsules (Opuntia capsules) are used widely to control diabetes. Mexican researchers found that patients suffering from diabetes benefit when they consume broiled nopal with a large drop in blood sugar levels. The fruit of the cactus called dragon fruit is rich in vitamin C, fiber, and calcium with similar properties to the cactus.
Cancer Preventive Attributes Of Cactus
The Cactaceae family comprises of more than 1500 species, although only a few have been explored for their chemopreventive and anticancer attributes. Cancer prevention based on bioactive fractions or pure components obtained from desert plants such as cactus with known cancer-inhibiting properties suggests a promising alternative to current cancer treatment options. Cactus is known to have evolved efficient antioxidant defense systems to thrive in low-nutrient soils under extreme climatic conditions, such as extremes of temperature and water scarcity. The same defense mechanism that protects them against their harsh environment may play a protective role against cancer, similar to how it helps control blood sugar in diabetics and other acute and chronic conditions.
Although nopal has shown to have many medicinal benefits, consult with your physician before you begin a regimen as some supplements may interfere with your prescription medicines causing side effects.
Sources for this article include:
- Shetty AA, Rana MK, Preetham SP. Cactus: a medicinal food. J Food Sci Technol. 2012 Oct;49(5):530-6.
- Harlev E et al. Cancer preventive and curative attributes of plants of the Cactaceae family: a review. Planta Med. 2013 Jun;79(9):713-22.
- Feugang JM et al. Nutritional and medicinal use of Cactus pear (Opuntia spp.) cladodes and fruits. Front Biosci. 2006 Sep 1;11:2574-89.