Nopal Cactus Overview:
Nopal cactus, also known as Opuntia ficus-indica and more commonly known as prickly pear cactus, has recently been gaining popularity for its health benefits. The prickly pear cactus is a perennial plant and found native in the Sonora Desert in Arizona, California, and New Mexico as well as in Mexico and Latin America. It has been used by humans for thousands of years as food, beverages, and medicine. After removing the strong, sharp thorns on a young plant, it can be eaten raw in salads or cooked into jams. The edible parts of prickly pear cactus are the leaves, flowers, stems and fruit.
Prickly pear cacti contain essential micronutrients. In a typical one 4-ounce prickly pear, one can receive 14 mg of Vitamin C (22% of the daily value), 88 mg of magnesium (22% of the daily value), 227 mg of potassium (6% of the daily value) and 6 mg of calcium (6% of the daily value). The stems and fruits, which contain Vitamin C, have antioxidant properties. They decrease oxidative damage to lipids, improve antioxidant status in healthy humans, and significantly affect body oxidative stress. Magnesium is also important for the body because it is necessary for muscle function and bone health. With only 5 mg of sodium in a typical serving, the prickly pear cactus is a high-potassium, low sodium food which can prevent high blood pressure or help lower blood pressure if it is already high. High blood pressure will cause strokes and the development of kidney disease so it is important to keep blood pressure at a healthy normal level.
Consumption of prickly pear cacti have been used for weight control. It is a low-calorie food, containing only 42 calories for a typical 4-ounces prickly pear. Eighty-eight percent of the weight is from water, which is calorie-free and a natural hunger suppressant. Adding this low-calorie food will limit calorie intake and control weight.
The stems of prickly pear cactus, which contain fiber and pectin, have been used to lower blood sugar levels of those with Type 2 diabetes. In a recent study, the cactus extracts caused a significant decrease in blood glucose values by almost 18 percent. In some people, just a single dose can decrease blood sugar levels by 17% to 46%.
Pectin in the prickly pear cactus have also shown to decrease unhealthy levels of LDL concentrations and lead to a 28% drop in total cholesterol levels. LDL is a low-density lipoprotein which, in high abnormal quantities, collects in the walls of blood vessels causing blockages of atherosclerosis. These blockages can cause heart attacks. In a Mexican study, researchers found that animals fed raw prickly pear cactus had lower weight gain and a 34% reduction in LDL cholesterol levels.
Prickly pear cactus are known for their anti-inflammatory properties. In a Korean study, ethanol extracts from the fruit and stems of the cactus were found to suppress paw edema in laboratory animals and had a potent inhibitory effect against leukocyte migration, which is an important mechanism in the development of inflammatory diseases.
Mucilage found in the plant has been thought to treat ulcers. Pre-treatment using the prickly pear cactus has been beneficial in preventing ulcers.
Prickly pear cactus have also shown to help hangovers. Taking a prickly pear cactus before drinking alcohol may reduce some symptoms such as nausea, anorexia, and dry mouth but does not reduce symptoms such as headache, dizziness, diarrhea, or soreness.
Prickly pear cactus have been reported to cause diarrhea, nausea, increased stool volume, increased stool frequency, abdominal fullness, and headache. In regards to surgery, prickly pear cactus affect blood sugar levels and will make blood sugar control difficult during and after surgery. It is advisable to stop consumption of prickly pear cactus at least two weeks before a scheduled surgery.
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