What is It?
A symbol of the Rio Grande valley, the prickly pear cactus (genus Opuntia) boasts thorny pads, colorful large flowers, and succulent fruits, and its distinctive image is proudly displayed on the Mexican flag. For centuries, native peoples living in the deserts of Mexico, the southern United States, and parts of South America relied on this robust desert plant for food and healing. Many of these traditions were carried on by European settlers, who then also transported the plant’s seeds to Europe and around the world.
As a result, prickly pear cactus now grows in harsh desert locales from South Africa and Australia to Africa and the Mediterranean region. Also commonly referred to as “nopal” or “penca,” the plant has been adapted for myriad uses by different cultures, many of which have been passed down through time.
The most intensively used parts of the plant are the pads and the fruits. The pads–technically the flattened stem which grows quickly–protrude from the plant at odd angles. Clinging to each pad are small clusters of tiny stickers. After trimming these stickers and spines away, the pad can then be peeled and prepared for cooking as any vegetable would. Popular techniques include broiling or sauteing the pad, or chopping it raw and adding it to soups and salads. Once heated, the pectin-rich pads tend to become gooey, acquiring a texture similar to okra.
The spiny red fruits, also known as “tunas,” are cylindrical in shape and about the size of a child’s hand. The crimson fruits were once popular for making red dye. They are often used to make jelly, juice, and pickles. In Mexico the fruits are the basis of a jelly, as well as a sweet syrup that is used like honey or hardened into taffy. Cactus pear cheese is a delicacy made by cooking and cooling the fruits.
This native species has also become a popular landscaping plant (it’s colorful and attracts birds). The fresh pads are commonly eaten by animals for nourishment; in times of drought, range animals rely on the cactus pads for food and water. In parts of Africa, the sap from the pads has long been used to repel mosquitoes.
Traditional healers have used the prickly pear in many ways. The gooey gel (sap) extracted from its pads can be applied much as aloe vera gel is, namely, spread on minor cuts, sunburns, or skin irritations to promote healing and soothe any inflammation. Folk healers have been known to warm up the pads for use as heating “pads,” applying them to aching backs as well as chests rattled by the congestion of a common cold. Traditional sources also claim that pureeing the young pads produces an effective laxative.
In addition, specially prepared extracts of the prickly pear cactus have been developed in recent years, and are being touted for treating hangovers and boosting recovery from vigorous exercise, among other uses. The extract is usually made from Opuntia ficus indica.
Specifically, prickly pear cactus may help to:
- Treat adult-onset (type 2) diabetes. One of the plant’s most compelling traditional uses is for managing diabetes, a chronic condition commonly caused by obesity. With diabetes, the body loses its ability to effectively use glucose, the blood sugar that the body’s cells need for energy. The high blood sugar that results can cause many health complications.
According to lore of the Valley of Mexico, the Aztecs and other locals consumed prickly pear cactus in various forms to control or actually cure this type of diabetes as long ago as the 15th and 16th centuries. Prickly pear cactus continues to be a traditional treatment of diabetes in Mexico and other Latin American countries.
Formal research studies done so far confirm that this ancient approach is sound. Results indicate that high doses of cooked pads can indeed reduce blood sugar levels. It’s still not clear exactly how prickly pear works, however, and how much is needed to have an effect. One theory is that the high soluble fiber from the pad’s gooey pectin absorbs sugar in the body, and then enables the body to very slowly release sugar through the course of the day.
Animal studies done in the 1990s indicate that extracts of the prickly pear at lower doses than traditionally used can reduce blood sugar levels as well, raising hopes that easy-to-use extracts may some day be effective for use in humans.
- Boost muscle and tissue recovery following vigorous exercise. A very recent use for prickly pear cactus involves an extract specially drawn from the skin of the fruit. Attracted to the ability of this plant to survive in some of the harshest desert environments on earth, manufacturers of the extract contend that it can accelerate the ability of the human body to withstand physical stresses as well.
The claim is that the extract can do this by speeding up the synthesis of natural restorative compounds in the body called Heat Shock Proteins (HSPs), hence protecting the body against excessive exercise-induced muscle and tissue injury. Under normal conditions, it takes the body two to three hours following physical stress to elevate its natural supply of HSPs. By taking the extract before exercise, HSP levels should be ready to rise as soon as 15 minutes after a workout begins.
Whether HSP levels actually rise after taking this extract, and whether this property will in turn actually raise energy, speed healing, or increase stamina in an athlete remains to be seen. The prickly pear extract marketed as PrepairTM appears to bethe most widely studied so far. However, human studies to date have been very small, and none has been published in a medical journal.
As with many traditional plants, dosages for prickly pear cactus are inexact when used for healing.
- For adult-onset diabetes: Consume the equivalent 100 to 500 g of broiled prickly pear pad before a meal once a day. Alternatively, drink 2 to 4 ounces of fresh or frozen prickly pear juice.
Guidelines for Use
- Prickly pear cactus has been used as a food for centuries. And food preparations are the safest and most effective way to reap the healing benefits of this plant. Extracts from the skin or any other part of the plant, on the other hand, have not been as closely investigated.
- For the extract, try taking it with a glass of water, on an empty stomach, right before bedtime.
- There are no known drug or nutrient interactions associated with the use of prickly pear cactus in food form.
- The extract of prickly pear cactus may not work as effectively if taken with high-fiber foods, because fiber will prevent the body from absorbing the extract.
Possible Side Effects
Some people may be allergic to the prickly pear cactus. If any of the following signs appear, stop taking it immediately and call your doctor. Signs of an allergic reaction include a skin rash, hives, swelling, chest pain, breathing problems, or tightness in the chest or throat.
Prickly pear cactus has been consumed as a food for centuries. Its use in extract form is very new, however, and its safety remains to be established.
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