The Health Benefits and Uses for Nopal

Prickly pear cactus, close up
Nopal is derived from the prickly pear cactus. Creativ Studio Heinemann/ GettyImages

Nopal is a natural remedy sourced from the prickly pear cactus (Opuntia ficus indica). Long used in herbal medicine, nopal is widely available in dietary supplement form.

In certain cultures (such as Mexican and Mexican-American), nopal is commonly consumed as a food. High in vitamin C, nopal also contains pectin (a type of soluble fiber).

Uses for Nopal

In alternative medicine, nopal is typically touted as a natural remedy for the following health problems:

In addition, some alternative medicine proponents suggest nopal to promote weight loss, stimulate the immune system, reduce inflammation, enhance athletic performance, and improve liver health.

Benefits of Nopal

While research on the health effects of nopal is limited, there's some evidence that nopal may offer certain health benefits. Here's a look at some key findings from the available studies on nopal:

Hangovers

Nopal may help relieve some symptoms of alcohol hangovers, according to a 2004 study published in Archives of Internal Medicine.

For the study, 64 healthy young adults received either nopal or a placebo five hours before consuming up to 1.75 grams of alcohol per kilogram of their body weight.

Results revealed that those given nopal experienced significantly less nausea, dry mouth, and loss of appetite the following morning (compared to members of the placebo group).

Nopal also appeared to reduce C-reactive protein (a marker of inflammation).

Diabetes

Several studies suggest that nopal may help protect against diabetes. In a study published in the Journal of Ethnopharmacology in 2010, for instance, researchers found that nopal helped improve blood sugar control in people with prediabetes (a condition marked by abnormally elevated blood sugar levels).

The study involved 29 pre-diabetic patients, each of whom received either supplements containing nopal or a placebo every day for 16 weeks. Compared to members of the placebo group, those treated with nopal showed a significantly greater decrease in blood sugar concentrations by the study's end.

Additionally, some preliminary research (including a rat-based study published in Phytotherapy Research in 2011) indicates that nopal may benefit diabetes patients by regulating blood sugar and insulin levels.

Oxidative Stress

A small study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition in 2004 shows that nopal may help fight oxidative stress (an aging-related biological process closely linked to a number of diseases).

In a two-week-long trial involving 18 healthy volunteers, researchers found that nopal helped reduce oxidative stress and improve antioxidant status.

Caveats

Due to a lack of research, little is known about the side effects of longterm or regular use of nopal supplements.

There's some concern that nopal may trigger a number of side effects (including nausea, diarrhea, bloating, and headache).

Since nopal may lower your blood sugar, taking nopal in combination with diabetes medications may have harmful effects. Because of nopal's potential to lower blood sugar, it's also crucial to avoid use of nopal prior to undergoing surgery.

Keep in mind that supplements haven't been tested for safety and dietary supplements are largely unregulated.

In some cases, the product may deliver doses that differ from the specified amount for each herb. In other cases, the product may be contaminated with other substances such as metals. 

Also, the safety of supplements in pregnant women, nursing mothers, children, and those with medical conditions or who are taking medications has not been established. You can get further tips on using supplements safely here.

Where to Find Nopal

Widely available for purchase online, supplements containing nopal are sold in many natural-foods stores and drugstores.

Using Nopal for Health

It's important to note that self-treating a condition (such as diabetes) with nopal and avoiding or delaying standard care may have serious consequences. If you're considering the use of nopal in treatment of a condition, make sure to consult your physician before starting your supplement regimen.

Sources

Butterweck V, Semlin L, Feistel B, Pischel I, Bauer K, Verspohl EJ. "Comparative evaluation of two different Opuntia ficus-indica extracts for blood sugar lowering effects in rats." Phytother Res. 2011 Mar;25(3):370-5.

Godard MP, Ewing BA, Pischel I, Ziegler A, Benedek B, Feistel B. "Acute blood glucose lowering effects and long-term safety of OpunDia supplementation in pre-diabetic males and females." J Ethnopharmacol. 2010 Aug 9;130(3):631-4.

Tesoriere L, Butera D, Pintaudi AM, Allegra M, Livrea MA. "Supplementation with cactus pear (Opuntia ficus-indica) fruit decreases oxidative stress in healthy humans: a comparative study with vitamin C." Am J Clin Nutr. 2004 Aug;80(2):391-5.

Wiese J, McPherson S, Odden MC, Shlipak MG. "Effect of Opuntia ficus indica on symptoms of the alcohol hangover." Arch Intern Med. 2004 Jun 28;164(12):1334-40.

Disclaimer: The information contained on this site is intended for educational purposes only and is not a substitute for advice, diagnosis or treatment by a licensed physician. It is not meant to cover all possible precautions, drug interactions, circumstances or adverse effects. You should seek prompt medical care for any health issues and consult your doctor before using alternative medicine or making a change to your regimen.

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