Nopal as anti-oxidant and digestive aid with regard to balancing blood fats and insulin regulation, sources of fiber – high fiber diets used in fighting cancers, etc.
For over 12,000 years the Nopal, or Prickly Pear, Cactus has been known throughout Mesoamerica (modern day Mexico) for its digestive healing properties. This power house of a plant was considered so important to the Aztec civilization that prophesies encouraged their nomadic tribes to search for a home where an Eagle would be perched on a Nopal Cactus growing from a cave surrounded by water while eating a snake. When they ultimately found this place it became their capital, Tenochtitlan or ‘The place of the Nopal cactus’ and is the site of today’s Mexico City. The images of the Eagle, Nopal Cactus and Snake remain on the Mexican Flag today.
In the Pre-Columbian period this highly adaptable plant spread to North America and the Caribbean. As a treasured scurvy prevention, it was utilized by early sailors on long sea voyages and ended up in Africa, Europe and Asia. In addition to Mexico, it is naturally found today in Arizona and the American Southwest, is commercially grown in California and is regularly exported to Europe and India.
There are actually over 200 species of the Nopal Cactus or Opuntia. The Opuntia Ficus Indica (OFI), the ‘medicinal’ one, tastes something like a cross between bubblegum and watermelon and is regularly added to the dishes of Mexico and South America as a fruit, jelly or jam. It is this species on which a significant amount of research has been undertaken in the past 20 years in an effort to validate its long-believed healing properties.
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In general, this adaptable and easily grown plant can help treat diabetes, the pre-cursors of stroke – high blood pressure and high cholesterol levels, contribute to a high-fiber diet with all its attendant health benefits, anti-oxidize free radicals throughout the digestive and liver systems and, in India, is even used to help whooping cough and asthma.
In 2003 a medical study published by Nuclear Medicine Review: Central and Eastern Europe, tested the effect of Nopal cactus on ten patients with high blood cholesterol. Following 6 weeks of dietary counseling participants were asked to eat Nopal for an additional six weeks. Nopal was shown to significantly increase the regulation of LDL (bad) cholesterol in the patients’ livers.1
Even in the 1990’s research was demonstrating that the Nopal cactus fruit’s rich source of betalains, (perhaps the greatest source in the plant world), can provide substantial benefit for patients suffering from diabetes. Betalains contain anti-oxidant properties which protect the inner lining of blood vessels. In 2004 a clinical study published in Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences states that “the betalains in Prickly Pear cactus were clearly demonstrated to protect vascular endothelial cells from the free radical effects of redox alteration from cytokines” which are the proteins which signal regulation of the immune system.2
Nopal contains 17 amino acids which help energize the metabolism and balance out blood sugar ‘swings’. When combined with its fiber properties, research on Nopal has shown these amino acids have a significant hypoglycemic effects from 4 – 6 hours after ingestion in Type 2 Diabetics and non-Diabetics. Through its content of B-carotene and various vitamins, Nopal has the ability to help mitigate the dangerous side effects of high blood sugar levels like blood vessel and nerve tissue damage and visual disturbance. Its vegetable protein helps the body reduce cellulite and fluid retention. Nopal’s high natural levels of vitamins A, B1, B2, B3 and C, combined with its wide spectrum of minerals and fibers, help detoxify the liver. Liver toxicity is a common side-effect of prescription blood sugar medication. Its amino acids, fiber and B3 (niacin) help control LDL cholesterol levels and help convert LDL cholesterol into ‘good’ HDL cholesterol.
Mexican researchers have found that giving broiled Nopal stems to people with non-insulin-dependent diabetes leads to a large drop in blood sugar levels and that for many diabetics or pre-diabetics, Nopal can be a complete replacement for prescription blood sugar drugs.* A daily consumption of 250 mg of Nopal has been shown to lower LDL cholesterol levels while not affecting HDL cholesterol or triglycerides.
In addition to its healing properties, historical record suggests that Nopal was also used to purify water, strengthen mortar, waterproof paint and stiffen cloth. Cattle which ate Nopal were considered to have a more robust and pleasing taste.
Western culture finally appears to be recognizing all that this amazing cactus can do for the body and is starting to treat Nopal with the respect it so richly deserves.
1)Pubmed.gov, “Prickly pear induces up-regulation of liver LDL binding in familial heterozygous hypercholesterolemia,” B. Palumbo, et al. Nuclear Medicine Review: Central and Eastern Europe 2003; 6(1): 35-9. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/14600931
2) Pubmed.gov, “Antioxidant betalains from cactus pear (Opuntia ficus-indica) inhibit endothelial ICAM-1 expression.” C. Gentile, et al. Annals of the New York Academy of Science; 1028: 481-6. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/15650274
*Always contact your physician before making any changes to your prescription.