Cactus for Diabetes? About Prickly Pear
Prickly pear cactus pads, consumed regularly in Mexico, can reduce blood sugar rises after a meal by nearly 50 percent, and may help with diabetes management.
Living in the Southwest, plants of the region are particularly intriguing to me for both their culinary and medicinal properties. One plant that appears to have some very beneficial properties is the prickly pear cactus (Opuntia spp), also called nopal in Spanish. It is a plant native to Mexico and the American southwest that is now widely cultivated in many parts of the world, especially the Mediterranean regions. I recommend prickly pear extract as a supplement to help control blood sugar levels in those with diabetes or pre-diabetes, as does one of my mentors and fellow desert-dweller, Tieraona Low Dog, M.D., an internationally recognized expert in the fields of integrative medicine, dietary supplements and women’s health. Dr. Low Dog routinely recommends prickly pear to patients, as food, in capsules, or as a pulp-rich juice. She also teaches the Fellows of the Integrative Medicine Program at the UofA how to prepare simple dishes using the succulent cactus leaves (pads).
A 2007 study published in Diabetes Care looked at the effect of the prickly pear cactus, on blood sugar levels when eaten with regular Mexican meals like burritos and quesadillas. The purpose of the study was to estimate the glycemic index of three usual Mexican breakfasts and to measure the effect of adding cactus pads on postprandial glucose response in type 2 diabetic subjects. The researchers recruited 36 volunteers with type-2 diabetes aged between 47 and 72 and, after an 18-hour fast, assigned them to eat a meal of scrambled egg and tomato burritos, chilaquiles (cheese, beans and tomato sauce with corn 1/2 tortillas), or quesadillas with avocados and pinto beans, with or without 85 grams of prickly pear cactus pads. The study reported that blood sugar levels were reduced in all meal types when prickly pear cactus was consumed simultaneously, compared to those not supplemented with the cactus pear. Reductions also varied depending on the meal, with prickly pear cactus plus quesadillas being associated with a 48 percent reduction, prickly pear cactus plus chilaquiles associated with a 30 percent reduction, and prickly pear cactus plus burritos associated with a 20 percent reduction.
This was not the first time that cactus pear has been linked to improvements for diabetes-related health. A prior study conducted on an extract of prickly pear cactus showed significant improvements in metabolic syndrome, a condition characterized by central obesity, hypertension, and disturbed glucose and insulin metabolism. The syndrome has been linked to increased risks of both type-2 diabetes and CVD.
Prickly pear is also popular in Mexico for preventing hangovers, a folk remedy that proved effective in a Tulane University study published in the June 28, 2004 issue of the Archives of Internal Medicine. Researchers found that volunteers who took a prickly pear extract five hours before consuming five to 7 alcoholic drinks had significantly less nausea, dry mouth and loss of appetite the following day compared to those who took a placebo. The extract did not prevent hangover-related headaches and dizziness, however. The researchers suggested that the benefits were related to prickly pear’s strong anti-inflammatory effects. The juice contains betalains, a rare class of antioxidants that is responsible for the rich color of beets and red Swiss chard. Prickly pear juice also contains high levels of vitamin C.
Some research suggests that prickly pear may additionally help control cholesterol levels. In 2003, a small Italian study (only 10 patients participated) indicated that prickly pear extract might lower LDL (“bad” cholesterol) but had no effect on levels of HDL (“good”) cholesterol or triglycerides. Results of the study were published in Nuclear Medicine Review of Central and Eastern Europe. Another small study (24 participants) at the University of Vienna in Austria found that prickly pear decreased total cholesterol (by 12%), LDL (15%), triglycerides (12%), blood glucose (11%), insulin (11%) and uric acid (10%), while body weight, HDL and other lipid measurements did not change.