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NopalOpuntia spp
Alternate Names
  • Prickly Pear Cactus
Principal Proposed Uses
  • Diabetes, Hangover from Use of Alcohol
Other Proposed Uses
  • High Cholesterol, Prostate Enlargement

The nopal, or prickly-pear cactus, is one of the major national symbols of Mexico and appears on the Mexican flag.

This cactus has a long history of use as food and medicine. Its fleshy, leaf-like stems (cladodes), especially when young, are eaten as vegetables. The fruit is eaten raw, fermented into a beer, or turned into a cheese-like food. Medicinally, nopal fruit, stems, and flowers have been used to treat diabetes, stomach problems, fatigue, shortness of breath, easy bruising, prostate enlargement, and liver disease. Nopal is also a significant source of protein, vitamins, and minerals.

What Is Nopal Used for Today?

Although the results of animal studies and highly preliminary trials in humans are somewhat contradictory, taken together they suggest that nopal fruit and stems might have some benefit for diabetes . 1-9 However, only properly designed and sufficiently large double-blind, placebo-controlled trials can tell us for sure whether nopal is effective, and none have been reported for this use of nopal. (For information on why such studies are essential, see Why Does This Database Rely on Double-blind Studies? )

The only properly designed study of nopal involved use of the cactus for treating hangover symptoms . In this double-blind, placebo-controlled study of 64 people, use of an extract made from the skin of nopal fruit significantly reduced hangover symptoms as compared to placebo. 21 The greatest improvements were seen in symptoms of nausea, loss of appetite, and dry mouth. Overall, the rate of severe hangover symptoms was 50% lower in the treatment group as compared to the placebo group. The researchers involved in this study hypothesized that hangovers are caused by inflammation, and that the herb reduced inflammation.

There is weak evidence that nopal fruit, leaves, and/or stems might be helpful for improving cholesterol profile. 10-14,22 Other studies suggest that nopal stems and fruit might have anti-inflammatory, pain-relieving, and stomach-protective effects. 15 Finally, test tube studies suggest that the flower of the nopal cactus might be helpful for prostate enlargement ( BPH ). 16

Dosage

Neither the optimum dosage nor the most active species of nopal cactus has been established. The one double-blind study noted above used a special extract made from the skin of the fruit of Opuntia ficus indica.

Safety Issues

As a widely eaten food, nopal is presumed safe. However, safety in young children, pregnant or nursing women, or individuals with severe liver or kidney disease has not been established.

References

1.   Munoz de Chavez M, Chavez A, Valles V, et al. The nopal: a plant of manifold qualities. World Rev Nutr Diet. 1995;77:109-134.

2.   Frati Munari AC, Vera Lastra O, Ariza Andraca CR. Evaluation of nopal capsules in diabetes mellitus [in Spanish; English abstract]. Gac Med Mex. 1992;128:431-436.

3.   Cardenas Medellin ML, Serna Saldivar SO, Velazco de la Garza J. Effect of raw and cooked nopal (Opuntia ficus indica) ingestion on growth and profile of total cholesterol, lipoproteins, and blood glucose in rat [in Spanish; English abstract]. Arch Latinoam Nutr. 1998;48:316-323.

4.   Frati AC, Gordillo BE, Altamirano P, et al. Influence of nopal intake upon fasting glycemia in type II diabetics and healthy subjects. Arch Invest Med (Mex). 1991;22:51-56.

5.   Frati-Munari AC, Del Valle-Martinez LM, Ariza-Andraca CR, et al. Hypoglycemic action of different doses of nopal ( Opuntia streptacantha Lemaire) in patients with type II diabetes mellitus [ in Spanish; English abstract]. Arch Invest Med (Mex). 1989;20:197-201.

6.   Frati-Munari AC, Gordillo BE, Altamirano P, et al. Hypoglycemic effect of Opuntia streptacantha Lemaire in NIDDM. Diabetes Care. 1988;11:63-66.

7.   Frati-Munari AC, Fernandez-Harp JA, de la Riva H, et al. Effects of nopal ( Opuntia sp.) on serum lipids, glycemia and body weight. Arch Invest Med (Mex). 1983;14:117-125.

8.   Frati-Munari AC, de Leon C, Ariza-Andraca R, et al. Effect of a dehydrated extract of nopal ( Opuntia ficus indica Mill.) on blood glucose [ in Spanish; English abstract]. Arch Invest Med (Mex). 1989;20:211-216.

9.   Frati Munari AC, Quiroz Lazaro JL, Altamirano Bustamante P, et al. The effect of various doses of nopal ( Opuntia streptacantha Lemaire) on the glucose tolerance test in healthy individuals [in Spanish; English abstract]. Arch Invest Med (Mex). 1988;19:143-148.

10.   Munoz de Chavez M, Chavez A, Valles V, et al. The nopal: a plant of manifold qualities. World Rev Nutr Diet. 1995;77:109-134.

11.   Frati Munari AC, Vera Lastra O, Ariza Andraca CR. Evaluation of nopal capsules in diabetes mellitus [in Spanish; English abstract]. Gac Med Mex. 1992;128:431-436.

12.   Cardenas Medellin ML, Serna Saldivar SO, Velazco de la Garza J. Effect of raw and cooked nopal (Opuntia ficus indica) ingestion on growth and profile of total cholesterol, lipoproteins, and blood glucose in rat [in Spanish; English abstract]. Arch Latinoam Nutr. 1998;48:316-323.

13.   Frati AC, Gordillo BE, Altamirano P, et al. Influence of nopal intake upon fasting glycemia in type II diabetics and healthy subjects. Arch Invest Med (Mex). 1991;22:51-56.

14.   Frati-Munari AC, Fernandez-Harp JA, de la Riva H, et al. Effects of nopal ( Opuntia sp.) on serum lipids, glycemia and body weight. Arch Invest Med (Mex). 1983;14:117-125.

15.   Park EH, Kahng JH, Paek EA. Studies on the pharmacological action of cactus: identification of its anti-inflammatory effect. Arch Pharm Res. 1998;21:30-34.

16.   Jonas A, Rosenblat G, Krapf D, et al. Cactus flower extracts may prove beneficial in benign prostatic hyperplasia due to inhibition of 5alpha reductase activity, aromatase activity and lipid peroxidation. Urol Res. 1998;26:265-270.

17.   Frati-Munari AC, Gordillo BE, Altamirano P, et al. Hypoglycemic effect of Opuntia streptacantha Lemaire in NIDDM. Diabetes Care. 1988;11:63-66.

18.   Frati Munari AC, Quiroz Lazaro JL, Altamirano Bustamante P, et al. The effect of various doses of nopal ( Opuntia streptacantha Lemaire) on the glucose tolerance test in healthy individuals [in Spanish; English abstract]. Arch Invest Med (Mex). 1988;19:143-148.

19.   Frati Munari AC, Vera Lastra O, Ariza Andraca CR. Evaluation of nopal capsules in diabetes mellitus [in Spanish; English abstract]. Gac Med Mex. 1992;128:431-436.

20.   Frati-Munari AC, de Leon C, Ariza-Andraca R, et al. Effect of a dehydrated extract of nopal ( Opuntia ficus indica Mill.) on blood glucose [ in Spanish; English abstract]. Arch Invest Med (Mex). 1989;20:211-216.

21.   Wiese J, McPherson S, Odden MC, Shlipak MG. Effect of Opuntia ficus indica on symptoms of the alcohol hangover. Arch Intern Med. 2004;164:1334-1340.

22.   Linares E, Thimonier C, Degre M. The effect of NeOpuntia on blood lipid parameters—risk factors for the metabolic syndrome (syndrome X). Adv Ther. 2007;24:1115-1125.



Last reviewed August 2013 by EBSCO CAM Review Board

Please be aware that this information is provided to supplement the care provided by your physician. It is neither intended nor implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice. CALL YOUR HEALTHCARE PROVIDER IMMEDIATELY IF YOU THINK YOU MAY HAVE A MEDICAL EMERGENCY. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider prior to starting any new treatment or with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition.

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