The Benefits and Uses of Nopal (Prickly Pear)

Nopal (Prickly pear cactus) and prickly pear fruit
 bdsklo/Getty Images

Also known as prickly pear cactus, nopal is a cactus grown in Mexico, the Mediterranean, southwestern U.S., and parts of South America. High in vitamin C, nopal is also rich in antioxidants known as carotenoids and pectin (a type of soluble fiber).

The flat stems or pads of the cactus are called nopales or nopalitos. The cactus produces small, round fruit known as prickly pear fruit. Both parts of the plant are commonly consumed as a remedy and as food.

Uses for Nopal

Nopal is typically touted as a remedy for the following health conditions:

In addition, nopal is said to promote weight loss, stimulate the immune system, reduce inflammation, enhance athletic performance, and improve liver health.

The Benefits of Nopal

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

Hangover

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 extract 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 strongly associated with hangover severity).

A research review published in BMJ examined both conventional and complementary interventions for preventing or treating alcohol hangovers and found "no compelling evidence" for any intervention.

Diabetes

Several studies suggest that nopal may help protect against diabetes. In a small study published in the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics in 2014, for instance, researchers found that participants who ate nopal with a high-carbohydrate breakfast had lower blood sugar and insulin levels after the meal.

Oxidative Stress

A small study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition in 2004 suggests 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 fresh fruit pulp helped reduce oxidative stress and improve antioxidant status.

Side Effects

Although nopal is generally considered safe when consumed in regular food amounts, little is known about the side effects of long-term or regular use of nopal supplements.

Side effects can include nausea, diarrhea, bloating, increased stool volume and frequency, and headache). Nopal shouldn't be taken as a means of tolerating increased alcohol consumption.

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 the use of nopal prior to undergoing surgery.

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

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

In Mexico, South America, and the southwestern U.S., you may be able to find fresh nopal cactus pads and juice. Prickly pear fruit can be found in some farmer's markets or grocery stores in the produce section. The juice may be found in the fresh or packaged juice section.

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

The Takeaway

Eating nopal fruit or cactus (from a trusted vendor) is one way of adding variety to your fruit intake. Due to the lack of research, however, nopal shouldn't be relied on as a treatment for diabetes or any other condition. While it does contain soluble fiber and antioxidants, nopal also contains sugar, and some forms of nopal (such as prickly pear fruit juice) may be sweetened with added sugar or mixed with other fruit juices.

If you're still considering using nopal for any condition, make sure to consult your doctor first to see if it's right for you.

Was this page helpful?
Article Sources