Nopal (Opuntia streptacantha), also known asprickly pear, is a member of the cactus familynative to Mexico.

Nopal is used as a food, and the leaves,flowers, stems and fruit are all used. Broiled(not raw) stems, or extracts of Opuntiastreptacantha have been used medicinally tolower blood glucose in Mexico and CentralAmerica.

Nopal contains mucopolysaccharide solublefibers and phytochemicals, including pectin.These ingredients may slow carbohydrateabsorption and decrease lipid absorption inthe digestive tract.

Clinical studies of nopal are small and havemostly been published in Spanish, althoughabstracts are available in English.

One trial, published in a 1988 issue ofDiabetes Care (vol. 11, issue 1, pp. 63-66), was done with three groups of type 2 patientsin Mexico who were treated with diet aloneor in combination with sulfonylureas. Oralmedications were discontinued 72 hoursbefore nopal was administered. After a 12-hour fast, one group of 16 patients received500 grams of broiled nopal stems; a secondgroup of 10 received only 400 ml of water;and a third group of six received three tests:one with 500 grams of broiled nopal stems, asecond with 400 ml of water and a third with500 grams of broiled zucchini.

Subjects had blood drawn at 60, 120 and 180minutes after receiving the nopal, water orzucchini.

The nopal group had a significant declinefrom 222 mg/dl fasting to 203, 198 and183 mg/dl, respectively, at 60, 120 and 180minutes after receiving the treatment. Thisgroup also experienced a significant decreasein blood insulin levels. Researchers speculatethat this points toward a nopal effect ofincreased insulin sensitivity. Larger studiesneed to be conducted.

Q: Is it truethat cactus can improve mydiabetes?

A: Nopal, nopalesor prickly pear cactus is a foodcommonly eaten in the SouthwesternUnited States. It is primarily usedas a vegetable in Mexican and CentralAmerican cultures, but there is somepreliminary evidence that it may helplower blood glucose and cholesterol. Themost common side effect of nopal ismild gastrointestinal upset.

The major side effects of nopal

  • Mild diarrhea
  • Nausea
  • Sensation of abdominal fullness
  • Increased stool volume

Precautions for Patients

Nopal may help lower blood glucosewhen it is cooked or taken as a dietarysupplement. The raw stems do not lowerblood glucose.

Nopal contains fiber and pectin, which maydecrease carbohydrate absorption. Thereare no long-term studies evaluating nopalfor diabetes treatment. It is a benign agentwhen consumed as a food; however, ithas not been studied as an oral extract inpregnant or lactating women and shouldtherefore not be used by these groups ofindividuals.