What Is It?
And Where Does It Come From?
Prickly pear cactus (Opuntia ficus-indica) is a flower- and fruit-bearing cacti plant that has been used for centuries by indigenous Mexican tribes to treat a variety of ailments and conditions. In the wild, prickly pear cactus grows in desert-like conditions, but it is now grown commercially in many European countries.
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Prickly Pear Cactus.
Image courtesy of Forest & Kim Starr (USGS).
As a dietary supplement, prickly pear cactus is available in powder or pill form. Prickly pear cactus is also available as a food item in North American supermarkets.
What Does It Do?
And What Scientific Studies Give Evidence To Support This?
Prickly pear cactus is a rich source of flavanoids, including kaempferol, quercetin, kaempferol 3-methyl ether, quercetin 3-methyl ether, narcissin, dihydrokaempferol (aromadendrin, 6), dihydroquercetin, and eriodictyol. These flavanoids are responsible for its health-enhancing benefits.
Traditional Mexican indian tribes have used prickly pear cactus as a food item and a medicinal plant. Mexico has a hot, arid, desert climate, and this makes agriculture difficult in the absence of irrigation technologies.
Thus, very few plant species can survive under these dry conditions. Out of necessity (and in the absence of other plant life), prickly pear cactus has been used as a food item by Mexican Indian tribes. It has been used to make jellies, soups, pickles, and even cheese products.
Medicinally, prickly pear cactus has been used to heal superficial wounds (cuts and scrapes), and, like Aloe Vera, is usually applied topically.
Modern science has discovered the many health benefits of prickly pear cactus. Studies show that in addition to being able to heal minor cuts and wounds, prickly pear cactus can protect the immune system and prevent oxidative stress by acting as a scavenger of free radicals.1 Its antioxidant action will protect cells and organs, and will, hypothetically, slow the aging process and prevent injury, illness and disease.
The anti-inflammatory effects of prickly pear cactus are also well known.2 Ancient Mexican indian tribes used prickly pear cactus to sooth inflamed insect bites, and Western science has discovered that prickly pear cactus is useful in the treatment of arthritis and inflammation of the eyes, muscles and joints.
Not surprisingly, athletes have turned to prickly pear cactus to get more energy in the gym, to reduce post-exercise muscle soreness, to speed recovery and to reduce the changes of getting DOMS (delayed onset muscle soreness). Prickly pear extract has proven remarkably useful as an ergogenic recovery aide.
| What Does Ergogenic Mean?
"Performance-enhancing", or "muscle-gaining capacity building", especially by eliminating the symptoms of fatigue.
In addition to its effects on exercise and recovery, prickly pear cactus has shown promise as a diabetes treatment. Clinical trials have shown that it helps stabilize blood sugar levels, and is effective for the treatment of type-2 (adult onset) diabetes.3
The effects of prickly pear cactus on alcohol consumption are equally impressive. Research has shown that it can help reduce the effects of excessive alcohol consumption if used prior to drinking.4
Who Needs It?
And What Are Some Symptoms Of Deficiency?
Prickly pear cactus is not an essential nutrient and no daily requirement or allowance (RDA) exists. No symptoms of deficiency exist.
Everyone can benefit from supplementing with prickly pear cactus, but especially diabetics, the obese, and athletes.
How Much Should Be Taken?
And Are There Any Side Effects?
Some people are allergic to prickly pear cactus. Symptoms can include chest pains, difficulty breathing, skin rashes, water loss, and an increase in the frequency of bowel movements.
Consult with a physician before using any nutritional supplement.
- Supplementation with cactus pear (Opuntia ficus-indica) fruit decreases oxidative stress in healthy humans: a comparative study with vitamin C. Am J Clin Nutr. 2004 Aug; 80(2):391-5.
- An anti-inflammatory principle from prickly pear cactus. Fitoterapia. 2001 Mar; 72(3):288-90.
- Hypoglycemic activity of two polysaccharides isolated from Opuntia ficus-indica (prickly pear cactus) and O. streptacantha. Proc West Pharmacol Soc. 2003; 46:139-42.
- Jeff Wiese, MD; Steve McPherson, MD; Michelle C. Odden, BS; Michael G. Shlipak, MD, MPH. Effect of Opuntia ficus indica on Symptoms of the Alcohol Hangover. Arch Intern Med. 2004; 164:1334-1340.