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Nopal Cactus for Diabetes

February 22, 2012 Written by JP    [Font too small?]

Next week I’ll be taking my work on the road. More specifically, I’ll head down south to Mexico for a fact finding mission and informational exchange. One of the planned areas of discussion will focus on an edible cactus commonly known as nopal or nopales, as diabetes and prediabetic conditions (i.e. metabolic syndrome) are quickly reaching an epidemic level in Mexico. Nopales, when eaten as a part of one’s daily diet, may offer a valuable tool in turning the diabetes tide in Mexico and beyond.

In 2008, a scientific review of the “Risks and Benefits of Commonly Used Herbal Medicines in Mexico” was published in the journal of Toxicology and Applied Pharmacology. The authors of the summary note that, “nopal leaves have a high content of fiber and pectin” and thereby increase “the viscosity of food in the gut, slowing or reducing sugar absorption”. Current research presented in the Journal of Ethnopharmacology goes on to report that extracts of nopales also inhibit the activity of the enzyme alpha-glucosidase which digests dietary starch and sugar. This is a mechanism shared by select anti-diabetic medications such as acarbose (Precose) and miglitol (Glyset).

Nopales is an abundant cash crop in Mexico. Because of its widespread affordability and availability, numerous studies have investigated the impact of eating large quantities (500 grams/day) of the cactus on blood sugar and insulin concentrations. The results of these interventions have been largely positive. However, consuming nopales in this manner can be difficult to maintain. That’s why researchers are trying to find more practical vehicles to deliver the benefits of nopales to those at risk for diabetes. One approach is to include smaller amounts of nopal in conjunction with other health promoting ingredients, such as chia seeds, oats and soy protein. A recent trial determined that this specific mix of components effectively lowers inflammation (C-reactive protein), insulin and triglycerides in adults with metabolic syndrome. In addition, dietary fiber derived from nopal cactus is also making its way into popular prepared foods in Mexico, including flans, nutritional bars and tortillas.

Another line of research is investigating the potential of concentrated nopales extracts that can be administered in a pill form. One such “nutraceutical” known as OpunDia was recently found to significantly decrease short term blood sugar in a safe manner. In the trial, a daily dose of 200 mg of OpunDia or a placebo was given to a group of overweight pre-diabetics over the course of 16 weeks. A previous study evaluating the influence of nopales pectin in non-diabetic patients with high cholesterol determined that the cactus fiber improved various measures of cardiovascular health including fibrinogen (-11%), LDL cholesterol (-15%) and uric acid (-10%). While encouraging, future trials will need to examine the long term implications of nopales supplements in order to establish a reliable efficacy and safety track record. In addition, pertinent issues such as the possibility of interactions between nopales and prescription anti-diabetic medications must be clarified before it is fully embraced by many health authorities.

Note: Please check out the “Comments & Updates” section of this blog – at the bottom of the page. You can find the latest research about this topic there!

To learn more about the studies referenced in today’s column, please click on the following links:

Study 1 – Risks and Benefits of Commonly used Herbal Medicines in México (link)

Study 2 – Effect of Opuntia Streptacantha Lem. on Alpha-Glucosidase Activity (link)

Study 3 – Influence of Nopal Intake Upon Fasting Glycemia in Type II Diabetics(link)

Study 4 – Hypoglycemic Action of Different Doses of Nopal (Opuntia (link)

Study 5 – A Dietary Pattern Including Nopal, Chia Seed, Soy Protein, and Oat (link)

Study 6 – Use of Nopal Dietary Fiber in a Powder Dessert Formulation (link)

Study 7 – Biofunctional Activity of Tortillas and Bars Enhanced with Nopal (link)

Study 8 – Acute Blood Glucose Lowering Effects and Long-Term Safety (link)

Study 9 – Effect of Prickly Pear (Opuntia Robusta) on Glucose- and Lipid- (link)

Study 10 – Probable Hypoglycemic Adverse Drug Reaction Associated with (link)

Nopales Consumption Improves Antioxidant Defenses

Source: Chemistry Central Journal 2011, 5:10 (link)

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Posted in Diabetes, Food and Drink, Nutrition

10 Comments & Updates to “Nopal Cactus for Diabetes”

  1. jhailstone Says:

    I like all the helpful information that you have included. I do have one thing to add:
    The cactus pieces of the Napal are helpful for burns. My husband got a scalding burn from boiling water. I’d heard that the Napal cactus was just as effective as aloe vera, so we took off the spines, and split it open and wrapped his hand in it. The next morning, it was like it didn’t even happen.

  2. JP Says:

    Interesting. Thank you for sharing your experience with us. Traditionally, nopales has been used to soothe skin and promote wound healing.

    Be well!


  3. Martin madsen Says:

    Is “canned” nopales any good?

  4. John stew Says:

    Good question.

  5. Fat Albert C Says:

    Hey hey hey, it’s good to be here. This is just some helpful info. I’ve got diabetes (big “surprise” huh!) I’ve also lost a LOT of “lbs!” I’m now big “barrel-chested” Albert!I used to live the motto, ” eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow ain’t here yet! Those are the words of someone who’s going to “self-destruct” right before the eyes of their friends and loved ones. Fortunately, I’m still strong as a bear, I’ve got all my limbs (no amputations “yet” anyway), my vision’s a tad “foggy”, but other than that it’s clear as crystal, my arteries are surprisingly clear (very little plaque build-up),… and I’m counting my “blessings!” I should be needing “insulin shots” by now! and man, that’s no JOKE! On the down side, I DO have diabetes. I also have hiatal hernia and a mild case of “gerd”- a damaged esaphogus due to acid reflux disorder. But since I lost weight, I still feel better. Truth is … there comes a time when youv’e got to ask yourself “do you or do you NOT want to live!?” Well, … better BIG Albert than “FAT” Albert! And there’s two ways “FAT” Albert is going to make his departure: 1.The Gym, or 2.the GraveYard! I chose the “former!” Hey Hey Hey! Now I look real good and I feel a whole lot better. Now, I want to try some nopal cactus. Tri-Vita’s “Nopalea” is just too expensive!Question: Is there any “fresher” way to obtain nopal cactus? I don’t think “canned” or “jarred” foods are very fresh. Dried fruits and vetchtables are probably not much better. Any body know of any good sources or “suppliers?” The fresher the better.

  6. Fat Albert C Says:

    Morbid obesity’s no JOKE, man. It’s no fun to be shaped like a giant tomato. Take care of yourself! ObamaCare is arriving at break-neck speed, and if it’s as I suspect, you will NOT want to end up in the hospital when it arrives. Only the “strong” may survive. If you are overweight, please do something about it. Do it for your own self. Approach it with optimism. Think of how much better you’ll feel. I own a maroon 1974 Jeep Cherokee station wagon 4-wheel drive. It’s so GOOD to be abled to get behind the wheel without straining! Well, That’s it. I wish you all the best.. hey hey hey.

  7. JP Says:

    Updated 07/16/15:


    World J Gastroenterol. 2014 Oct 28;20(40):14787-804.

    Review of natural products with hepatoprotective effects.

    The liver is one of the most important organs in the body, performing a fundamental role in the regulation of diverse processes, among which the metabolism, secretion, storage, and detoxification of endogenous and exogenous substances are prominent. Due to these functions, hepatic diseases continue to be among the main threats to public health, and they remain problems throughout the world. Despite enormous advances in modern medicine, there are no completely effective drugs that stimulate hepatic function, that offer complete protection of the organ, or that help to regenerate hepatic cells. Thus, it is necessary to identify pharmaceutical alternatives for the treatment of liver diseases, with the aim of these alternatives being more effective and less toxic. The use of some plants and the consumption of different fruits have played basic roles in human health care, and diverse scientific investigations have indicated that, in those plants and fruits so identified, their beneficial effects can be attributed to the presence of chemical compounds that are called phytochemicals. The present review had as its objective the collecting of data based on research conducted into some fruits (grapefruit, cranberries, and grapes) and plants [cactus pear (nopal) and cactus pear fruit, chamomile, silymarin, and spirulina], which are consumed frequently by humans and which have demonstrated hepatoprotective capacity, as well as an analysis of a resin (propolis) and some phytochemicals extracted from fruits, plants, yeasts, and algae, which have been evaluated in different models of hepatotoxicity.

    Be well!


  8. JP Says:

    Updated 07/16/15:


    Nopal cactus (Opuntia ficus-indica) as a source of bioactive compounds for nutrition, health and disease.

    Opuntia ficus-indica, commonly referred to as prickly pear or nopal cactus, is a dicotyledonous angiosperm plant. It belongs to the Cactaceae family and is characterized by its remarkable adaptation to arid and semi-arid climates in tropical and subtropical regions of the globe. In the last decade, compelling evidence for the nutritional and health benefit potential of this cactus has been provided by academic scientists and private companies. Notably, its rich composition in polyphenols, vitamins, polyunsaturated fatty acids and amino acids has been highlighted through the use of a large panel of extraction methods. The identified natural cactus compounds and derivatives were shown to be endowed with biologically relevant activities including anti-inflammatory, antioxidant, hypoglycemic, antimicrobial and neuroprotective properties. The present review is aimed at stressing the major classes of cactus components and their medical interest through emphasis on some of their biological effects, particularly those having the most promising expected health benefit and therapeutic impacts.

    Be well!


  9. JP Says:

    Updated 07/16/15:


    J Acad Nutr Diet. 2014 Nov;114(11):1811-8.

    The effect of nopal (Opuntia ficus indica) on postprandial blood glucose, incretins, and antioxidant activity in Mexican patients with type 2 diabetes after consumption of two different composition breakfasts.

    Nopal is a plant used in traditional Mexican medicine to treat diabetes. However, there is insufficient scientific evidence to demonstrate whether nopal can regulate postprandial glucose. The purpose for conducting this study was to evaluate the glycemic index, insulinemic index, glucose-dependent insulinotropic peptide (GIP) index, and the glucagon-like peptide 1 (GLP-1) index, and the effect of nopal on patients with type 2 diabetes after consumption of a high-carbohydrate breakfast (HCB) or high-soy-protein breakfast (HSPB) on the postprandial response of glucose, insulin, GIP, GLP-1, and antioxidant activity. In study 1, the glycemic index, insulinemic index, GIP index, and GLP-1 index were calculated for seven healthy participants who consumed 50 g of available carbohydrates from glucose or dehydrated nopal. In study 2, 14 patients with type 2 diabetes consumed nopal in HCB or HSPB with or without 300 g steamed nopal. The glycemic index of nopal was 32.5±4, insulinemic index was 36.1±6, GIP index was 6.5±3.0, and GLP-1 index was 25.9±18. For those patients with type 2 diabetes who consumed the HCB+nopal, there was significantly lower area under the curve for glucose (287±30) than for those who consumed the HCB only (443±49), and lower incremental area under the curve for insulin (5,952±833 vs 7,313±1,090), and those patients with type 2 diabetes who consumed the HSPB avoided postprandial blood glucose peaks. Consumption of the HSPB+nopal significantly reduced the postprandial peaks of GIP concentration at 30 and 45 minutes and increased the antioxidant activity after 2 hours measured by the 2,2-diphenyl-1-picrilhidracyl method. These findings suggest that nopal could reduce postprandial blood glucose, serum insulin, and plasma GIP peaks, as well as increase antioxidant activity in healthy people and patients with type 2 diabetes.

    Be well!


  10. JP Says:

    Updated 07/16/15:

    Note: An interesting side-note about nopal and bone mineral density …


    Food Nutr Res. 2013 May 21;57.

    Intake of dehydrated nopal (Opuntia ficus indica) improves bone mineral density and calciuria in adult Mexican women.

    BACKGROUND: The intake of dehydrated nopal (DN) at a high stage of maturity along with high calcium content could improve bone mineral density (BMD) and calciuria and thus prevent osteoporosis.

    OBJECTIVE: To evaluate the effect of calcium intake from a vegetable source (DN) on BMD and calciuria covering a 2-year period in menopausal and non-menopausal women with low bone mass (LBM).

    METHODS: The study was quasi-experimental, blinded, and randomized, and included 131 Mexican women aged 35-55. Urinary calcium/creatinine index (CCI) was determined; BMD was analyzed on lumbar spine and total hip regions. Four groups were studied: Control group (CG), women with normocalciuria and a minimum dose of DN; experimental group 1 (EG1), women with hypercalciuria and a minimum dose of DN; experimental group 2 (EG2), women with hypercalciuria, and a maximum dose of DN; and normal group (NG) for reference in BMD.

    RESULTS: After the first semester of treatment, calciuria levels in women from both experimental groups returned to normal, remaining constant for the rest of the treatment. The percentage difference in BMD increased in the total hip region in the CG (pre 4.5% and post 2.1%) and EG2 (pre 1.8% and post 2.5%) groups significantly in comparison to NG and EG1, which exhibited a significant decrease in their BMD. BMD increased only for the lumbar region in the EG2 group (premenopausal).

    CONCLUSION: The use of a vegetable calcium source such as nopal improves BMD in women with LBM in the total hip and lumbar spine regions principally in the premenopausal women, maintaining constant and normal calciuria levels.

    Be well!


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