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Nopal cactus is a dicotyledonous plant belonging to the family of cactus, which grows in several climatic regions across the globe. There are various species of this type of plant and they are identified by the characteristic thorny appearance, which also gives it the name of prickly pear. It looks different from other types of cacti due to the flattened appearance of its leaves.

Cactus is not just a type of a decorative plant that makes for an indoor attraction, but also has convincing health benefits and is extensively studied and utilised for the same. Its rich nutritional composition enables its use as an edible plant, which is cooked in the form of curries, gravies, and salads or it is even consumed raw to reap its health benefits.

Some of the major health benefits of this plant include diabetes control, weight management, improvement of bone mass density and it has also been listed as an antioxidant food.

These benefits and many others will be discussed in this article so that you can include this wondrous plant in your diet. So, let’s get acquainted with this plant and learn about its nutritional composition.

Some basic facts about prickly pear

Prickly pear is commonly grown in the arid and semi-arid climates in tropical and sub-tropical regions of the world and is commonly utilised for its leaves. Nopales can survive and adapt to a variety of climates and here is what you must know about this plant:

  • Scientific name: Nopales ficus indica
  • Family: Cactaceae   
  • Common names: Prickly pear, Cactus fruit, Nopales, Nagfani
  • Native region and geographical distribution: Nopales is native to Mexico and is an important part of their cuisine. Approximately 114 species are grown in several regions around Mexico. This plant is now also widely grown in several parts of the world including the United States, Africa, South America, Australia and in parts of India. It can be planted at home with the help of rich soil and by the use of its leaves.
  • Parts used: Leaves
  1. Cactus nutritional facts
  2. Cactus plant benefits
  3. Other benefits and uses of cactus plant
  4. Cactus side effects

Isn’t it interesting that a cactus plant is commonly used as a part of the cuisine and is extensively utilised for its health benefits? Well, all this can be credited to the rich nutritional composition of this plant, which has:

Nutrients and value per 100 gm

As it may be apparent from the nutritional composition of this plant, nopales has several benefits for your health, which include:

  • For health: The use of cactus leaves helps to improve immunity and reduces the number of inflammatory biomarkers, thereby preventing illnesses and infections.
  • For weight management and in metabolic disorders: Nopales is effective in weight loss due to its low calorie and low-fat content. Also, it helps in the excretion of fats by the body preventing weight gain. Due to its lipid-metabolising benefit, its use is also helpful in the management of disorders of lipid metabolism.
  • For diabetes management: Cactus helps in the management and prevention of diabetes by lowering blood glucose levels and by improving the utilisation of glucose by the body.
  • For the bones: Nopal is high in calcium, and can thus help to improve bone mass density. This implies that nopal as a vegetable can be particularly helpful for postmenopausal women, who suffer from low bone mass density and a high risk of fractures due to osteoporosis.
  • As an antioxidant: Cactus is high in antioxidants, which make it beneficial for the health of your skin and hair, as it will help in delaying the signs of ageing.
  • For cancer: The high antioxidant content also suggests its role in the prevention of cancer as it caters to ward off cancerous growth at an initial stage.
  1. Cactus leaves as a healthy addition to the diet
  2. Nopales for weight loss
  3. Nagfani for lipid metabolism
  4. Cactus as an antioxidant
  5. Cactus plant for diabetes management
  6. Cactus leaves for the bones
  7. Nagfani leaves against cancer

Cactus leaves as a healthy addition to the diet

Nopal leaves are widely used as food and supplement due to its various benefits. Another reason for including nopal in your diet can be its significant anti-inflammatory properties.

It helps to keep a balance of inflammatory biomarkers and has thus been suggested as a healthy addition to the diet for the prevention of inflammatory disorders. Studies on healthy adult individuals have also demonstrated the immunomodulatory effects of this plant, which means that it helps to improve your immunity and thus functions to protect you from a wide range of infections and diseases.

(Read more: How to improve immunity)

Nopales for weight loss

Obesity is a major public health problem nowadays due to the shift towards an unhealthy diet and lifestyle. It increases the risk of several disorders including cardiovascular disorders, diabetes, and stroke, which is why weight management is important. It can sometimes be unmotivating to lose weight, especially without the knowledge of the correct foods to be included in the diet with diet being an important pillar of weight loss programs.

Studies suggest that the use of nopales helps in weight management due to its low caloric value and low-fat content. Not just this, it helps in the metabolism of carbohydrates in the body and is rich in dietary fibres, so it helps to keep you full for longer. But the weight loss evidence of cactus fruit is not just limited to that.

Clinical studies have demonstrated that the use of cactus fruit aids in the excretion of fats along with the faeces. This study conducted on healthy adult subjects found favourable evidence in the process of weight loss by improving the excretion of fats and reducing its absorption in the body. This was facilitated by the binding of cactus fibre to dietary fat in the body. With the help of this binding, it increased the excretion of fats in the stool, which was otherwise available to the body for absorption and utilization, causing weight gain.

So, you can include this food in your dietary routine in the form of a fresh salad to witness some weight loss.

(Read more: Weight loss diet chart)

Nagfani for lipid metabolism

Metabolism refers to the mechanism of the body in which food substances are broken down to generate energy. In some diseases like Gaucher’s disease or Tay Sach’s disease, there is a disturbance in the metabolism of fats or lipids in the body, which can lead to lipid accumulation in the body. This has damaging effects on the body cells and tissues especially those of the brain, liver and the bone marrow.

Studies have found that cactus helps in the management of metabolic disorders, especially those related to lipids. Leaves of this plant have hypolipidemic effects and are thus considered to be beneficial for individuals with lipid metabolic disorders and are used a part of substitutes used for its management. You can talk to your doctor about the dosage of these products.

Cactus as an antioxidant

Antioxidants are foods that help to reduce oxidative stress and damage in the body thereby preventing several diseases. This they do by having an action against the activity of free radicals. Studies have listed nopales as an antioxidant food due to its extensive composition of bioactive compounds like flavonoids, polyphenols, carotenes and ascorbic acid isolated from its leaves. Thus, nopal leaves can help to improve the health of your skin and hair preventing or delaying age-related changes, and may also protect you from several diseases and disorders.

Cactus plant for diabetes management

Diabetes is not merely an elevation of blood sugar levels but has severe impacts on health and is associated with several complications. These complications can be managed by keeping blood sugar levels in control, which is possible with the use of prickly pear plant.

Studies have confirmed the use of this plant in the management, treatment and prevention of diabetes when used as a dietary supplement. Lowering of blood glucose levels and an improvement in the utilisation of glucose by the body was observed in animal groups who were fed with nopales extracts. It was found that nopal water extract improved carbohydrate metabolism, which was responsible for these benefits. This was enabled by the improvement of the secretion of insulin in the body. Most pronounced benefits of this plant have been on individuals with type 2 diabetes.

Although most studies lack human claims, you can talk with your Ayurvedic doctor regarding the inclusion of cactus fruit in your diet to manage your condition.

Cactus leaves for the bones

Bone mass density is an important factor in determining bone strength. Although major bone formation occurs during the initial years of development, bone remodelling, reshaping and repair go on for a lifetime. In order to fuel these processes, it is important that you ensure sufficient intake of calcium because serum deficiency of this mineral causes leaching out of calcium from the bones. As you may have noted in the nutritional table, nopal is a rich source of calcium and thus may help in taking care of this concern.

It has been known that the risk of osteoporosis is greater in postmenopausal women due to a deficiency of the hormone estrogen, which regulates bone mass. This causes symptoms like bone pain and increased susceptibility to fractures in women after menopause. The high calcium content of this plant may be helpful even for postmenopausal women, as apparent by clinical studies. These studies suggest that the intake of nopal as a vegetable helps in improving bone mass density in women over the age of 50.

In women with a low bone mass around the area of the hips and the lumbar spine, the intake of cactus leaf supplements was immensely helpful in maintaining normal, constant levels of calciuria. This may lead to an improvement in posture and a reduced incidence of falls and fractures among postmenopausal women. Thus, it can be ascertained that the inclusion of cactus leaves in the diet of postmenopausal women can be immensely helpful around menopause.

Nagfani leaves against cancer

Cancer refers to the uninhibited growth of cells, which has a tendency to spread to surrounding sites and can even metastasise to the distant areas. Some scientific evidence points in the direction of the anti-cancer effects of cactus leaves. This can be attributed to its high antioxidant content, which helps to ward off cellular growth at an initial stage. Although cactus has been considered as anti-proliferative food, the evidence to support this claim is somewhat insufficient.

Cactus leaves have many other benefits and uses, which are as follows:

  • Some studies suggest that the leaves of cactus have a neuroprotective effect, that is, it can protect your brain against cellular damage.
  • Research evidence confirms an antimicrobial action of these leaves. So, these leaves can be used in the management and prevention of a large number of infections.
  • Opuntia is commonly used to improve the symptoms of a hangover due to excessive intake of alcoholic beverages. (Read more: Harmful effects of alcohol intake)
  • Cactus has been considered to be a food of neutraceutical importance, that is, foods which have a pharmaceutical action. So, it is also used in the synthesis of various supplements and drugs.
  • Due to its health benefits, opuntia extracts are also used as additional supplements to enhance the nutritional value of food products like wheat bread rolls.
  • Cactus extracts are used to form a protective covering of several fruits and vegetables, especially strawberries, to increase their shelf life. Sometimes, opuntia is also used as a food colourant.
  • Opuntia is not just safe for human consumption, but also, it is commonly used as a fodder food.
  • Other than these uses, cacti are used a fencing material to protect food crops and gardens.

Although opuntia has several benefits for your health, it is reported to have some side effects such as:

  • When consumed in excess, its anti-diabetic effects may lead to a state of hypoglycemia.
  • The intake of cactus must be avoided before and after a recent surgery.
  • Since cactus enables the excretion of excess lipids and fats in the body, it causes hepatic steatosis, which is associated with side effects like abdominal pain, fatigue, and excessive weight loss. Over time, it can also cause damage to the liver. So, it is important that you do not continue taking cacti in your diet for a prolonged duration.
  • Some individuals may be allergic to the intake of cactus since it is not a common food. So, it is important that you check in with your doctor before adding it to your diet. (Read more: Allergy symptoms)
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References

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  2. United States Department of Agriculture. Basic Report: 11964, Nopales, cooked, without salt. National Nutrient Database for Standard Reference Legacy Release; Agricultural Research Service
  3. Alessandro Attanzio, Luisa Tesoriere, Sonya Vasto, Anna Maria Pintaudi, Maria A. Livrea, and Mario Allegra. Short-term cactus pear [Opuntia ficus-indica (L.) Mill] fruit supplementation ameliorates the inflammatory profile and is associated with improved antioxidant status among healthy humans. 2018; 62: 10.29219/fnr.v62.1262. PMID: 30150921
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  8. Seung Hwan Hwang, Il-Jun Kang and Soon Sung Lim .Antidiabetic Effect of Fresh Nopal (Opuntia ficus-indica) in Low-Dose Streptozotocin-Induced Diabetic Rats Fed a High-Fat Diet. 2017; 2017: 4380721. PMID: 28303158
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  11. Guevara-Arauza JC, Bárcenas DG, Ortega-Rivas E, Martínez JD, Hernández JR, de Jesús Ornelas-Paz J. Effect of fiber fractions of prickly pear cactus (nopal) on quality and sensory properties of wheat bread rolls. 2015 May;52(5):2990-7. PMID: 25892800
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