Native Mexican Indians use cactus to lower blood glucose.
For centuries, Mexican Indian tribes have known about the therapeutic benefits of cactus
Prickly pear cactus (opuntia ficus indica) is a succulent fruit- and flower-bearing plant that grows wild in desert-like conditions. Long enjoyed as a food source, both the petals and pads of the cactus are eaten fresh or made into a variety of dishes including salads, soups, jellies and candies. Indigenous peoples also value cactus petals, or nopales, for its many medicinal and health benefits. Now clinical studies have shown that the alkaloids, vitamins and mucilage in the cactus petals can have the following effects, which supports centuries of anecdotal evidence:
- lowers HDL cholesterol levels
- stabilizes or decreases blood sugar levels
- increases insulin sensitivity
- promotes wound healing
- protects against ulcers
- anti-inflammatory effects for arthritis
- bolsters the immune system
- reduces effects of alcohol consumption
Benefit For Diabetics
These promising health benefits are of particular interest to diabetics who struggle with insulin resistance and face serious damaging effects from high levels of sugar in their blood. The prickly pear pectin is a sticky, gelatinous substance that is rich in fiber which naturally slows down the digestion of carbohydrates.
Although there are opuntia-containing dietary supplements in powder and pill form, fresh nopales provides demonstrable health improvements. Many people enjoy eating fresh nopales in dishes like salads and omelets. There is no evidence that shows if its effectiveness is compromised when the cactus is cooked.
The following recipe for fresh cactus petal juice should be taken twice a day. Two tablespoons in the morning and two tablespoons with the evening meal.
Fresh Cactus Juice (A Natural Food Supplement for Diabetics)
Prepared fresh nopales, without the prickly thorns, can be purchased at Hispanic food markets. Cactus comes either in whole pads or chopped into one-inch slices and bagged. Choose the sliced “nopalitos” for convenience.
2 cups fresh nopalitos (chopped nopales/cactus pads)
1/2 cup fresh water
Place two cups of fresh nopalitos in a blender. Add ½ cup of fresh water and puree until smooth. Pour into ice cube trays and freeze. Take out the cubes and store in an air-tight bag or container. To use, thaw one or two nopalitos cubes in the refrigerator. Drink two tablespoons in the morning and two tablespoons with the evening meal.
*Do not stop your regular diabetes medication regimen while taking cactus juice. However, do continue to monitor your blood sugar levels and inform your doctor of any changes.
Although not a replacement for physician-prescribed medication treatment, making nopales a part of one’s daily diet could have positive effects on blood sugar levels.
Personal experience with cactus juice
The cactus juice we took was made according to the recipe above from fresh nopales (cactus petals). Do not substitute any bottled form of cactus juice unless the label states it is 100 percent nopales cactus juice with nothing else added. (Cactus Cooler soda or other sweetened cactus juice product will have glucose raising, not lowering, effects.)
Diabetes runs in my family on both sides. One day, my aunt and uncle were dining at a local Chinese restaurant where they chatted with the owner with whom they had become well-acquainted over the years about diabetes. The elderly Chinese lady told my aunt that she lowered her blood sugar level to the point of no longer requiring insulin by drinking fresh cactus juice made from blending fresh nopales or cactus petals with a bit of water. There was no harm in trying this as the fresh green also contains other healthful nutrients so my uncle promptly purchased a small bag of cactus petals at the local Mexican market, blended up a batch according to the Chinese woman's directions, and gave some to my aunt.
Admittedly, this wasn't entirely pleasant for her to swallow. It had a grassy, chlorophyll smell and a gelatinous, mucuous-y consistency. But it was natural, cheap and available. If it worked, it would be a godsend for the diabetics in my family.
At my aunt's next doctor's appointment, the doctor was surprised at how much her A1C number dropped. He cut back on her diabetes medication. This continued for years until my uncle passed away. When my aunt stopped taking cactus daily, her blood sugar numbers went up and her medication increased.
Would consider trying cactus to manage your diabetes?
If this works, why don't more diabetics use cactus
Aside from the obvious reason that many diabetics are not aware of how effective fresh cactus can be in blood glucose management, there are many diabetics who aren't so motivated to do what it takes to lower their blood sugar levels. My mother is one of them. Seeing my aunt's success with cactus hasn't convinced her to adopt a daily cactus juice regimen. Why? She says she doesn't care for the taste of it.
I remind her that it is to be viewed as a medication and not a food but since she is stubborn about this matter, I encouraged her to prepare the fresh nopales petals (they also come pre-sliced) by mixing it in an omelet, vegetable stir-fry, marinated salad or pickle recipe. She simply doesn't like to bother with it. (It's important to note that she is on a high dosage of insulin now.)
At the bottom of this article, there are some popular recipes for delicious nopales/cactus.
A word about Nopalea and capsules
There is a new health drink being marketed under the name "Nopalea" which claims to lower blood sugar in addition to providing other health benefits. I am unfamiliar with Nopalea and have not tried it. It is sold a part of a tiered business opportunity similar to Amway and Herbalife.
The product's main health claim is that it reduces inflammation but its supporters also suggest that it is "good" for diabetics. The actual drink contains only 15 percent cactus concentrate and one of its major ingredients is agave syrup, which although a natural sweetener is still a sweetener that increases blood glucose. Perhaps, this is why it is not touted specifically as a diabetes aid.
It's also cost prohibitive for most of us at $40 for a 32 oz. bottle. Granted, if it is doled out in one ounce servings as a health aid and not a beverage, the cost per serving may make more sense ($1.25 per serving). The actual amount of cactus in an ounce is quite low, however, which leads me not to consider Nopalea as an antioxidant supplement (lots of fruit extracts) but not as a treatment for diabetes.
Cactus capsules, made from freeze-dried and powdered prickly pear cactus (opuntia), has been studied for effectiveness in lowering blood glucose, and the findings thus far have been disappointing. It was reported that the only marginal drops in blood sugar levels of patients would result with a daily intake of 30 capsules a day.
Clearly, making your own prickly pear cactus juice or recipe is the most economical and effective way to reap the diabetes benefits from this natural food wonder.
Easy petal prep
Rubbing off thorns with a sponge?
How to prepare cactus petals
I find it easier to buy prepared fresh cactus that comes in plastic bags found in the fresh produce section of your grocery store. (If you don't have a local Mexican market, try a whole foods store.) The thorns are removed and the petals are cut into small pieces ready to use in your favorite recipe. They are labeled "nopalitos" or little cactus petals. Occasionally, they are marketed as tortoise food in other countries as lettuce might be.
Nopales or nopalitos can be found in bottles and cans, too. Be sure to read the label as some products are pickled while others are plain. Both are tasty and have the same glucose-lowering effects.
If you must prepare your own fresh cactus petals, here are the steps:
- Wear thick dishwashing gloves to handle the cactus petals if they still have thorns.
- Hold the petal at the stem end with one hand.
- With your other hand, use either a knife held at a slight angle to scrape off the thorns, moving the knife away from you.
- Alternatively (and more safely), you can use a thick kitchen scrub pad to rub off the thorns. simply wipe the petal, moving in one direction from stem end to tip. I uploaded a helpful Youtube video for a visual aid.
- Rinse the petal thoroughly with water.
- Slice the petal into small, one-inch pieces or dice as you would a bell pepper.
Now, the cactus is ready to:
- add into your favorite stir-fry recipe.
- scrambled into your eggs before frying.
- marinated in a pickling brine.
- blanched slightly before adding to other salad ingredients.
Nopalitos is like a cross between a green bell pepper and a green bean. I like the tangy flavor! the mucilige is the beneficial part of the nopales when it comes to diabetes management but if you're not used to it, it can be off-putting. Some liken it to the same sliminess of okra. To minimize this, blanch the nopalitos slightly.
Cactus Salad Recipe
3 cups fresh, prepared nopalitos or prickly pear cactus petals
1/2 cup onion, diced
1 small tomato, seeded and diced
1/4 cup fresh cilantro, chopped
1 garlic clove, peeled and minced or pressed through garlic press
1/2 tsp. salt
1 Tbsp. agave syrup or Stevia (may substitute another sugar replacement)
2 Tbsp. olive oil
juice of two fresh lemons (about 1/2 cup juice)
1 tsp. fresh jalapeno pepper, minced (optional)
Bring a pot of water to a boil. Blanch the prepared nopalitos in the boiling water for about 1 minute. Drain immediately and drop into ice-cold water to stop cooking. When cooled, drain in a colander.
In a mixing bowl, combine remaining ingredients. Add drained nopalitos. Stir well. Place in covered container and allow this to meld in refrigerator for at least three hours. Remove, stir and taste to adjust seasonings. You may prefer it sweeter or saltier.
Veggie Cactus Omelet
I highly recommend incorporating fresh prickly pear cactus into your daily diet. To me, the easier way is to prepare it by blending nopalitos with a bit of water and pouring out servings into an ice cube tray and freezing them. I take out the next day's supply the night before to defrost in a small cup. A quick gulp and I save myself from high blood sugar levels that would require more (and expensive) insulin.
It is extremely effective. There is another natural Chinese remedy for high blood glucose, and it is so effective in lowering blood sugar that you must take care to watch for hypoglycemia when using it. Look for my next hub about this. Until then, enjoy nopalitos as a healthful way to manage your diabetes.
Lower Weight, Lower Blood Sugar
Cece Zastro on February 26, 2020:
I was able to buy a catus salad at my local Cermack Produce store was delicious.
Terrie Lynn from Canada on December 20, 2016:
Thank you. I am going to try it.
peachy from Home Sweet Home on April 03, 2015:
i have never heard that cactus can be eaten, awesome
poetryman6969 on February 06, 2015:
A very interesting idea. I may have to look more into cactus as a food.
Lori Phillips (author) from Southern California USA on October 10, 2014:
True. Nature is healing.
firstname.lastname@example.org on September 20, 2014:
amazing cactus healing propieties