Botanical: Opuntia ficus-indica
Family: Cactaceae (cactus)
Other common names: Opuntia, Prickly Pear, Smooth Prickly Pear, Tuna Blanca, Nochtli, Indian Fig, Penca, Prickly Pear Cactus
Nopal is often used to relieve the symptoms of overindulgence in alcohol, including dry mouth and nausea. It is also thought to lower fats and cholesterol in the blood, and is becoming increasingly popular as a means to decrease blood sugar levels and control diabetes.
The information presented herein by Herbal Extracts Plus is intended for educational purposes only. These statements have not been evaluated by the FDA and are not intended to diagnose, cure, treat or prevent disease. Individual results may vary, and before using any supplements, it is always advisable to consult with your own health care provider.
Nopal is a large cactus with a woody trunk and large top, many oblong joints, small, yellow barbed spines, bright yellow flowers and red fruit with a juicy, white, sweet flesh and numerous black seeds. It is said to be a native of Mexico, where it is considered the symbol of identity of the Mexican people and is even included on the Mexican flag, depicting a Mexican golden eagle perched upon the Opuntia cactus, devouring a snake. About twenty thousand years ago, Opuntia (or Nopal) began to develop as a food, and the plant's development was said to enable human settlement and cultural development in many parts of the arid lands, where it was considered the lifeblood of those ancient cultures, particularly in times of drought. About 5000 to 7000 B. C., prehistoric indigenous groups began the cultivation of a series of native plants, including beans, opuntia, peppers and agave, etc., and in Pre-Columbian times, Nopal was considered an important staple food (for both humans and livestock), a beverage, a medicine, a source of dye and was included in religious and magical rites. During the Spanish Colonial Period, Nopal gained further importance as forage when cattle was introduced to the semiarid areas and there was a consequent depletion of grasslands. Its beneficial uses as a medicine and beverage were also gaining in reputation. In the De la Cruz-Badiano Codex of 1552, it was noted that Nopal treated several ailments and was used to cure burns and soothe wounds, and Friar Motolinia said, "these Indians, from a land so sterile that they lack water, drink the juice of these leaves of nopal." Nopal received its botanical genus name, Opuntia, from Tournefot, who thought the plant was similar to a thorny plant that grew in the town of Opus, in Greece. After the Spanish conquest, Nopal spread from Mexico to practically all the Americas (from Canada to Patagonia, in Argentina) and may now be found in tropical and arid regions throughout the world, including the southwestern United States. It grows in Israel, where the Prickly Pear is called tzabar (Hebrew:צבר) and it is the origin of the slang term, Sabra, meaning a native-born Israeli Jew. Some of the constituents in Nopal include water, fat, mucopolysaccharide soluble fibers, carbohydrate, protein, saponins, glycosides, a flavonoid (quercetin), minerals and large amounts of B1, B6, niacin, riboflavin and pantothenic acid.
Nopal is said to be beneficial in diabetes control, because it contains a high percentage of carbohydrate fibers known as mucilage which does not dissolve in water, but it does absorb water, so it swells up to form a bulky paste when exposed to fluids. The fiber component is thought to produce hypoglycemic activity by affecting the intestinal uptake of glucose. In double-blind tests, insulin concentrations were favorably affected with the administration of Nopal, and the herb is thought to reach maximum effect about three to four hours after eating a meal.
The pectin component in Nopal does dissolve in water and becomes a thick, syrupy liquid, which is thought to coat and protect the stomach and gastrointestinal tract, thereby helping to relieve digestive problems, relieve stomachache and irritable bowel syndrome (IBS).
This coating effect created by the pectin in Nopal may help hyperlipidemia and to lower cholesterol in the blood. The pectin seems to attach to substances in the stomach or intestines and appears to inhibit the absorption of fats from food. Consequently, excess levels of fats and cholesterol in the blood may be lowered. Animal research has indicated that the pectin component may also alter hepatic (liver) cholesterol metabolism.
Nopal is believed to be effective for hangover relief from overindulgence in alcohol. In tests, the greatest improvements were seen in symptoms of nausea, loss of appetite and dry mouth. Some researchers have hypothesized that hangovers are caused by inflammation, and Nopal may work to improve hangover by inhibiting the production of inflammatory mediators and reducing inflammation.
Nopal has been used to treat eye inflammation, rabies, pimples, dysentery and diarrhea. The action is not clearly understood, but the pectin content is believed to bind to bacteria and cause them to be eliminated from the body and is therefore helpful in treating diarrhea and other conditions associated with bacterial infection. Nopal was once also used to treat gonorrhea.
Used externally, Nopal joints are split open and applied as a healing pad for rheumatic and asthmatic symptoms. Applied to the skin in a salve, it is also used to provide topical relief for sun/windburn, wounds, rash, minor burns, hemorrhoids, insect bites and abrasions, and the pulp is used in shampoo.
Pregnant and nursing women should not use Nopa Herbal Supplementl, nor should those who have severe liver or kidney disease, since there has been limited research into its effects. The herb may cause abdominal bloating, nausea and diarrhea, and it should never be taken in conjunction with prescription diabetes medications, because it may cause hypoglycemia (blood sugar that is too low). Diabetics should always monitor their blood sugar levels carefully.