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Prickly Pear Cactus

Prickly pear cactus grows in hot, sunny climates, like the southwest U.S. and Mexico.

People eat the fruit of the prickly pear cactus. It's also a traditional remedy for diabetes.

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Why do people take prickly pear cactus?

In people with type 2 diabetes, supplements made from one type of broiled prickly pear cactus stem may lower blood sugar levels. Early research shows that the supplements may lower blood sugar by 17% to 46% in some people. Only one species -- opuntia streptacantha -- had this effect.

More research is needed to see if this effect would continue with repeated doses.

Diabetes is a very serious condition. Don't ever try to treat it on your own with supplements.

Prickly pear cactus may also help prevent hangovers by reducing swelling. One study shows that taking prickly pear cactus supplement five hours before heavy drinking cuts hangover symptoms by 50%. People were less likely to have upset stomach and dry mouth. Binge drinking, however, is never safe or advised.

Prickly pear cactus may help with enlarged prostate symptoms. It may also lower unhealthy cholesterol levels. But we need more research to be sure.

Prickly pear cactus is a folk remedy for many other conditions, ranging from sunburn to ulcers to preventing mosquito bites. Some people use it on the skin to soothe big bites. However, we don't know if these uses actually work.

There's no standard dose for prickly pear cactus for any condition. Quality and active ingredients in supplements may vary widely from maker to maker. This makes it very hard to set a standard dose. Ask your doctor for advice.

Can you get prickly pear cactus naturally from foods?

People eat prickly pear cactus in sautés, omelets, salads, and many other dishes. Raw, it tastes like watermelon. People also make it into:

  • Candies
  • Juices
  • Wine
  • Jellies

As a food it's very common in Mexico.

What are the risks?

Tell your doctor about any supplements you're taking, even if they're natural. That way, your doctor can check on any potential side effects or interactions with medications.

Side effects. It's not known whether the supplement causes side effects.

As a food, prickly pear cactus seems to be safe.It may cause minor side effects, such as:

  • Upset stomach
  • Diarrhea
  • Bloating
  • Headache

Risks. If you have diabetes, don't take prickly pear cactus supplements unless a doctor says it's safe.

You may need to stop taking prickly pear cactus before surgery.

It’s not known if prickly pear cactus is safe for children or for women who are pregnant or breastfeeding.

Interactions. If you take any medications regularly, talk to your doctor before you start using prickly pear cactus supplements.

Since prickly pear cactus affects blood sugar levels, it may not be safe if you're taking diabetes drugs.

Supplements are not regulated by the FDA.

WebMD Medical Reference

Reviewed by Melinda Ratini, DO, MS on January 12, 2013

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