Prickly pear cactus grows in hot, sunny climates, like the southwest U.S. and Mexico. It is considered a healthy part of the Mexican diet.
People eat the fruit of the prickly pear cactus. It's also a traditional remedy for diabetes.
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.
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 an upset stomach and dry mouth. Binge drinking, however, is never safe or advised.
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 bug bites. However, we don't know if these uses actually work.
It is also being studied for wound healing and as a potential anti-cancer agent.
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:
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:
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.
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.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) does regulate dietary supplements; however, it treats them like foods rather than medications. Unlike drug manufacturers, the makers of supplements don’t have to show their products are safe or effective before selling them on the market.