Home benefits Nopal or prickly pear: what are the properties and true benefits of this cactus

Nopal or prickly pear: what are the properties and true benefits of this cactus

Nopal or prickly pear: what are the properties and true benefits of this cactus

The cactus (Opuntia Ficus indica), imported from Central America and also known as prickly pear, is attributed benefits for diabetes, cholesterol, joint pain or respiratory inflammation. Do you know how to use it?

Nopal or prickly pear what are the properties and true benefits of this cactus

In the temperate environments of the Iberian Peninsula, especially on the Mediterranean coast and Andalusia, as well as in the Balearic and Canary Islands, a species of cactus grows that because it is so common and widespread seems to have always been there and therefore is an autochthonous plant, when it is not: its origin is Central American.

It is the cactus (Opuntia Ficus-indica), a species of opuntia that we know here mainly as prickly pear and that also receives other names such as shovel fig tree (in Catalonia figure de moor). Its fruits, the prickly pears, are still consumed in many regions and in many areas of South and Central America they are known as “prickly pears”.


The cactus is a robust species, which can reach two or three meters high. Some reach up to four meters or more.

It has succulent branches, in the form of elliptical blades, protected by numerous thorns (which are modified leaves), beautiful solitary yellow flowers, with numerous petals, and fleshy fruits, covered in turn with thorns and with abundant seeds inside. These fruits are what we know as “prickly pears”, which in many areas of South America are called “prickly pears”.

The prickly pear cactus blooms from late spring and bears fruit in summer. It has been used to form barriers in fields and strengthen stony slopes, especially in areas near the coast. However, its resistance and its great capacity for expansion have made it a serious problem in some places.


The cactus is native to Mexico and Central America, and belongs to a genus of which about two hundred species are known, all of them American. They abound in desert and semi-desert environments, from the southern United States to northern Chile and Argentina. The prickly pear was brought to Europe as early as the sixteenth century.

Many species of opuntias have a great importance in popular traditions and are used as fodder, for obtaining dyes and making remedies. With its fruits, known in Mexico and other areas as prickly pears, juices, liqueurs and jams are also prepared.

The cactus is in fact one of the symbols of Mexico. It appears on the national coat of arms holding the golden eagle that devours the snake rooted in a small stone island above the water.

In Aztec mythology the cactus is considered the plant of life, because even after drying it can give rise to a new plant.


In the nopal, traditional uses are joined to culinary and medicinal ones, which take advantage not only of its fruits, but also flowers, shovels and fiber.


Prickly pears are rich in vitamin C, pectin’s, sugars, carotenoids and beta-xanthine’s. They are considered digestive, astringent and antidiarrheal.

They are very suitable as intestinal regulators after a strong, spicy or copious meal, and to help stop episodes of summer diarrhea, caused by a change of water, colitis or mild food poisoning.


The published findings suggest that nopal could reduce postprandial blood glucose spikes and increase antioxidant activity in healthy people and patients with type 2 diabetes.

Four different species of Opuntia have been used and in some, such as the prickly pear, a marked reduction in blood glucose has been observed in patients with diabetes. In others, such as Opuntia Robusta, the same action was only seen in non-diabetic patients, but instead all four species showed some activity as lipid-lowering and hypo cholesterol-lowering agents.

The most appropriate doses and their possible advantages over conventional drugs are still being studied, but it has been shown that nopal prevents the elevation of glycemia and that in certain situations it lowers blood glucose levels.

Therefore, taking a glass of juice a day or the chopped and seedless fruit, mixed in yogurt, is a not inconsiderable support for diabetics, which should be taken into account.


Prickly pear flowers contain mucilage and flavonoids. They are considered expectorant, mucolytic, antispasmodic, astringent and diuretic.

They are indicated in digestive disorders that can occur with gastrointestinal spasms and abdominal pain, but also to stimulate urine in case of fluid retention and oliguria, as deflators of the urinary ducts and to relieve inflammations of rheumatic origin such as gout.

They also stand out as balsamic, being very useful for clearing the airways of mucus.


From the dehydrated shovels of the cactus a dietary supplement is obtained that prevents or reduces the absorption of fat from food. It should be taken with a diet rich in vegetable fiber and grains or seeds.


Its effectiveness, with an average reduction of 28 to 32% in fat absorption, exceeds that of chitosan, a popular compound obtained from crustaceans. It is suitable for people who find it difficult to follow a strict regime.


Philo clads or shovels have numerous applications as a natural anti-inflammatory. They are especially rich in mucilage and that explains their importance as protectors and repairers of gastric, respiratory and dermal mucous membranes.

The remedies from these shovels have been intended to relieve gastritis, episodes of gastroenteritis, gastroduodenal ulcers and irritable bowel syndrome.

They also promote inflammation of the airways and calm irritative cough in flu states, acute colds, laryngitis and bronchitis. They had traditionally been used to combat whooping cough.


In topical use they are applied on rheumatic and gouty pains, to reduce the inflammatory process, on dry eczema, sunburn, home mishaps such as scalds, tears or bruises, on boils and abscesses, muscle contractures, myalgias, irritated skin, hives, pimples and acne.


Before taking any plant, supplement or nutritional supplement, we recommend that you consult a specialist. One way of preparation is from the decoction of the shovels, previously peeled and chopped, boiled 7-8 minutes and sweetened with rosemary or eucalyptus honey.

To obtain its syrup, the shovel is split in half, filled with cane sugar, hung or kept inclined and allowed to release a sugary liquid (opuntia syrup), of which 3 or 4 teaspoons a day can be taken.

Peeled and split into plates, the blades are applied like poultices on the impurities of the skin.

For pulmonary congestion a very effective infusion is recommended that combines nopal flowers with mallow flower and marshmallow and licorice roots. Boil just two minutes a tablespoon of the mixture per cup of water, let it sit another five and strain. Take up to three hot cups a day, sweetened if you want with eucalyptus or lavender honey.


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