Health Benefits of Cactus

When we think about the health benefits of cactus, there is a good chance that our imagination whisks us off to a scene involving some unfortunate soul being stranded in the desert with little to no water. Anyone old enough to have received survival training via cowboy movies knows that a cactus will materialize at the last moment to save the day. All we have to do is cut off the top and drink our fill. Fortunately, today’s extensive lineup of reality-based survival shows has taught us just how bad an idea that is. Instead of finding water, that cactus is filled with an alkaline substance that will only make matters worse.

So, if the cactus is not necessarily our friend when we are looking for a life-saving drink of water, what health benefits does it have? Surprisingly enough, the cactus, the nopal or prickly pear cactus to be specific, is pretty famous when it comes to that. A list of its nutritional content reads like the label on a bottle of multivitamins:

  • Vitamin A
  • Vitamin B6
  • Vitamin C
  • Vitamin K
  • Calcium
  • Copper
  • Iron
  • Magnesium
  • Manganese
  • Niacin
  • Potassium
  • Riboflavin
  • Phytochemicals
  • Thiamin
  • Polysaccharides

The pads of the cactus are called nopales or mopalitos and are used in a variety of dishes in Mexico and the American Southwest. Similar to a pepper, it’s common to find them in tacos, egg dishes, jams and even blended into health drinks. Based on that list of nutrients, however, it is obvious that the cactus is more prized for its health benefits than its culinary contributions. Some of the conditions that it is used to treat include:

  • Weight management – due to its high fiber content and ability to boost metabolism, the cactus can help with weight loss and management
  • Cancer prevention – this cactus has antioxidant properties which are important in preventing the formation of free radicals which can lead to the DNA mutation that results in the creation of cancer cells
  • Regulates glucose levels – this can be an important aid in the management of diabetes
  • Improves digestion – cactus is largely made of fiber which is essential in the proper functioning of the digestive as well as elimination systems of the body
  • Treats ulcers – elements of the cactus actually stop or slow down the development of gastric ulcers that are caused by alcohol abuse
  • Healthy skin – just like with its cancer prevention properties, cactus reduces the number of free radicals that are responsible for the unattractive signs of premature aging that affect the skin, like wrinkles and age spots
  • Boosts metabolism – that impressive list of vitamins and minerals play an important role in enzyme regulation which powers the body’s metabolism
  • Bone health – the calcium and vitamin K in the nopales both contribute to better bone health
  • Helps with insomnia – the cactus activates the body to increase levels of melatonin which encourages relaxation and sleep
  • Strengthens the immune system – the prickly pear cactus contains a high concentration of vitamin C, which is a key player in immune system support
  • Reduces inflammation – can be used topically on swollen joints and muscles, including those affected by arthritis, or eaten to spread the benefits throughout the body

As if all of this was not enough, prickly pear cactus has long been believed to be an effective countermeasure for a hangover, according to the local residents in Phoenix, Arizona. This may not technically be a “health” benefit but, if it works, there are undoubtedly those who feel like it is.

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