Prickly Pear Supplements

One of the newest natural weight loss supplements to become popular is opuntia, also called prickly pear cactus and known natively in Latin America as nopales. There are numerous species in the Opuntia genus but the one most commonly used for weight loss is opuntia ficus. Prickly pear supplements are primarily sold as capsules or tablets but juices and teas made from the plant can also be readily found.

What is Prickly Pear Cactus?

Prickly pear is a type of cactus which primarily grows in Latin America.  However, species of opuntia cactus can be found in a range spreading from southern Canada to South America.  The prickly pear is a green cactus which grows in flat, round nodes which are covered in sharp spikes.  A bright reddish purple fruit grows from the nodes and has small clusters of prickles. Both the prickly pear nodes and fruit can be eaten and have been consumed as a staple in Latin American and Native American diets for centuries. Prickly pear cacti are often made into candy, juices, or jellies. In Mexico, indigenous peoples traditionally make an alcoholic liquor from prickly pear called colonche.  Prickly pear is not just limited to the Americas.  It has been exported to other regions including Australia, Europe and Asia where it is used in horticulture and cuisine, amongst other uses.

Prickly Pear as a Treatment for Diabetes

Prickly pear has gotten a lot of attention from medical researchers in the past few decades for its potential in treating type II diabetes.  When you consume digestible carbohydrates such as starches or refined sugars, the carbs gets broken down into glucose and absorbed into your bloodstream.  Glucose is the body’s primary source of energy.  The amount of glucose available in our bloodstream is critical for determining how much energy we have and how hungry we feel.

The main hormone responsible for turning carbohydrates into glucose is insulin.  Insulin is made in the pancreas and released in response to carbohydrate consumption. If you eat a meal very high in carbohydrates, then your pancreas will quickly produce and release insulin. This results in an insulin spike and to deal with the rapid increase in blood sugar levels.  These insulin spikes can cause your body to become less responsive to insulin and lead to diabetes. Smaller, slower releases of insulin are more beneficial than rapid spikes.

Prickly pear can help treat diabetes because it contains high amounts of the soluble fiber pectin.  When you consume prickly pear cactus, the soluble fiber binds to foods you eat and forms a gel-like substance.  It takes longer for your body to break down this gel substance so your body does not release a surge of insulin and your blood sugar levels don’t become too high.  Keeping balanced blood sugar levels is very important for preventing and controlling diabetes.  Imbalanced blood sugar can lead to serious health problems like obesity, high blood pressure, and stroke.

What Blood Sugar Has to Do with Weight Loss

Even though prickly pear cactus has primarily been studied for treating type II diabetes, it may be able to help weight loss in the same way that it helps control blood sugar levels.  When your blood sugar levels raise, your body senses that it has too much glucose and, instead of using the glucose as energy, will start to store it as fat.  However, the problem with blood sugar spikes isn’t just that is causes the food you ate to get stored as fat – any unused energy would just get stored as fat eventually anyway.  The real problem is that blood sugar spikes cause you to overeat.

Once you have a blood sugar spike and the energy gets stored as fat, your body is quickly left without any usable energy.  You will feel tired and sluggish.  The low levels of blood sugar trigger hunger in your brain and you start seeking out foods.  Unfortunately, you start to crave starchy or sugar foods so your body can increase blood sugar levels again quickly.  This will just cause another spike in blood sugar leaving you in a vicious circle of feeling constantly hunger and also tired.

In order to avoid hunger, it is important that people eat complex carbohydrates which are also rich in fiber.  Complex carbohydrates get broken down slower than simple carbohydrates so your body does not get a surge in blood sugar.  One example of complex carbohydrates are the whole grains which you have probably heard hyped up in nutrition reports.  You should avoid the simple carbohydrates like white breads, white pastas, and processed foods.

Taking prickly pear may help suppress appetite by making you feel full for longer after eating a meal because the food is being broken down slower. Compared to most other appetite suppressant supplements, prickly pear is very safe because it does not act on neurotransmitters in the brain.  It only acts on the food you eat.  Species of prickly pear cactus have been eaten for centuries without any known health risks.  Prickly pear supplements may cause some side effects though, like diarrhea or dyspepsia.

Other Ways Prickly Pear Helps Weight Loss

Aside from controlling blood sugar levels so you feel full longer, prickly pear may benefit weight loss in other ways too.  Prickly pear contains high levels of antioxidants (can antioxidants really help weight loss?) which are important while losing weight.  While antioxidants will not directly help weight loss, they can help prevent cell damage which commonly occurs from toxins during weight loss.

Prickly pear also contains an insoluble fiber.  Unlike the soluble fiber in prickly pear which helps make you feel longer, the insoluble fiber helps speed up the activity of the gastrointestinal tract.  They have a laxative effect which is why prickly pear may cause diarrhea. There is some evidence that prickly pear cactus may also reduce unhealthy cholesterol levels, a problem associated with obesity.


“Genus Opuntia (inclu. Cylindropuntia, Grusonia, and Corynopuntia.” Desertmuseum.org. Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum. N.d. Web.

Bwititti, PT, T Machakaire, CB Nhachi, and CT Musabayane. “Effects of Opuntia Megacantha Leaves Extract on Renal Electrolyte and Fluid Handling in Streptozotocin (STZ)-Diabetic Rats.” Informacare, 23;2 (2001): 149-158.

Trejo-Gonzalez, Augusto, Genaro Gabriel-Ortiz, Ana Maria Puebla-Perez, Maria Dolores Huizar-Contreras, Maria del Rosario Munguia-Mazariegos, Silvia Mejia-Arreguin, and Edmundo Calva. “A purified extract from prickly pear cactus (Opuntia fuliginosa) controls experimentally induced diabetes in rats.” Journal of Ethnopharmacology, 55;1 (1996):27-33.

Linares, E, C Thimonier, and M Degre. “The effect of NeOpuntia on blood lipid parameters – risk factors for the metabolic syndrome (syndrome X).” Advances in Therapy, 24;5 (2007): 1115-1125.


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