The Prickly Pear Cactus is often used to relieve the symptoms of overindulgence in alcohol, including dry mouth and nausea. The herb is also thought to lower fats and cholesterol in the blood, and is becoming increasingly popular as a means to decrease blood sugar levels and control diabetes.
Prickly Pear Cactus is a large cactus with a woody trunk and large top, many oblong joints, small, yellow barbed spines, bright yellow flowers, and red fruit with a juicy, white, sweet flesh and numerous black seeds.
It is said to be a native of Mexico, where it is considered the symbol of identity of the Mexican people and even included on the Mexican flag. About twenty thousand years ago, Opuntia (or Prickly Pear) began to develop as a food, and the plant’s development was said to enable human settlement and cultural development in many parts of the arid lands, where it was considered the lifeblood of those ancient cultures, particularly in times of drought.
From about 5,000 to 7,000 B. C, prehistoric indigenous groups began the cultivation of a series of native plants, including beans, opuntia, peppers and agave, etc. and in Pre-Columbian times, Prickly Pear was considered an important staple food (for both humans and livestock), a beverage, a medicine, a source of dye and was included in religious and magical rites.
During the Spanish Colonial Period, Prickly Pear gained further importance as forage when cattle was introduced to the semiarid areas and there was a consequent depletion of grasslands. Its beneficial uses as a medicine and beverage were also gaining in reputation. In the De la Cruz-Badiano Codex of 1552. it was noted that Prickly Pear treated several ailments and was used to cure burns and soothe wounds, and Friar Motolinia said” these Indians, from a land so sterile that they lack water, drink the juice of these leaves of nopal” (the genus, Opuntia, is still often called Nopal). Prickly Pear received its botanical name. Opuntia, from Tournefot, who thought the plant was similar to a thorny plant that grew in the town of Opus, in Greece.
After the Spanish conquest, Prickly Pear spread from Mexico to practically all the Americas (from Canada to Patagonia, Argentina) and may now be found in tropical and arid regions throughout the world, including the southwestern United States. Some of the constituents in Prickly Pear Cactus include water, fat, mucopolysaccharide soluble fibers, carbohydrate, protein, saponins, glycosides, a flavonoid (quercetin), minerals and large amounts of B1, B6, niacin, riboflavin and pantothenic acid.
Prickly Pear is said to be beneficial in diabetes control, because it contains a high percentage of carbohydrate fibers known as mucilage which does not dissolve in water, but it does absorb water, so it swells up to form a bulky paste when exposed to fluids. The fiber component is thought to produce hypoglycemic activity by affecting the intestinal uptake of glucose. In double-blind tests, insulin concentrations were favorably affected with the administration of Prickly Pear, and the herb is thought to reach maximum effect about three to four hours after eating a meal.