a prickly pear (nopal) cactus

Many people are interested in non-drug approaches to controlling blood sugar. We are fans of using diet, exercise and natural foods to reduce or eliminate the need for medications in type 2 diabetes, provided it is done with the knowledge and oversight of your health care provider. There are some foods that might surprise you because they can help keep blood sugar from spiking. A few of them might not even be familiar to you. Here are a couple of questions we have received about using cactus leaves in the diet to get blood glucose under control.

Cactus Leaves and Hibiscus Flowers:

Q. I heard a rumor that leaves of nopal cactus and a drink made from hibiscus (jamaica) are useful in helping control blood sugar in diabetes. Is there any truth to this?

A. Hibiscus extract lowered both blood sugar and total cholesterol in one study of people with insulin resistance, a preliminary stage before diabetes (Phytomedicine, June, 2010).

Nopal Cactus Leaves:

In another study, when people with type 2 diabetes ate nopal (prickly pear cactus leaves) with a high-carb breakfast, their blood sugar did not spike (Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, online Aug. 12, 2014).

There are many other non-drug approaches to blood sugar control, including cinnamon, vinegar, bitter melon, fenugreek, low-carb vegetables and oolong tea. We provide details in the Guide to Managing Diabetes we are sending you.

Years ago, we heard from a family physician in Texas whose patient with type 2 diabetes had had difficulty controlling his blood sugar. When he came in for a regular visit and his blood sugar was great, the doctor was surprised. The patient confessed that he had a new girlfriend, a woman from Mexico, who was making him nopal tea every day. That is when we started looking for research on nopal cactus for blood sugar. There is animal research showing that Opuntia extract can help control blood sugar and also total cholesterol (Nutrition Research, June, 2011).

A reader offered this comment:

“A friend of ours moved his family to southern Mexico. He told us that down in southern Mexico people take the cactus in pill form, as well as eat it with their meals like we would a pickle or onion. His doctor had him on cactus for high glucose and it works.”

Hibiscus Flowers:

A rat study of hibiscus extract was quite promising, in that the rats getting the extract had lower blood sugar and insulin levels. They also had less damage due to the effects of the diabetes on their tissues and organs (Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry, Sept. 28, 2011). We are anxious to see a study in humans. Since hibiscus flowers make a popular drink that lowers blood pressure, we don’t worry about safety. We find that the hibiscus tea is delicious.

Cinnamon:

We have heard from many readers that cinnamon can be helpful. Peggy reported:

“I am still using Saigon cinnamon and after my last check up 2 months ago I am in the best of health. I am also diabetic under control by diet. I use 2 heaping tsp. on a double portion of oatmeal, (which I eat only a small amount each AM) and have for a year. I also put 2 tsp. in a 10 cup pot of coffee, with the grounds.”

We heard from a nurse about a patient of hers:

“I am a nurse, and one of my patients has a success story that may interest you. His presurgical tests showed an HbA1c above 8, indicating that his blood sugar had been above normal for months. He decided to start taking a cinnamon supplement.

“When I saw him two months later, his HbA1c was 6.0. Wow! He’s also been taking a teaspoon of yellow mustard, which contains vinegar and turmeric, after every meal. It muddies the research, but it has been good for him.”

Mustard:

We have heard from a few readers who have found mustard helpful. One woman living in France was urged to follow the French tradition of having salad with vinaigrette dressing at the close of the meal. Whether it was the vinegar or the mustard in the vinaigrette we do not know, but she reported lower blood sugar values and HbA1c after a few months.

We found a fascinating study in which 10 healthy young men were fed leek and potato soup twice. In one instance, they were given yellow mustard bran in their soup; the other time it was left out. Blood sugar levels were lower up to an hour and a half after eating the soup when it contained mustard bran (International Journal of Food Sciences and Nutrition, March, 2013). Unfortunately, we have never seen yellow mustard bran and don’t know where to obtain it.

Cactus Leaves Redux:

An earlier question asked about where to find cactus leaves:

Q. I have type 2 diabetes and heard that if you drink nopal cactus tea it can help control blood sugar. Where can I get the fresh cactus pads or ready made tea?

A. You will need to be in close communication with your doctor if you try this botanical remedy. Your doctor may need to adjust the dose of your diabetes medicines. You will have to monitor your blood sugar very carefully to make sure it doesn’t get too high or too low.

Nopal cactus (Opuntia streptacantha or prickly pear) is a traditional treatment in Mexico for controlling blood sugar (Journal of Ethnopharmacology, Jan. 31, 2012; Jan. 27, 2011). You may find fresh cactus pads in a Latin or Mexican grocery. You can also find nopal or prickly pear supplements or tea bags in a health food store.

As you can see above, there are quite a few foods that can help control blood sugar. You’ll learn more about them in our book, The People’s Pharmacy Quick & Handy Home Remedies.

Vinegar:

Another food you might not expect to lower blood sugar is vinegar. Finish your meal with a salad dressed with vinegar and oil, skip dessert, and you might be pleased that your blood sugar does not soar. Unfortunately, vinegar is more effective at controlling blood sugar spikes in people who do not have type 2 diabetes (Molecular Nutrition & Food Research, online May 23, 2016).

People with prediabetes might want to consider including vinegar, nopal cactus, mustard, cinnamon or hibiscus in their diets. You can learn more about preventing diabetes and reversing prediabetes from our hour long discussion of how to prevent diabetes by changing your life (Show 1036).

Revised 5/26/16

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  1. Barbara
    Texas
    Reply

    There are hundreds of different kinds of cactus. All different size pads, plants and different bloom colors. How do we know which ones are safe and possibly healthy to eat? I bought three kinds of cactus at a plant nursery. The pads have different shapes. One is round, one oval, the other like a long dog ear. Are they all safe to eat? All are cactus and all make large plants with unpleasant sharp thorns.

    • Carey
      Chicago
      Reply

      The article specified that it should be Nopal cactus, also known as Prickly Pear Cactus. Did the nursery provide the name of each type of cactus? You can use Google Images to google a Prickly Pear Cactus to find out what its leaves look like.

      I’ve also seen it canned in the Mexican food section of my local grocery stores.

  2. rosa
    Reply

    I started drinking Hibiscus drink without sugar and realized my blood sugar was lower than it had been. I began to tell family I think this drink helps with sugar levels. Now I know it is true after reading your article

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