We love it when scientific research reveals that a home remedy actually works. One that seems quite improbable is eating nopal cactus pads to help with blood sugar control. A few readers have tried this approach, and others wonder if they should.
Could Nopal Cactus Pads Reduce Blood Sugar?
Q. I’d had prediabetes for more than 10 years when I was diagnosed with diabetes in September. After discussing it with my doctor, I went on a very low carbohydrate diet and soon started to eat some nopal cactus (leaves of prickly pear) along with the fruit I have on my breakfast oatmeal. That always includes a sprinkling of cinnamon.
My most recent test was after fasting overnight. The HbA1c was 6.68 percent. Blood glucose was 84 and insulin was 5.56.
Recently I skipped my morning dose of nopal for a week and my symptoms of diabetes returned. I am once again eating nopal pads with both of my meals.
How Well Do Cactus Leaves Work for Blood Sugar?
A. Your level of glycated hemoglobin (HbA1c) shows you have borderline diabetes, because it is above the cutoff of 6.5 percent. However, your fasting blood sugar and insulin levels are in the normal range.
Although prickly pear (Opuntia) cactus are native to the Americas, Australian researchers are interested in their potential for blood sugar control (Medicina, May 15, 2019; Feb. 16, 2022). There’s a bit more information about how people use nopal pads (technically known as cladodes) below.
Other Nondrug Approaches for Lowering Blood Sugar:
A number of other nondrug strategies could help, in addition to the low-carb diet you are following. Regular exercise is important. Maintaining adequate vitamin D levels is also helpful. The cinnamon you sprinkle on your oatmeal can be beneficial, as long as it is Ceylon cinnamon. You can learn more about these and other natural options for blood sugar control in our eGuide to Preventing and Treating Diabetes.
What About Nopal Cactus Tea?
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.
One reader shared this:
“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, etc. His doctor had him on cactus for high glucose and it works.”
Mary added her experience:
“I live in Mexico and have been using nopal capsules with meals for about 5 years. My blood sugar has remained pretty stable as long as I am consistent.”
Young Nopal Pads May Be Best:
Years ago, a family practice physician wrote us that his patient with diabetes was able to control his blood sugar better when he drank tea made from nopal pads. Animal research demonstrates that Opuntia (a different species) can help lower blood sugar and cholesterol (Nutrition Research, June, 2011). Young, tender pads appear to have the greatest effect on blood sugar (Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry, Nov. 20, 2013).
Research in people with type 2 diabetes shows that adding nopal leaves or powdered nopal to breakfast can reduce the spikes of blood sugar and insulin that otherwise occur after the meal (Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, Nov. 2014). Another study compared a product made from Opuntia pads (OpunDia) to placebo in overweight volunteers with pre-diabetes (Journal of Ethnopharmacology, Aug. 9, 2010). The product lowered blood sugar after a glucose challenge, indicating that nopal cactus may have similar properties. A recent study suggests that people consuming cactus pads on a regular basis improve the balance of bacteria in their digestive tracts (Nutrients, Feb. 27, 2022).
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