Sharp painful spikes. Grows in the most arid and sunny regions on Earth. This is your average cactus plant. Of the different plants that offer medicinal and nutritional benefits to human health, such as the neem tree or the aloe vera plant, the cactus species is rarely, if ever thought of, as having any health benefits. Cacti are mostly ornamental plants, with their unique and novel appearance and easy-peasy maintenance. But there are some species of cactus that are useful in the field of health and medicine. In this article, learn about the medicinal uses of cactus plants as well as nutritional benefits of the same.
Cactus Plants That Aid in Health and Medicine
All cactus plants aren't edible. The two main cactus species that are medically useful and suitable for human consumption are:
The Prickly Pear or Opuntia
A tangled mass of vibrant green, spiky paddles protruding from a stem and attractive red, orange or yellow bulbous fruit are two key characteristics of this cactus species. The prickly pear cactus is also called the paddle cactus and belongs to the Opuntia genus of cacti. They are also a distinct cactus species, due to their dual spike system, fixed spines and prickly glochids. The leaves or pads of cactus are called nopales and the fruit is called tuna or pear. On peeling the outer skin, the pear can be eaten raw or cooked to make jellies and sweets. The paddles are used in Mexican cuisine like a vegetable.
Eating the nopal or pad of the prickly pear cactus has the following health benefits:
- The nopal contains pectin, a bio-chemical component that reduces cholesterol levels in the body.
- Pectin is a useful chemical for diabetic patients, as it helps curb insulin cravings. So the prickly pear's high pectin content makes it nutritious for diabetics.
- Nopal is a good source of vegetarian protein that aids with water retention in the body. It is also useful for vegetarians looking to supplement their protein levels.
- Nopal is an excellent source of fiber and hence aids in digestion by regulating the body's bowel functioning. It also aids with water absorption.
- These fleshy cactus pads are storehouses of nutrients such as Vitamins A, C, B6 and K. They also contain high levels of calcium and magnesium.
- Just like the nopal, the pear or tuna also contains a lot of fiber in its flesh. So like other fibrous vegetables and fruits, better digestion and a satiated appetite makes both parts of the prickly pear, perfect diet aids in curbing hunger pangs.
Medical benefits of the prickly pear nopal include:
- Treating constipation and acting as a natural laxative
- Strengthening the immunity of the body
- Reducing and preventing inflammation in muscles along the body, from those in the gastrointestinal tract to the muscles in the bladder
- Reduces cholesterol levels in the body
- Stabilizes glucose and insulin levels in the body
- Acts as a source of anti-oxidants
- Helps treat gastric ulcers
- Can be applied topically to heal wounds, scrapes and insect bites
- Helps in reducing the effects of drinking too much alcohol
The Pitaya Fruit
Prickly pear isn't the only fruit-bearing cactus species. Several cactus species, the Hylocereus genus being one example, grow a large, unusual looking fruit called a pitaya or a dragon fruit. Though a native Central American plant, such cacti are also grown in South Asian countries such as Thailand, Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines. Depending on their area of growth, pitayas are red or yellow skinned with bright red or white inner flesh. They have vibrant green leaf-like growths protruding from their outer surface. The seeds and flesh can be eaten raw, without the skin of the fruit. You can also make pitaya juice or wine.
- This fruit is low in calories but fibrous in content, making it ideal food for dieters. It is also rich in poly-saturated fats, which are healthy fats needed by the body.
- It is rich in minerals and vitamins like Vitamin C, calcium and phosphorus.
- Eating this fruit is said to encourage the release of toxins and harmful chemicals from the body.
- It also controls and aids in regulating blood sugar levels in patients of diabetes.
- It is a valuable source of natural anti-oxidants.
- This fruit is quickly absorbed and metabolized by the body, when eaten, so the pitaya can be used as a natural Vitamin C supplement instead of a pill.
- It has a reducing effect on cholesterol and blood pressure levels in the body, hence proving its usefulness for those suffering from high blood pressure and diabetes.
In summation, the above medical uses of the cactus species, illustrates a characteristic of nature that man should be grateful for: whatever the plant, there is some hidden value or benefit that is useful for man. Even the spiky cactus.