Page updated Aug 15, 2013. First published Aug 15, 2013. 2 comments
Prickly pear (also known as NeOpuntia) is an ingredient found in many dietary supplements. It apparently causes fat loss due to its ability to slow down the rate of absorption of carbohydrates. Whether it successfully reduces body fat and body weight is for us to find out!
Obesity is fast becoming a major health concern all over the world. It increases significantly the morbidity and risk of mortality associated with diabetes, metabolic syndrome and cardiovascular diseases (Expert Panel on the Identification Evaluation and Treatment of Overweight in Adults, 1998; Field et al., 2001; Eckel et al., 2004).
Owing to significant adverse effect, the pharmacological approaches (use of drugs) to tackle obesity has taken a back seat in recent years. Researchers, clinicians and people looking to reduce body weight are always in search of supplements containing natural ingredients. Although a large number of such ingredients are packed in a fat burner, not many of these work.
Prickly pear (also known as NeOpuntia) is one such ingredient; whether it successfully reduces fat and body weight is for us to find out!
What is Prickly Pear?
Prickly pear is tree-like cactus belonging to the family Cactaceae (de Leo, Abreu, Pawlowska, Cioni, & Braca, 2010).
Also known as NeOpuntia or Nopal, it goes by the name Opuntia ficus-indica in scientific literature. It is quite popular in Mexican traditional medicine where it is recommended for treatment of diarrhoea, colitis, diabetes, hypercholesterolemia, atherosclerosis and benign prostatic hypertrophy (BPH). Extract from prickly pear cactus are mostly used for treating these conditions.
In addition to the above mentioned conditions, Mexicans also have used it to lose weight. The rest of the world is just beginning to notice the amazing qualities that prickly pear cactus holds.
How Does Prickly Pear Cause Fat Loss?
Prickly pear extract causes fat loss owing to its rich fiber content.
Prickly pear extract is high in soluble fiber and pectin. Fiber including pectin increases the bulk (and viscosity of stools) thereby slowing absorption and thus the blood levels of sugars. This indirectly translates into lesser amounts of calories getting converted into fat for storage (Yeh, Eisenberg, Kaptchuk, & Phillips, 2003; De Smet, 2002).
Prickly pear extract’s ability to cause weight loss is the often credited to the above mechanism. However, since prickly pear seems to affect fasting blood glucose levels as well, other yet undefined mechanisms have long been suspected to be at play (Rodriguez-Fragoso, Reyes-Esparza, Burchiel, Herrera-Ruiz, & Torres, 2008).
Does Prickly Pear Extract Have Other Health Benefits?
Prickly pear extract has been reported to be effective in a number of unrelated pathological conditions including alcohol related hangovers, colitis, diarrhoea and benign prostatic hypertrophy (BPH) (Wolfram et al., 2003).
Effects of prickly pear extract beneficial to human health:
Relieves symptoms of a hangover like – anorexia, nausea, dry mouth (Cho et al., 2006)
Hypoglycaemic effect (reduces blood sugar levels) – may be of benefit in preventing or treating diabetes (Shapiro & Gong, 2002; Wolfram et al., 2003)
Reduces blood lipid and cholesterol levels and affects the composition of LDL (low density lipoprotein cholesterol) favourably (Wolfram et al., 2003)
Has value in treating BPH: consumption of powdered flower of prickly pear cactus has been shown to improve symptoms like fullness and frequency of bladder emptying (Palevitch, Earon, & Levin, 1994; Wolfram et al., 2003)
Has anti-oxidant (Kim et al., 2010) and anti-inflammatory (Park, Kahng, & Paek, 1998) actions
Opuntia ficus-indica also has anti-cancer activities (Chavez-Santoscoy, Gutierrez-Uribe, & Serna-Saldivar, 2009)
What Are The Recommended Doses of Prickly Pear Extract?
Commercially, prickly pear extract is available in the form of powders, capsules, tablets and juices.
Although the doses have not been standardized, manufacturers recommend the following for weight loss:
250mg capsules by mouth x 3 times a day
For other conditions, the recommended doses in traditional Mexican medicine are:
Diabetes: 100-500 mg of broiled stems per day.
Hangovers: 1600 IU of prickly pear extract 5 hours before alcohol
Are There Any Ill-effects of Using Prickly Pear That I Should Be Aware Of?
Generally, prickly pear extract is well tolerated when taken orally (Rodriguez-Fragoso et al., 2008). However, some amounts of mild adverse effects have been reported.
Rodrigeuz-Fragoso et al., in their paper published in 2008, discussed the pharmacological and toxicological properties of a number of plant species including Nopal (Rodriguez-Fragoso et al., 2008).
According to them, prickly pear extract may cause:
Nausea (feeling of throwing up),
Abdominal discomfort, and
Other researchers have also reported similar findings (Federici, Multari, Gallo, & Palazzino, 2005; De Smet, 2002).
Is There Any Scientific Evidence in Favour of Prickly Pear?
Although practitioners of traditional Mexican medicine swear by its effectiveness, there is very little scientific evidence to go by. Not many human studies investigating the weight-reducing abilities of prickly pear extract have been conducted. The very few that have been published so far do not, by any stretch of imagination, support the idea that supplementing with prickly pear extract might help you lose weight.
Here are some:
Godard et al, in their published findings reported that Opuntia ficus-indica in a dose of 200mg per day for a period of 16 weeks caused significant reduction in blood glucose concentration. However, that did not translate into any significant changes in body weight or body composition (Godard et al., 2010).
South East Asian scientists investigating the favourable effects of the genus Opuntia concluded that although the plants belonging to this genus are effective in increasing bone mineral density, body weight was not much affected (Kang, Park, Choi, Igawa, & Song, 2012).
Notwithstanding the immense anecdotal evidence, it is an undeniable fact that the prickly pear extract and its effect on body weight hasn’t been investigated enough.
What is Our Verdict on Prickly Pear?
In view of the lack of scientific evidence for its weight-reducing abilities of, we would have to rule against prickly pear extract being a weight loss agent.
Chavez-Santoscoy, R. A., Gutierrez-Uribe, J. A., & Serna-Saldivar, S. O. (2009). Phenolic composition, antioxidant capacity and in vitro cancer cell cytotoxicity of nine prickly pear (Opuntia spp.) juices. Plant Foods Hum.Nutr., 64, 146-152. Online Resource
Cho, J. Y., Park, S. C., Kim, T. W., Kim, K. S., Song, J. C., Kim, S. K. et al. (2006). Radical scavenging and anti-inflammatory activity of extracts from Opuntia humifusa Raf. J Pharm.Pharmacol., 58, 113-119. Online Resource
de Leo, M., Abreu, M. B. D., Pawlowska, A. M., Cioni, P. L., & Braca, A. (2010). Profiling the chemical content of Opuntia ficus-indica flowers by HPLC-PDA-ESI-MS and GC/EIMS analyses. Phytochemistry Letters, 3, 48-52.
De Smet, P. A. (2002). Herbal remedies. N Engl J Med, 347, 2046-2056.
Eckel, R. H., York, D. A., Rossner, S., Hubbard, V., Caterson, I., St Jeor, S. T. et al. (2004). Prevention Conference VII: Obesity, a worldwide epidemic related to heart disease and stroke: executive summary. Circulation, 110, 2968-2975.
Expert Panel on the Identification Evaluation and Treatment of Overweight in Adults (1998). Clinical guidelines on the identification, evaluation, and treatment of overweight and obesity in adults: executive summary. Am J Clin Nutr., 68, 899-917. Online Resource
Federici, E., Multari, G., Gallo, F. R., & Palazzino, G. (2005). [Herbal drugs: from traditional use to regulation]. Ann Ist.Super.Sanita, 41, 49-54. Online Resource
Field, A. E., Coakley, E. H., Must, A., Spadano, J. L., Laird, N., Dietz, W. H. et al. (2001). Impact of overweight on the risk of developing common chronic diseases during a 10-year period. Arch.Intern.Med, 161, 1581-1586. Online Resource
Godard, M. P., Ewing, B. A., Pischel, I., Ziegler, A., Benedek, B., & Feistel, B. (2010). Acute blood glucose lowering effects and long-term safety of OpunDia supplementation in pre-diabetic males and females. J Ethnopharmacol, 130, 631-634. Online Resource
Kang, J., Park, J., Choi, S. H., Igawa, S., & Song, Y. (2012). Opuntia humifusa Supplementation Increased Bone Density by Regulating Parathyroid Hormone and Osteocalcin in Male Growing Rats. Int J Mol.Sci., 13, 6747-6756. Online Resource
Kim, S. C., Magesh, V., Jeong, S. J., Lee, H. J., Ahn, K. S., Lee, H. J. et al. (2010). Ethanol extract of Ocimum sanctum exerts anti-metastatic activity through inactivation of matrix metalloproteinase-9 and enhancement of anti-oxidant enzymes. Food Chem.Toxicol., 48, 1478-1482. Online Resource
Palevitch, D., Earon, G., & Levin, I. (1994). Treatment of benign prostatic hypertrophy with Opuntia ficus-indica (L.). Int J Comp Alt Med, 21, 2-8.
Park, E. H., Kahng, J. H., & Paek, E. A. (1998). Studies on the pharmacological action of cactus: identification of its anti-inflammatory effect. Arch.Pharm.Res., 21, 30-34. Online Resource
Rodriguez-Fragoso, L., Reyes-Esparza, J., Burchiel, S. W., Herrera-Ruiz, D., & Torres, E. (2008). Risks and benefits of commonly used herbal medicines in Mexico. Toxicol.Appl.Pharmacol., 227, 125-135.
Shapiro, K. & Gong, W. C. (2002). Natural products used for diabetes. J Am Pharm.Assoc.(Wash.), 42, 217-226.
Wolfram, R., Budinsky, A., Efthimiou, Y., Stomatopoulos, J., Oguogho, A., & Sinzinger, H. (2003). Daily prickly pear consumption improves platelet function. Prostaglandins Leukot.Essent.Fatty Acids, 69, 61-66. Online Resource
Yeh, G. Y., Eisenberg, D. M., Kaptchuk, T. J., & Phillips, R. S. (2003). Systematic review of herbs and dietary supplements for glycemic control in diabetes. Diabetes Care, 26, 1277-1294. Online Resource
About the author: Rachel Butler
Rachel likes getting to the bottom of everything that is put in front of her, which comes from her background in law. Whenever there is anything tricky to look at, Rachel is always the first port of call.
Her weekends are spent either cycling or walking, then topped off by indulging her love of chocolate as a reward for her hard work.
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