Health Benefits of Cactus Plants
Answered by: Conrad Richter
Question from: Cruz Morin
Posted on: June 18, 2005

I would like to know what health benefits do cactus plants have for the human body.

Cacti belong to a large family of plants, the Cactaceae. Relatively little is known about the medicinal effects of cacti, but at least some are known to be medicinally active. For example, prickly pears (Opuntia spp.) are known to possess antioxidant compounds called betalains. A recent Italian study (http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/entrez/query.fcgi?cmd=Retrieve&db=pubmed&dopt=Abstract&list_uids=15277160&query_hl=1) showed that supplementation with prickly pear has a strong effect on free radicals (the harmful compounds) in the body and that this antioxidant effect is different from the effect of vitamin C, a well-known antioxidant. Another recent study (http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/entrez/query.fcgi?cmd=Retrieve&db=pubmed&dopt=Abstract&list_uids=15226168&query_hl=1) showed that a prickly pear extract can reduce the risk of a severe hangover from alcohol consumption by a half. Yet another study (http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/entrez/query.fcgi?cmd=Retrieve&db=pubmed&dopt=Abstract&list_uids=12503475&query_hl=1) showed that prickly pear may lower blood cholesterol and blood sugar.

Of course the prickly pear cactus produces a tasty fruit and is grown commercially for the produce market. But a Vietnamese study suggests that the plant may have some value as a growth stimulating dietary supplement, at least in lambs.

There is considerable interest in a South African cactus, Hoodia gordonii. Both the BBC and CBS have featured stories on the appetite-suppressing properties of Hoodia in the past two years. A compound in Hoodia has been found that makes you feel full. Pfizer, the pharmaceutical giant, recently bought the development and marketing rights to this discovery from the British company, Phytopharm.

No doubt other species of cacti will be found to possess medicinal properties. Because cacti occur in harsh desert environments where few people live, there is not as much of a body of traditional herbal knowledge associated with them as there is for non-desert plants. The importance of traditional knowledge cannot be overstated -- even in the case of Hoodia, scientists got the clue that the plant has appetite suppressing properties from the Kalihari bushmen who used the it to stave off hunger during hunting trips.

Because the cacti encompass many different species of plants, it is impossible to generalize about their health-giving properties. For example, the San Pedro cactus (Trichocereus pachanoi) is hallucinogenic and has been used for divination purposes in Peru. In many cultures divination plays an important role in spiritual and mental health.

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