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Capsules | SUPPLEMENTS

Desert fruit is ripe for further research

October 06, 2003|Elena Conis

Hundreds of species of prickly pear cacti -- also called nopal or opuntia -- can be found in North America. Some Native Americans used the familiar cactus' edible fruits and fleshy leaves, or pads, to treat diabetes and male urinary ailments. A few species (Opuntia streptacantha and Opuntia ficus-indica, in particular) are sold as dietary supplements. Prickly pear is a source of vitamin C and pectin, a kind of fiber that helps lower cholesterol, but its medicinal powers are only beginning to be rigorously studied.

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Uses: Supplement makers and some traditional medicine practitioners recommend prickly pear for lowering cholesterol, fighting heart disease, managing diabetes and ulcers and improving digestion and liver health.

Dose: About 100 to 500 milligrams three times a day, with meals. Prickly pear can be taken in pill form, liquid extract, juice or cooked pads.

Precautions: Since little is known about prickly pear, pregnant and breastfeeding women and people with chronic conditions, such as diabetes or heart disease, should ask a doctor before using it as a nutritional supplement or medication. Prickly pear may cause a skin rash in some users.

Research: Most of the existing evidence on prickly pear's medicinal properties is anecdotal, though early animal studies suggest the plant may be useful for treating diabetes. A group of Austrian researchers has shown that at least one species, Opuntia robusta, can lower cholesterol and improve insulin function in nondiabetic adults, but additional human research is needed to demonstrate its usefulness in managing diabetes and other conditions.

Dietary supplement makers are not required by the U.S. government to demonstrate that their products are safe or effective. Ask your health-care provider for advice on selecting a brand.

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-- Elena Conis

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