The health benefits of prickly pear include its ability to lower cholesterol levels, improve the digestive process, decrease the risk of diabetes, boost the immune system, stimulate bone growth, strengthen blood vessels, prevent certain cancers, reduce the risk of Alzheimer’s, aid in weight loss attempts, and eliminate inflammation throughout the body.
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What is Prickly Pear?
‘Prickly pear’ is the common name of the fruit that grows on top of the leaves of Nopales cacti. Spread throughout North and South America, about 200 different species of Nopales (scientific name Opuntia) cacti are found, all of which have some form of this prickly pear fruit, although not all varieties are edible. The most commonly used species in terms of eating and cooking would be the O. ficus-indica, also known as the Indian Fig Opuntia. The most interesting thing about this fruit is that it grows at the very edge of the spiny leaves of these imposing cacti, which are some of the hardiest lowland cacti in the world, a trait inherited by its fruit. The fruits are oval in shape and can range in color from yellow and light green to orange, pink, and red, depending on the variety and ripeness.
Before eating a prickly pear, it is very important to remove the skin and peel it off so all of the spines are removed. If they aren’t, the glochids can lodge themselves in your lips, gums, and throat, which can be very painful. After that, however, the fruit can be used for a variety of things, either eaten raw or dry, and made into various jellies and jams, candies, or alcoholic beverages like vodka.
Native Americans often used prickly pears to make colonche, and certain varieties of the cactus possess psychotropic components, including mescaline, making the cactus fruits useful for creating Ayahuasca. One of the most popular uses of prickly pear for hundreds of years is a hangover cure and it has been used to reduce a headache associated with consuming too much alcohol.
Although all cacti are technically native to the Americas, prickly pears and its fruit have spread across the world to Egypt, Morocco, various parts of Europe, the Middle East, and Greece. The prickly pears are used for food, as well as alternative medicine treatments, as it has a wealth of nutrients and potential health benefits. Let’s take a closer look at the unique health components found inside prickly pears.
Nutritional Value of Prickly Pear
Apart from the unusual name, appearance, and origin of this fruit, it also has a unique composition of nutrients, including high levels of vitamin C, B-family vitamins, magnesium, potassium, calcium, copper, and dietary fiber. In terms of organic compounds, prickly pears have high levels of flavonoids, polyphenols, and betalains, all of which have a positive impact on human health.
Health Benefits of Prickly Pear
The health benefits of this pear are explained in detail below:
A single serving of prickly pears contains more than 1/3 of your entire daily requirement of vitamin C. Also known as ascorbic acid, vitamin C plays a major role in the immune system, stimulating the production of white blood cells and acting as an antioxidant throughout the body. Furthermore, vitamin C is an important component of various enzymatic and metabolic processes, including the creation of bone and muscle tissue.
Strengthens Bones & Teeth
Calcium is an integral part of the human diet, and prickly pears contain a significant level of calcium in every serving. Calcium is a very important element in the creation of bone tissue in the body; in fact, 99% of the calcium in your body is found in your bones and teeth. By ensuring you have enough calcium in your system, you can prevent various dental issues, as well as age-related bone disorders like osteoporosis.
Aids in Digestion
Prickly pears have a significant level of dietary fiber, like most fruits and vegetables, so these spiny fruits can help you regulate your digestive process. Fiber bulks up the stool to help food pass through the digestive tract easily, thereby eliminating constipation, bloating, and more serious gastrointestinal issues, such as colon cancer or gastric ulcers.
Regulates Heart Health
There are a number of components of prickly pears that make it very good for heart health. First of all, the levels of fiber in the fruit can help to lower the levels of “bad” cholesterol in the body; while the significant levels of potassium can help to lower blood pressure, by relaxing the blood vessels and reducing the stress on the cardiovascular system. Finally, the betalains found in prickly pear, have been directly connected to strengthening the endothelial walls of blood vessels, thereby reducing the chances of weakening the system. Reducing cholesterol, lowering blood pressure, and strengthening blood vessels can prevent atherosclerosis, coronary heart disease, and strokes.
Everyone is looking for a cure for cancer, but unfortunately, our best bet is still to eat as many antioxidants as we can to combat the effects of free radicals. Prickly pears have high levels of flavonoids, polyphenols, and betalains, all of which act as antioxidant compounds and neutralize free radicals before they can cause healthy cells to mutate into cancerous cells. Studies have shown lowered chances of cancer in people who regularly add these types of antioxidants into their diet.
These antioxidant compounds do more than prevent cancer; they also protect skin health, lower the chances of premature aging, improve vision, prevent macular degeneration, and also increase the strength and functionality of your brain. Free radicals are partially responsible for the oxidation of neural cells that can lead to dementia and Alzheimer’s disease. Polyphenolic compounds have been linked to increased cognitive activity.
Like all fruits with high fiber and nutrient density, combined with very low calories and saturated fat, prickly pears can keep your body in healthy form without packing on any extra weight. Also, the fiber and carbohydrates prevent you from overeating!
In traditional medicine, prickly pear was mashed and applied topically to parts of the body that were inflamed. When consumed, some of the antioxidant and mineral contents of prickly pears can also lower inflammation, particularly with conditions like arthritis, gout, or muscle strain. It can also be topically applied to eliminate the swelling of bug bites, a method that has been in use for hundreds of years.