An Overview on the Medicinal Uses of Cactus Products

AU  - Nazareno, Monica
PY  - 2015/01/27
SP  -
T1  - An Overview on the Medicinal Uses of Cactus Products.


Cacti have been used for centuries by ancient civilizations to cure diseases and to heal wounds. Cactus cladodes, fruits, and flowers have been traditionally used in folk medicines in several countries.

Cladodes are still used for gastric ulcer treatment and for its healing activity as therapeutic agents. The properties of the infusions of cactus dried flowers to prevent prostate cancer and urological problems are also well-known.

Recent scientific investigations confirmed that cactus products may be efficiently used as a source of phytochemicals, such as mucilage, fibre, pigments and antioxidants. an overview is presented of recent scientific reports about the medicinal properties of cactus products.

Scientific studies in experimental models confirmed that lyophilized cladodes have a significant anti-ulcer effect, protective effect against gastric lesions as well as anti-inflammatory activity. Diet supplementation with cactus pear fruits in healthy humans has decreased the oxidative stress, and, therefore, improve their overall antioxidant status.

Cactus pear fruits have also been studied as an ovarian-cancer preventive. Their ability in suppressing carcinogenesis of in vitro and in vivo models has been assessed.

The antiviral action of cactus cladode extracts have been successfully conducted against viruses such as herpes, HiV-1 virus and influenza a.

Opuntia ficus-indica cladodes were supplied to hypercholesterolemic rats and a marked decrease in cholesterol and triglycerides levels was found in plasma samples. experiments concerning the hypoglycaemic effects of O.

Streptacantha cladodes have been confirmed in diabetes mellitus non-insulin-dependent patients. Moreover, consumption of young cactus cladodes has shown to reduce obesity and blood glucose. Functional properties of cactus products can be exploited more efficiently in the food, cosmetic, and pharmaceutical industries if appropriate research is encouraged.



Nowadays, there is increasing evidence that some food constituents may have beneficial effects on the health of consumers beyond their nutritive action. The use of natural sources such as some herbs and fruits has played fundamental roles in human health care. About 80% of the world’s population use traditional medicine for health care, which is based predominantly on plant materials. A range of scientific investigations of medicinal plants and fruits have indicated the properties that are responsible for their beneficial effects could be attributed to the presence of biologically active substances. These chemical compounds, namely phytochemicals are generally nonessential nutrients (Nazareno, 2014).

In today’s lifestyle the human body is exposed to the deleterious action of numerous sources of pro-oxidants. Reactive oxygen species (ROS) and free radicals are constantly formed in the human body by normal metabolic function. When the generation of harmful agents greatly exceeds the cell’s protective system, serious oxidative stress occurs, and the accumulation of damage will result in pathophysiologic events.

Antioxidant phytochemicals are involved in the redox balance of normal physiological functions and against the pathogenesis of various diseases such as neurodegenerative disorders, e.g. Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s diseases, heart conditions, cataracts, cancer, inflammatory processes, premature ageing and atherosclerosis, among others (Halliwell and Gutteridge, 1999). Phytochemicals with antioxidant properties promote a healthy status by protecting against the oxidative damage induced by ROS (Prakash and Gupta, 2009).

Several studies demonstrated that both cactus fruit and cladodes contain substantial quantities of important nutrients, minerals and vitamins, as well as antioxidants; the cactus plant also appears to be an excellent source of phytochemicals of nutraceutical importance (El-Mostafa, 2014). The cactus plant can be exploited in total because its bioactive components can be extracted from different parts of its anatomy: flowers, fruit, cladodes, roots and seeds (Nazareno, 2014).


Cactus plants have been used by Native Americans for centuries as a dietary supplement. More recently, cladodes, fruits, and flowers have been traditionally used in folk medicines in several countries. Cladodes are still used for gastric ulcer treatment and for its healing activity as therapeutic agents. The properties of the infusions of cactus dried flowers to prevent prostate cancer and urological problems are also well-known. Cactus pear fruit has been used for a long time in traditional medicine as a treatment for different pathologies, such as ulcers, dyspnoea, and glaucoma, as well as for liver diseases, to heal wounds, and fatigue. The consumption of cactus fruits and their juices has traditionally been recommended for their diuretic effect, functions as hypoglycaemic agent, anti-allergic, analgesic and anti-inflammatory actions, and for gastritis relief.


Recent scientific reports have highlighted the presence of natural cactus molecules, which may have high potential interest in human health and medicine. The main objective of this review is to collect data based on scientific research conducted on cactus products. The compilation of the latest studies in model systems, in cell lines and in vivo with experimental animals and, in some cases, in humans according the different medicinal properties reported are shown in Table 1.

Different studies have demonstrated significant reductions in oxidative stress markers in patients and the prevention of chronic pathologies by cactus products, this action has been ascribed to the antioxidant capacity of cactus fruits.

The antiviral action of cactus cladode extracts have been successfully conducted against viruses such as herpes, HIV-1 virus and influenza A.

Remarkable anti-inflammatory effects of indicaxanthin have recently been demonstrated in an animal model of acute inflammation (Allegra et al., 2014).

The liver performs a fundamental role in the regulation of diverse physiological processes, and its activity is related to different vital functions, such as metabolism, secretion, and storage. The liver has the capacity to detoxify endogenous and exogenous substances of the body, as well as to synthesize useful agents. Hepatic diseases continue to be among the principal threats to public health, and they are a global problem. Liver cells, tissues, structure, or hepatic function damages can be induced by bacteria or viruses as biological factors and by autoimmune diseases as well as by the action of different drugs and toxic compounds and excessive consumption of alcohol.

The use of natural medicines for the treatment of hepatic diseases has a long history; this empirical evidence becomes an innovative field of study. In general, liver-protective fruits, as well as plants, contain a variety of chemical compounds, such as phenols, coumarins, lignans, alkaloids, carotenoids, flavonoids and organic acids to name a few.

The first scientific report where Opuntia ficus-indica was used against hepatotoxic substances was by Wiese et al. (2004); they reported that cactus reduced the hangover symptoms after consuming alcohol in excess.

More recently, Ncibi et al. (2008) reported the reduction of the hepatic toxicity induced by the organophosphorus insecticide chlorpyrifos by using an extract of O. ficus-indica cladodes and significantly normalizing biochemical parameters. More recently, investigations developed by the same group explored the hepatoprotective effects towards benzo(a)pyrene. It has also been reported that cladode extracts might have a hepatoprotective effect against aflatoxicosis in mice, probably acting by promoting the antioxidant defence systems (Brahmi et al., 2011).

Recent studies indicate remarkable anticancer activities displayed by cactus pear extracts. The chemopreventative and anticancer activities of crude extracts from plants belonging to the Cactaceae family as well as the main active constituents have been reported presenting in vitro and in vivo assays. These properties have recently been well reviewed and compiled (Harlev et al., 2013a).


Currently dietary supplements based on dehydrated cladode flour are also commercially available to take advantage of the numerous health benefits of cladodes. Several manufactured products are

currently available in the nutraceutical market as biscuits, tortillas, cereal bars mixed with flaxseed, soups, snacks and toasts. Nopal pills are available because cactus fibre helps in reducing body weight by binding dietary fat and increasing its excretion, thus reducing dietary fat available for absorption.

A diverse range of functional foods are prepared using cactus fruits as ingredients in juices, marmalades, candies, liquors and syrups and offered as healthy foods. Cereal bars, dessert preparations, ice cream and other manufactured foods using cactus fruits are proposed to take advantage of the medicinal properties of cactus plants. On the other hand, fruit processing for juice and jams yields as residues, large amounts of seeds. The cactus pear fruit contains tough seeds that represent 10-15% of the pulp weight. The seeds are ground or pressed to obtain the oil as a lucrative product of the plant. The fruits contain a

large number of seeds but the oil content is relatively low; oil constitutes 7–15% of the whole seed weight. Approximately 1 ton of these tiny seeds are needed to extrude 1 L of oil. Cactus seed oil comprises up to 80% unsaturated fatty acids (Ennouri et al., 2005). The linoleic acid content of the seed oil varies between 61.4 and 68.9% and it contains less than 1% α-linolenic acid, while oleic acid content varies between 12.4 and 16.5% (lower than that of cotton seed). Therefore, although the seed oil content is relatively low, the fatty acid composition indicates that it has potential for the health and cosmetic market (Labuschagne and Hugo, 2010). The Opuntia seed oil is obtained by cool pressed seeds and some of its main applications are being developed by the cosmetic industry. The seed oil is destined for cosmetic product production, and it sells at a very high price as organic oil for anti- age and anti-wrinkle purposes.

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