When we hear the word “cactus” we picture the desert or that funky, prickly plant in our living room. The quintessential thorny desert plant can be intimidating, but science suggests we should actually sink our teeth into their edible slender stems. Cacti are packed with vitamins and nutrients, proving they are worthy of the label “superfood.”

The low-cost food is a mealtime vegetable mainstay in Latin American countries, but its popularity is increasing in the United States where you’ll find it in Mexican grocery stores, produce markets, and farmer’s markets. There are dozens of varieties of cactus because it’s part of the genus Opuntia, which includes well over 200 species. The plant is shunned by people because of its spikes and bristles, but it can help alleviate ailments from high cholesterol to different types of cancer.

Reduces Hangovers

Cactus contains a range of nutrients and antioxidants, including vitamins C, E, A, iron, calcium, and carotenoids among many others which help reduce inflammation in the body.

“It contains flavonoids and phenolics, which are phytochemicals found in many of the plants we use for medicinal purposes,” Dr. Jonathan Stegall, an integrative cancer treatment specialist in Atlanta, Ga., told Medical Daily. He added: “These phytochemicals give cactus leaf its antioxidant properties.”

In a 2004 study, researchers from the Tulane Health Sciences Center in New Orleans, La., observed the effects of a cactus called opuntia ficis indica, also known as barbary fig, on adults consuming five to seven alcoholic drinks. When the participants took the cactus extract five hours before consuming alcohol, they experienced fewer hangover symptoms and cut their risk of experiencing a hangover nearly in half. Researchers believe the cactus did this by reducing inflammation in the body — often linked to excessive alcohol intake.

Lowers Cholesterol

Nopal cactus also goes by the name prickly pear cactus and has been linked to lowering cholesterol levels in the body with its fiber and pectin content. In a 2007 study, French researchers tested the impact of dehydrated cactus leaf on 68 patients suffering from metabolic syndrome. After four weeks, LDL or “bad cholesterol” and triglyceride levels decreased, while HDL “good cholesterol” increased. The plant was also found to reduce risks associated with heart problems.

Lowers Blood Sugar

A prickly pear cactus can help lower blood sugar levels, especially in Type 2 diabetic patients. Dr. Swapan Banerjee, a nutritionist, fitness expert, and dietitian for Icliniq, suggests cactus leaf or fruit parts could be considered a new approach as a hypoglycemic agent in treating diabetes.

“This has surprisingly good glycemic control (less than 140 mg/dl) and that is rarely seen in conventional drugs used for blood sugar,” he told Medical Daily.

The fiber and pectin decrease blood sugar by minimizing sugar absorption in the stomach and intestines. It also protects the liver from oxidation by improving insulin sensitivity.

In a 2002 study, researchers at the University of Vienna tested nopal cactus leaf on 24 non-obese male participants who had high cholesterol or triglycerides over the course of eight weeks. Cactus decreased total cholesterol (by 12 percent), LDL (15 percent), triglycerides (12 percent), blood glucose (11 percent), insulin (11 percent) and uric acid (10 percent). HDL and other lipid measurements were not affected by cactus intake.

Weight Loss

Cactus extract supplements may help with weight loss by acting as a diuretic. A 2010 study found BioSerae’s Cacti-Nea branded ingredient reduced weight gain in rats by almost 20 percent. The rats were divided into three groups: one group was administered the cactus extract at a dose of 240 milligrams (mg) a day for seven days, the second group was given the pharmaceutical diuretic hydrochlorothiazide at a dose of 10 mg a day, and the third group acted as the control. The cactus extract did not deplete the body’s minerals and exerted an antioxidant effect.

Protects Brain Cells

Nopal cactus is touted for its anti-inflammatory properties, and researchers believe it could help reduce free radical damage to brain cells. Quercetin, (+)-dihydroquercetin, and quercetin 3-methyl ether were all found effective at protecting isolated rat brain cells, because they’re all active antioxidants, according to a 2003 study. It’s possible the nopal cactus possesses this brain protective effect through anti-oxidative flavonoid activity, meaning it prohibits the formation of free radicals in brain cells.

Fights Cancer Cells

Cactus leaf contains several antioxidants that can help protect healthy cells from damage by free radicals. In a 2009 study, researchers evaluated the effect of cactus leaf on cells extracted from breast, prostate, colon, and liver cancers. The phytochemicals in the leaf were found to inhibit the growth of cancer cells, meaning the normal, healthy cells were unharmed. Researchers would have to try an in vivo study to see what effect cactus leaf provides to real human participants.

Although eating cactus may seem like an unconventional idea, its rich vitamins and nutrients could potentially cure debilitating diseases in an alternative way.