Dr Alison Adams, Dentist, Naturopath and Author (The Natural Recovery Plan)
Aloe vera is a succulent semi-tropical plant with thick fleshy lance-shaped leaves that have serrated edges and interesting flowers.
It has been cultivated throughout the world for centuries for its medicinal and cosmetic properties by a wide range of different cultures.
Although many people consider Aloe to be a cactus, it is in fact a member of the lily family. This family is a large one of about 3,700 different species which includes onions, garlic and asparagus. There are over 240 species of Aloe vera alone and because they grow in the hot, arid regions of the world Aloe vera isalso known as the ‘lily of the desert’.
Of the many species of Aloe, only four have beenidentified as being fit for human consumption of which Aloe vera barbadensis Miller has the most outstanding medicinal properties.
Thought to have originated in Africa, Aloe vera is a hardy plant that readily grows in arid climates as long as the temperature does not fall below freezing. It grows throughout Africa, India, Arabia, Nepal, the Southwestern USA and Mexico. It is also grown for its ornamental and medicinal properties by many on windowsills and in gardens.
The history and use of Aloe vera
The earliest records of its use are from Ancient Sumeria where Aloe Vera was used a purgative.The Ancient Egyptians also used it in the embalming process as well as using it as a skin care product. The medicinal use of Aloe is referred to in the New Testament and in the ancient Egyptian Ebers Papyrus dated 3,500 BC.The Chinese and Japanese have also been using it for over a thousand years to treat everything from sinus disorders to skin diseases.
Aloe was first introduced into Europe by the Roman Empire where it was used as a laxative and a soothing balm for bruises and these uses continued throughout the Middle Ages. Aloe is referred to by Dioscorides in his De Materia Medica and Pliny the Elder in his Natural History written in the mid-first century CE. Thebenefits of Aloe vera were then introduced to Latin and South America by the Spanish missionaries who planted it in their gardens.
In the West, theonset of the Industrial Revolution and the development of pharmaceutical medicine meant that the benefits of Aloe vera were largely forgotten. Then in the mid-twentieth century, interest in Aloe was revived as people began once again to look at traditional home remedies to help with various conditions and ailments. Studies of the efficacy of Aloe supported the notion that ithad many applications including the ability to promote healing from periodontal disease to preventing or reducing hair loss.
The species is widely used in the traditional herbal medicines of Asia, Russia, South Africa, the United States, the Caribbean, Latin America and India. AndAloe vera has consistently rated as one of the top 20 best selling herbal products with sales continuing to grow atrates greater than the industry.
Properties of Aloe vera
The skin and the region just below the skin of the Aloe leaf produce a sap or latex which contains a large amount of aloin which has laxative and detoxifying properties. Typically such whole leaf products are labelled as being ‘juice’. The inner filet of the leaf when stripped of its outer skin and crushed produces a gel and it is this part of the leaf that is considered to have the most remarkable qualities.This gel can either be applied directly to the skin or consumed as a food supplement to help promote healing from within.
Aloe vera contains more than 75 nutrients and over200 biologically active compounds including:
- Over 20 amino acids, 8 of which are considered essential (because our bodies cannot make them) and 11 of the 14 ‘non-essential’ amino acids.
- 20 minerals including calcium, sodium, iron, potassium, chromium, magnesium, manganese, copper, and zinc.
- 12 vitamins including many of the water soluble vitamin B group and vitamin C which need replenishing on a daily basis and which help to regulate stress and adrenal function, and the fat soluble antioxidant vitamins A and E.
- Mucilaginous polysaccharides which help with cell-to-cell communication within the body enabling all the systems to work more efficiently and particularly the immune system.
- 12 natural substances that have anti-inflammatory actions including salicylic acid which can help reduce a fever and when used topically can help to break down dead tissue.
- Plant sterols which have analgesic, antiseptic and anti-inflammatory properties.
- Saponins which are soap-like substances that have both cleansing and antiseptic properties and are effective against infections such as overgrowth of the yeast, Candida.
- Lignins which are woody substances that enable Aloe vera to penetrate the deeper layers of the skin.
- Anthraquinones including aloin and emodin, which are strong analgesics, antimicrobial agents and powerful laxatives.
- A variety of digestive and cellular enzymes which are beneficial to human metabolism.
- And many other phytonutrients including antioxidants, acetylated mannans, polymannans, anthrones, and lectins – although the full profile has not yet been established.
Uses of Aloe vera
Some proponents claim that Aloe vera is truly one of the most miraculous superfoods/herbs available and that it potentially has hundreds – if not thousands – of health related uses. There are nearly 700 published scientific and clinical studies that support the efficacy of Aloe vera particularly for the following applications.
Promoting healingAloe vera is known to promote healing particularly of the epithelial tissues which form the skin, and lining membranes of the body including the digestive tract. For this reason it has been used to successfully treat conditions such as periodontal disease, duodenal ulcers, ulcerative colitis, Crohn’s disease, gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD/GORD), and irritable bowel syndrome (IBS). And has also been used both topically and internally to treat eczema, psoriasis, wounds, burns, bed sores, genital herpes lesions, chronic skin ulcers, sebaceous skin cysts and some eye problems.
Improves skin texture Aloe has also been shown to increase skin elasticity by retaining moisture in the skin thus promoting flexibility and a reduction in wrinkling. It also increases the availability of oxygen to the skin, improves the effectiveness of sun screen products and minimises scar tissue.
Anti-inflammatoryAloe has strong anti-inflammatory and analgesic actions which can be used topically or through internal use. Taken as a food supplement it can reduce the amount of inflammation within the body generally by up to one-third as determined by the levels of C-reactive protein in the blood.
Enhancing antioxidant actionsAlthough Aloe itself has little or no antioxidant actions, the mucilaginous polysaccharides it contains enhance the body’s own endogenous antioxidant system.
Normalising the immune system It it themucilaginous polysaccharides that are also thought to aid with cell signalling thus improving the efficiency of the immune system and in particular,increasing the number of natural killer (NK) cells which combat viruses and tumours. Its actions in regulating the immune system mean that it has also been shown to have been effective in treating autoimmune conditions such as lichen planus, systemic lupus erythematosus, and arthritis and allergic conditions such as asthma.
Antimicrobial actions Aloe vera has been shown to have antibacterial, antifungal and antiviral actions and this application can be used both internally and topically in the treatment of skin lesions and infections such as boils and acne.
Promotes detoxificationWhole leaf Aloe vera juice contains aloin which has a laxative-like effect and this can be useful when doing a cleanse or when constipated. The anthraquinone component of juice also causes the cells to eject or release and Aloe is also known to boost phase II enzymes which promotedetoxification of the blood stream. However,these products should not be used long-term as they can actually decrease absorption of some nutrients from the digestive tract.
RebuildingConversely, the gel extracted from the filet promotes improvements in the digestive tract thatenhanceabsorption of vitamins and minerals thus aiding rebuilding, and increasing energy levels.
In addition, Aloe vera has also been shown to help regulate blood sugar and blood lipid levels and toimprove circulation by dilating the capillaries and promoting cell growth.
Products containing Aloe vera
In addition to being available as a gel, juice, capsule, tablet, and powder, Aloe vera is now included in a wide variety of products including:
- Skincare such as soaps, makeup and moisturisers
- Foodstuffs including yoghurts, beverages, and some desserts
- Tissues to prevent drying the skin
- Shaving cream
- Shampoos and conditioners
- Laundry soaps, detergents and fabric softeners and
- Washing up liquids and detergents.
Manufacture and processing
Some people grow Aloe in their gardens or homes and advocate eating a filleted section of the leaf at least once a day to help improve digestive functions as well as to obtain the other health benefits.
However, for most people their Aloe will come in the form of a food supplement. If supplementing Aloe vera, consider the following.
First, if you are buying an Aloe vera product, always purchase those made from 100% pure organic Aloe vera barbadensis Miller. These should carry the International Aloe Science Council Seal of Approval as a guide.
Second, for long-term use make sure that the product is made from the inner filet and not the whole leaf.
Third, the manner and the speed with which the Aloe is processed acts to preserve the mucilaginous polysaccharide content.The gel becomes oxidised within about 4 hours of being harvested, losing its efficacy. Therefore ideally no more than 4 hours should pass between harvesting the Aloe and completing the processing. In order to achieve this, some manufacturers grow the plant in their own fields rather than buying in bulk from farmers or other growers and provide a guarantee of speedy processing. Most Aloe products will contain a stabiliser to prevent oxidation and to retain the goodness of the intrinsic components.
Fourth, some manufacturers make their product fromre-constituted freeze dried Aloe Vera and this will have little benefit as it is unlikely that all of its beneficial components will have survived freeze drying.Do not buy products made from reconstituted freeze-dried powder. Such products will list Aqua as a main ingredient.
Fifth, the natural gel should be cloudy with fragments of pulp in it. If it is clear then a carbon filtration process that removes many of the beneficial properties may have been used.
Lastly, Aloe also loses its efficacy if it is heated or if chemicals have been used during processing. Therefore make sure that no other chemicals other than essential stabilisers have been added and many of the active ingredients are unlikely to survive being processed into tablet or capsule form, so Aloe is best taken as a liquid.
Supplementing Aloe vera
The recommended dose for Aloe vera is 1 – 3 oz taken twice daily.Remember that for the cleansing effect you need Aloe vera juice made from the whole leaf and to promote healing you need a product containing Aloe vera gel. Aloe vera juice can be used in the early part of the detoxification process if desired and the healing properties of the gel may well help to promote healing and especially intestinal healing throughout The Natural Recovery Plan.
Very occasionally people are allergic to Aloe and a patch test (applying the gel or juice to the skin) can be used to assess whether an allergic reaction is likely before consuming. Even if there is a reaction it may be to one of the components of the juice or may relate to the way the Aloe has been processed and trying another product may well overcome the issue.