If you are interested in natural remedies, chances are you are familiar with aloe vera. Maybe you have used it after you’ve had too much sun, or you keep a tube of gel in your first aid kit for burns and wound care. But did you know the plant has many other uses?
Aloe is a succulent plant that has a long history of medicinal use. Aloe vera specifically refers to the Aloe barbadensis Miller plant, which is the most common form used in aloe-based products.
Aloe Vera’s use in healing can be traced back 6,000 years to early Egypt, where the plant was depicted on stone carvings. Known as the “plant of immortality,” aloe was presented as a funeral gift to pharaohs.
The plant is native to North Africa, Southern Europe, and the Canary Islands. It grows naturally in dry, tropical climates in Africa, Asia, Europe, and the southern and western parts of the United States.
There are at least 420 different plant species of Aloe (some sources say there are more than 500!), according to the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences.
Aloe produces two substances that are used for health-related purposes: gel and latex.
The gel is the clear, jelly-like substance found in the inner part of the aloe plant leaf. It is extracted from the plant and usually used on the skin to treat burns, wounds, and various skin conditions.
Aloe latex is a pulp that comes from just under the plant’s skin and is yellow in color. It has been shown to have laxative properties.
Some aloe products are made from the whole crushed leaf, so they contain both gel and latex.
Aloe vera is used in many products in various forms, including drinks, concentrates, capsules, and powders.
Aloe-based drinks, including aloe vera juice and aloe vera water, have become popular in recent years. The plant’s juices are usually combined with citrus juice to make aloe vera juice or water to make aloe vera water.
Aloe juice is usually made one of two ways: 1) by grinding up the whole leaves and then removing the latex via filtration, or 2) by using the plant’s “inner” leaf (removing the rind prior to processing) and then rinsing away the aloe latex. The remaining gelatinous inner-leaf material is then ground or crushed into aloe vera “inner leaf” juice.
What’s in Aloe Vera?
More than 75 potentially active components have been identified in the aloe plant, according to a research review published in the Indian Journal of Dermatology:
- Vitamins: It contains vitamins A (beta-carotene), C and E, which are antioxidants. It also contains vitamin B12, folic acid, and choline. Antioxidants neutralize free radicals.
- Enzymes: It contains 8 enzymes: aliiase, alkaline phosphatase, amylase, bradykinase, carboxypeptidase, catalase, cellulase, lipase, and peroxidase. Bradykinase helps to reduce excessive inflammation when applied to the skin topically, while others aid in the breakdown of sugars and fats.
- Minerals: It provides calcium, chromium, copper, selenium, magnesium, manganese, potassium, sodium and zinc. They are essential for the proper functioning of enzymes in different metabolic pathways and a few are antioxidants.
- Sugars: It provides monosaccharides (glucose and fructose) and polysaccharides: (glucomannans/polymannose), some of which contain anti-allergic and anti-inflammatory properties.
- Anthraquinones: It provides 12 anthraquinones, which are compounds traditionally known as laxatives. Aloin and emodin act as analgesics, antibacterials, and antivirals.
- Fatty acids: It provides 4 plant steroids, including cholesterol, which has anti-inflammatory action. One of them – lupeol – also possesses antiseptic and analgesic properties.
- Hormones: Auxins and gibberellins, which help in wound healing and have anti-inflammatory action.
- Others: It provides 20 of the 22 human required amino acids and 7 of the 8 essential amino acids. It also contains salicylic acid, which possesses anti-inflammatory and antibacterial properties. Lignin, an inert substance, when included in topical preparations, helps the skin absorb the other ingredients. Saponins, soapy substances form about 3% of the gel, have cleansing and antiseptic properties.
Benefits and Uses
Aloe vera is often touted as a remedy for everything from constipation to cancer. But does the plant live up to all the hype?
There’s evidence to support some claims and none to support others.
Let’s take a look at what research on the use of aloe for specific conditions shows.
Burns and wounds: Aloe gel applied topically appears to shorten the duration of wound healing for first and second-degree burns. It also appears to promote wound healing in general.
Antiseptic effects: Aloe contains various germ fighters like salicylic acid, which stave off bacteria, fungus, and viruses.
Diabetes: Most research shows that taking aloe by mouth can reduce blood sugar and HbA1c in people with type 2 diabetes. Aloe also seems to improve cholesterol levels in people with this condition, but it is not clear which dose or form of aloe works best.
Acne: Research suggests that applying aloe gel may help improve this skin condition.
Eczema: There aren’t many studies evaluating the use of aloe vera for eczema, but the plant contains polysaccharides, which may help to stimulate skin growth and healing. Aloe has antibacterial and antifungal effects and anti-inflammatory properties and has a long history of use for skin-soothing. One study found that aloe vera has a more significant anti-inflammatory effect 48 hours after application of the gel, indicating some of the gel’s benefits may be delayed, rather than immediate.
Psoriasis: Aloe extract cream might reduce symptoms caused by mild to moderate psoriasis, including redness, scaling, itching, and inflammation. It may take a month or more of using the cream several times per day to see improvements.
Herpes simplex virus: Applying a cream or gel that contains aloe extract soothes discomfort and might help lesions heal faster.
Oral lichen planus: Research suggests that applying aloe gel twice daily for eight weeks might reduce symptoms of this inflammatory condition that affects the inside of the mouth.
Constipation: Aloe has long been used as a laxative and is definitely effective, but its use for this purpose is not without controversy. See the Risks and Contraindications section of this article for more information and warnings regarding the use of aloe as a laxative.
Immune system support: The enzymes present in aloe vera break down the proteins that we eat into amino acids and turn the enzymes into fuel for every cell in the body, which enables the cells to function properly. One enzyme in particular – bradykinase -stimulates the immune system and kills infections.
Choosing an aloe product
If you do a quick internet search for aloe vera, you’ll find hundreds of pages of products. Unfortunately – as with many industries – all products are not created equal, and some that claim to contain aloe do not contain much at all. In addition, the way aloe is processed can determine the quality of the end product and alter its health benefits.
Because of this, the International Aloe Science Council has developed a certification program that validates the quality and quantity of aloe vera in commercial products. When you are searching for products containing aloe, be sure to look for the IASC certification stamp. The IASC maintains a list of certified products on their website.
If you’d like to grow your own aloe vera, here’s how to do that.
Here’s how to make your own soothing cream with aloe.
In some people, aloe vera can cause mild burning and itching. Be sure to carefully test new products that contain aloe vera gel on a small area of your skin to determine if skin irritation develops. Watch your skin for any signs of irritation or an allergic reaction over the next 24 hours. If you don’t notice any burning or itching, you can apply it to a larger area.
Most of the research that supports aloe’s health benefits applies to the topical use of the plant. Many juices and waters that claim the aloe name often don’t contain much of the good stuff – if they contain any of it at all. Look for reputable brands if you’d like to purchase aloe vera juice. These two brands are IASC certified: Nature’s Sunshine Aloe Vera Juice and Natural Brand Aloe Vera Juice . Check this list for more IASC certified brands.
Aloe juice may contain gel (also called pulp), latex, and green leafy parts. These are all liquefied together into juice form and then filtered. Some juices are only made from gel, while others filter the leaf and latex out.
“Because of improper processing procedures many of these so-called aloe products contain very little or virtually no active ingredients,” according to a review in the Journal of Food Science and Technology, reports Men’s Health. And, because aloe juice contains a chemical that has been linked to cancer in rats (more on that in the Risks and Contraindications section of this article), drinking it may present risks.
Risks and Contraindications
Aloe gel is generally considered to be safe when used as recommended, but the oral use of the latex is another story.
According to WebMD,
Taking aloe latex by mouth is POSSIBLY UNSAFE at any dose, but LIKELY UNSAFE when taken in high doses. Aloe latex can cause some side effects such as stomach pain and cramps. Long-term use of large amounts of aloe latex might cause diarrhea, kidney problems, blood in the urine, low potassium, muscle weakness, weight loss, and heart disturbances. Taking aloe latex 1 gram daily for several days can be fatal.
The latex of the aloe plant contains anthraquinones, which are organic compounds that are used for medicinal purposes. Anthraquinones are potent laxatives and can be irritating to both the upper and lower parts of the gastrointestinal tract.
Unprocessed aloe latex contains aloin, an anthraquinone that may have the potential to cause cancer, and processed aloe latex might have cancer-causing compounds. A study by the National Institutes of Health looked at the consumption of aloe vera whole-leaf extract. Those findings revealed tumor growth in the large intestines of laboratory rats.
In this condition, the lining of the colon takes on a dark brownish black hue. It is estimated that it takes four months of anthraquinone use for melanosis coli to develop.
In the past, there was some concern that the development of melanosis coli increased a person’s risk for colon cancer. However, more recent research suggests that this is not the case. Interestingly, melanosis coli can reverse itself although the process can take up to 15 months after anthraquinone use has been discontinued.
Most aloe juices today do not contain significant aloin and are probably safe when used as recommended.
Here is a list of special precautions and warnings from WebMD:
Pregnancy or breast-feeding: Aloe — either gel or latex — is POSSIBLY UNSAFE when taken by mouth. There is a report that aloe was associated with miscarriage. It could also be a risk for birth defects. Do not take aloe by mouth if you are pregnant or breast-feeding.
Children: Aloe gel is POSSIBLY SAFE when applied to the skin appropriately. Aloe latex and aloe whole leaf extracts are POSSIBLY UNSAFE when taken by mouth in children. Children younger than 12 years-old might have stomach pain, cramps, and diarrhea.
Diabetes: Some research suggests that aloe might lower blood sugar. If you take aloe by mouth and you have diabetes, monitor your blood sugar levels closely.
Intestinal conditions such as Crohn’s disease, ulcerative colitis, or obstruction: Do not take aloe latex if you have any of these conditions. Aloe latex is a bowel irritant. Remember, products made from whole aloe leaves will contain some aloe latex.
Hemorrhoids: Do not take aloe latex if you have hemorrhoids. It could make the condition worse. Remember, products made from whole aloe leaves will contain some aloe latex.
Kidney problems: High doses of aloe latex have been linked to kidney failure and other serious conditions.
Surgery: Aloe might affect blood sugar levels and could interfere with blood sugar control during and after surgery. Stop taking aloe at least 2 weeks before a scheduled surgery.
As with any supplement, checking with your healthcare provider prior to using aloe vera (especially internally) is a good idea. If you are taking medications or have any serious health conditions, this is particularly important.