A true friend stands the test of time, and aloe (Aloe vera) has been a very good friend for more than 2,000 years. This cherished kitchen remedy for superficial burns, cuts and insect bites is the stuff of legends. Cleopatra had it massaged into her skin, and Napoleon’s Empress Josephine reputedly used it in her complexion milk. Aristotle – coveting a steady supply for Greece in the fourth century B.C. – reported cajoled Alexander the Great to conquer the East African island of Socotra, the only place known at the time where ale was cultivated. Centuries later, it was imported into England from Barbados, and the species named for that island, Aloe barbadensis, is likely the most potent of more than 300 aloe species.
If you squeeze an aloe leaf, you’ll notice a pleasant sponginess – that’s from the mesophyll, a water-engorged gel in the inner leaf tissues. While it’s 99 percent water, this mucilaginous gel also contains specialized polysaccharides, amino acids, saponins, vitamins, minerals and enzymes, all of which act together to deliver healing benefits to our skin. The other active medicinal component is the latex from the leaf veins. This latex harbors natural laxatives called anthraquinones.
From that spongy leaf flows a plethora of aloe vera products – now more than 1,500 and counting, according to the International Aloe Science Council. Aloe graces the contents of cosmetics, pharmaceuticals, foods and beverages.
Best Burn Remedy
That aloe vera plant sitting idle on your kitchen windowsill is your best friend the next time you suffer a minor burn. Snip a leaf, coax a little gel onto a minor burn or cut, and relief is almost instant. Salicylates numb the pain with anesthetizing and anti-inflammatory actions. Aloe’s polysaccharides and fatty acids further discourage inflammation. And soapy saponins stifle and flush out bacteria. Then aloe’s amino acids, polysaccharides and enzymes help fashion new connective tissue and regenerate the skin- with little or no scarring.
Your Skin’s Best Friend
Skin has multiple enemies, such as drying, irritation and formation of age-induced “liver” spots – those blotchy deposits of excess melanin that attend our golden years. Aloe gel impedes the enzyme responsible for those liver spots. The gel also serves as a skin softener.
One of the most persistent and uncomfortable skin conditions is eczema, a superficial inflammation of the skin that produces itchy, weeping, crusty blisters. Peter Atherton, author of The Essential Aloe Vera, has tested aloe extensively in his own practice and recommends it for juvenile eczema. He favors aloe cream containing bee propolis, a natural plant-derived sterilizing agent used by bees to line their hives. He also advises a twice-daily application of aloe gel for adult acne rosacea.
Healing for the Stomach
Aloe gel’s benefits extend beyond the skin, too. Aloe gel may help mouth or stomach ulcers and problems of the bowel lining. Taken in beverage or supplement forms, it helps heal damaged mucosal linings and discourages oversecretion of digestive acids that can aggravate ulcers, according to a 2004 study. However, such benefits are likely to be temporary, lasting only so long as the aloe is taken.
Keep Your Immune System in Balance
One of the most important routes by which aloe protects and heals tissues is through the action of its gel polysaccharides (and perhaps other components), which modulate our immune system. The polysaccharide acemannan, for example, supports maturation of dendritic cells – the policing cells of the immune system that patrol the body to shackle foreign invaders (such as viruses) and shuttle them to the lymph nodes for a quick death.
Immunomodulators in aloe vera also can subdue an overactive immune response, which can trigger excessive inflammation. They do so by curbing production of prostaglandins and thromboxances, which cause inflammation. Aloe gel contains well-known anti-inflammatory agents, including the fatty acids lupeol, cholesterol, campestrol and b-sitosterol. Its anti-inflammatory and analgesic effects likely also arise from its influence on the neurotransmission of injury and pain signals from the wound site, an action revealed in research conducted in 1999 at Indiana University’s School of Medicine.
Aloe for Your Gums and More
Dentistry practically applies aloe’s medicinal benefits. In sedative dressings, for instance, aloe gel is used to ease pain and speed healing after gum or root canal surgery. Aloe also soothes mucous membranes irritated by dentures. And an aloe activator spray has been used for painful erupting wisdom teeth.
In the future, we may see a clinical role for aloe in reducing high blood sugar and treating some cancers. A review in Diabetes Care acknowledged aloe as one of several plants known to reduce blood sugar levels, but the mechanism of its action is still being unraveled. Diabetics in the Arabian Peninsula traditionally have eaten aloe gel to control their blood sugar levels.
There is also much research on cancer therapies using aloe vera. Its anthraquinone emodin (present in aloe vera and some other plants) coaxes human cancer cells to self-destruct. But New York’s Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center considers it too early to recommend aloe for human cancers – a reasonable position, since injections of an aloe polysaccharide as a cancer therapy have been implicated in several deaths.
Keep It Topical
Aloe as a topical ointment is generally considered safe, but ongoing internal use – such as with aloe juice or supplements – may pose risks such as stomach upset, nausea, seizures, potassium loss and electrolyte abnormalities. Aloe as a laxative – while used historically by many people for this purpose – has been deemed unsafe by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, and the first case of acute hepatitis from ingestion of an over-the-counter aloe product was noted recently. Also, aloe vera may intensify the effect of blood thinners, thus inducing excessive blood loss during surgery, for example, according to a 2004 study. So, until we know more, the safest route to using aloe is strictly topical. If you are bent on taking it internally, do so only occasionally, and look for a reputable manufacturer.
Find the Best Aloe
There are many aloe products, so the question arises as to which ones are best for skin care and healing. The International Aloe Science Council recommends that products containing between 10,000 and 20,000 mucopolysaccharides per liter have the highest therapeutic value. Also, products carrying the IASC Certification Seal assure content, purity and freshness and that the aloe is from a certified source.
Once you start heating, extracting, filtering, stabilizing and preserving a biological product – all common steps in product manufacture- there’s the possibility of compromised quality. Whereas, you can pop a potted plant onto your windowsill and have the factory at your fingertips – not to mention the sheer enjoyment of watching it grow.