The long spiky grey green leaves of aloe vera, edged with tiny prickles, look as if it comes from the cactus family. In fact, this long respected medicinal plant, with its spear of yellow or orange flowers, is a type of lily. The leaves provide the clear aloe gel that Cleopatra is said to have used on her famously luscious skin, and the yellow sap that comes from the base of the dried leaf is known as bitter aloes.
Aloe almost certainly originated in the eastern and southern regions of Africa. Because of its long history as a useful medicinal plant, it has been the companion of travellers throughout the centuries and is now found in warm climates worldwide. It’s easy to grow at home in a pot and is remarkably tolerant, although it needs sun and doesn’t do well if it gets waterlogged.
Aloe has been used medicinally for as long as recorded history, both externally and internally. There are records of it on Sumerian clay tablets as early as 2,200 BC. The great Roman pharmacologist Dioscorides (41-68 AD), who travelled with the army, gave the first detailed description. He described its power to induce sleep, loosen the belly, heal bruises and mouth irritations, cleanse the stomach, ease haemorrhoids and salve boils. What’s more, he added that the whole leaf when pulverised could stop wounds from bleeding.
Fascinatingly, it’s used in much the same way today. One of aloe’s key uses is as a topical treatment for skin conditions. In the 1930s and 40s, extensive research in the UK and the former Soviet Union demonstrated that aloe gel applied topically has a significant ability to heal wounds, ulcers and burns by sealing the damaged flesh with a protective coat and speeding up the rate of healing. Researchers believe that this is partly due to a compound called aloectin B that stimulates the immune system and thus promotes healing. Aloe is also used in several ranges of beauty products.
What is it good for?
Aloe has many uses:
- Arthritis: animal studies and anecdotal reports claim that drinking aloe vera juice or taking it as a tablet or capsule can reduce swelling and inflammation in arthritic joints
- Asthma: drinking aloe vera juice may help those asthmatic patients who are not dependent on cortico-steroids
- Digestive uses: at low doses, a tincture of bitter aloes can stimulate the appetite – take three drops with water before meals; at higher doses (up to ten drops a day) the anthraquinone compound in the bitter aloes causes the colon to contract, generally producing a bowel movement after 8 to 12 hours. However, bitter aloes, unlike aloe vera juice, is a strong irritant laxative (even more concentrated than Senna) and you are advised to see a practitioner rather than self-prescribe at high doses.
- First aid: aloe vera is an excellent home remedy to soothe burns, grazes, scalds and sunburn. Either use an over the counter product or, if you have an aloe plant, break off a leaf and apply the gel.
Aloe is one of the only known natural vegetarian sources of Vitamin B12, and it contains many minerals vital to the growth process and healthy function of all the body’s systems. Numerous studies worldwide indicate that aloe vera is a general tonic for the immune system, helping it to fight illness of all kinds, including general infections and even cancer and HIV.
In 1994, the US Food and Drug Administration approved aloe vera for the treatment of HIV. On-going studies worldwide show that aloe taken in highly concentrated doses can stimulate the production of white blood cells that may help fight viruses and also tumours.
Peptic ulcers and irritable bowel syndrome can be eased by taking 50 ml three times daily of a juice made from the gel to help detoxify the bowel and neutralise stomach acidity in sufferers. This remedy is also said to help mouth ulcers. A study in the Journal of Alternative Medicine reported that 10 patients with inflammatory bowel disease were given two ounces of aloe juice, three times daily. After one week, diarrhoea had stopped in all patients, four had improved bowel regularity and three reported increased energy. Some researchers claim that aloe vera is helpful in a wide range of gastro-intestinal problems including heartburn, Crohn’s Disease and pancreatitis.
Aloe also has considerable success in the treatment of psoriasis. In research published in the Journal of Tropical Medicine, an aloe vera ointment (0.5% aloe vera extract in a mineral oil cream) applied three times daily for four weeks, helped heal psoriatic skin lesions in more than 80 per cent of sufferers.
Consult your family doctor or qualified health professional before taking aloe vera if you are:
- Pregnant, or trying to get pregnant
- Suffering from appendicitis or any other inflamed intestinal disease
- Suffering from abdominal pain from an unknown source
- Taking medication for cardiac glycosis: potassium loss, a possible side effect, can affect the action of the drug
- Suffering from haemorrhoids
- Suffering from kidney disease