Even if you’re not a huge enthusiast when it comes to natural remedies, chances are you’ve heard of some of the health benefits of aloe vera. I first came across aloe vera as a gel in the skincare aisle of my local pharmacy. Then it showed up in the supermarket as a drink (it’s pretty delicious, by the way!). You can also buy it in a pot and keep it as a low maintenance house plant.
The popularity of aloe vera is growing exponentially, it seems. The Department of Complementary Medicine at the University of Exeter gets more queries about aloe vera than any other herbal product! And there’s an almost infinite number of natural remedies out there, so that’s saying something.
The reason for the interest in this particular plant is undoubtedly its numerous health benefits. Ranging from digestion to skincare to the heart and circulatory system, let’s separate fact from speculation and check out the health benefits of aloe vera.
What is Aloe Vera?
The aloe vera plant looks like a cactus, although there is much variation amongst its 250 or so species. Aloe barbadensis or aloe vera is the species we’re talking about when it comes to health benefits.
Aloe vera is a succulent plant native to hot, dry climates with little rainfall, such as Africa. This means that unless you live in a country with summer all year round, you won’t be growing this plant outside. Luckily it does well indoors but we’ll get to that later.
The aloe plant is made up of 95% water, but it’s that 5% where the magic happens. Inside the thick, fleshy leaves is a gel used to trap the water that nourishes the plant during dry spells. Guess what? It can nourish us humans too!
Aloe Vera Gel vs. Sap. What’s the Difference?
There are two major components of the aloe vera plant which are often confused when it comes to natural remedies. I’m talking about aloe vera gel and aloe vera sap or latex.
Aloe latex is a yellow compound found in a thin layer under the plant’s skin. It tastes very bitter and has a completely different chemical make-up to the gel, which is what we’re after. Aloe latex is also known as aloe juice, sap or aloes. (source)
Most medical and food products labelled as containing aloe vera are made up of the gel. This is the substance in the middle of the leaf with a high water content. Its effect on the human body is much milder as it doesn’t contain anthraquinones.
Some commercial products are made from the entire crushed leaf so will have both latex and gel. These come along with a wider spectrum of side-effects so are best avoided unless you’re looking for a constipation remedy (even then, tread carefully).
The History of Aloe Vera
Aloe vera has been used as a traditional medicinal treatment in various cultures for millennia. References can be found in Greece, Egypt, India, Mexico, Japan and China. (source)
I found it fascinating to read that mention of aloe vera treatments exist in the most important medical papyrus of ancient Egypt – the Elbers Papyrus. Clearly, they were on to something.
Nowadays, aloe vera production and processing is a worldwide undertaking on a huge scale. It’s produced in Australia, South America, China and Africa. The base material goes on to be used in the food and drink, pharmaceutical and cosmetic industries.
This humble plant ends up in mass-produced soaps, moisturisers shampoos, burn ointments, tablets and capsules. Personally I prefer to keep my own plant and use the gel as needed. It just feels more environmentally friendly.
The Science Behind Aloe Vera’s Health Benefits
Anthraquinones (e.g. aloin and aloetic acid) are a potent family of chemicals. Mainly found in the latex, they trigger contraction of your digestive system, giving things a powerful “push” so to speak. It acts on other muscles too, including those of the uterus – meaning it can start contractions in pregnant women. (source)
The list of vitamins and minerals found in aloe vera is long and includes B vitamins, folic acid, vitamin C, beta-carotene, calcium, sodium, chlorine, manganese, zinc, copper, magnesium and iron. If you consume aloe juice or salad regularly, you could just out-do your vitamin pills!
The saccharides or sugars in aloe (e.g. cellulose and mannose) are found within the inner leaf. They are believed to have some biological activity but it can’t be pinned down to one compound. Instead, scientists suggest that all of the natural compounds in the plant work together synergistically. Only further research will tell.
What are the Claims?
All natural remedies with a long history of traditional use are associated with some wild health claims on the internet. Many of these are unsubstantiated or downright untrue. Aloe vera is no exception.
The plant has been linked to the following properties:
- Itch relief
- Pain relief
- Treatment of arthritis
- Asthma relief
- Candida cure
- Treatment of bowel disorders, skin disorders, diabetes and ulcers
While there is some truth to most of these claims, much of the evidence is still inconclusive. Let’s look at ten of the proven health benefits of aloe vera.
The Health Benefits of Aloe Vera
If you are suffering from severe constipation and want something natural to treat it, aloe vera could be an option. The family of anthraquinones mentioned earlier are also responsible for the action of senna – a natural laxative found in many commercial preparations. However, the strength of the effect and side-effects of aloe vera latex are off-putting.
The gel does have a high fiber content, so this alone will improve digestion. However, as illustrated in this study, there is no evidence that aloe vera is useful in patients with IBS (irritable bowel syndrome).
A huge study involving 5000 patients over 5 years tested the effects of aloe vera consumption on the cardiac system. These patients had previously suffered from angina, a type of heart disease. After introducing aloe vera and another natural fiber called “husk of isabgol” to the diet, effects on the heart were measured.
The study remarked that “the clinical profile of these patients showed reduction in the frequency of anginal attacks and gradually, the drugs, like verapamil, nifedipine, beta-blockers and nitrates, were tapered.”
This is amazing news! The exact mechanism for this effect is uncertain however it’s mostly attributed to the fiber content of both substances.
Aloe vera is useful externally as well as internally. A study on 18 patients with acne vulgaris tested a standard dressing against an aloe vera dressing.
One half of the face was treated with each dressing. After 48 hours, an improvement was noticed in the aloe vera side. Specifically “a reduction in oedema was noted; less exudate and crusting were evident by the fourth day”.
There was a dramatic decrease in healing time. By the fifth day, skin had healed by 90% on the aloe side versus 40-50% on the standard side. Overall, healing was “72 hours faster at the aloe side.”
Another skin condition which can benefit from the wonders of aloe is psoriasis. A study tested an aloe vera cream versus a placebo against mild to moderate psoriasis.
Patients applied the cream three times a day for four weeks. Upon follow-up at twelve months, the “cure rate in the aloe vera group was 83% and only 7% in the placebo group. The cream was well tolerated.”
No relapses in the condition were reported even after the follow-up period.
Patients with poor cholesterol and triglyceride profiles were given up to 20mls of aloe vera or placebo for 12 weeks in one study. Dietary intervention had previously failed in this group.
Researchers found that “total serum cholesterol decreased by 15.4% and 15.5%, triglycerides by 25.2% and 31.9% in the two groups receiving aloe vera”.
6. Blood Sugar
Diabetes is a hot topic in healthcare today. The focus is on innovation in pharmaceutical drugs to tackle the so-called “epidemic” of type II diabetes. However, aloe vera could present a natural alternative.
A study investigated the effects of aloe vera supplementation in 72 diabetic women. The treatment was just one tablespoon of aloe vera gel or a placebo for 42 days.
Researchers found that “blood glucose levels subsequently decreased from 250 mg to 141 mg percentage in the experimental group, while controls showed no significant changes.”
This is promising news, but the strength of the result means that if you’re diabetic and already taking prescription medicines, you should check with your doctor before taking aloe vera gel. Your blood sugar could drop too low!
7. Vitamin & Mineral Boost
Incorporating aloe vera products into your diet can provide a not-insignificant vitamin and mineral boost.
Livestrong lists some of the benefits of the particular nutrients in aloe vera, including:
- B-12: helps make DNA, maintains blood and nerve cells
- Folic acid: involved in formation of new cells and preventing birth defects during pregnancy.
- Choline: involved in nerve signalling
- Vitamins A, C and E: have antioxidant capabilities
8. Wound healing
If you’ve been to your local pharmacy, you’ve probably seen an aloe vera gel for treating skin wounds or specifically burns. It’s said that aloe vera can speed up wound healing.
Aloe seems to do this by improving blood circulation to the damaged spot and stopping cell death around a wound. (source) The cooling sensation of the gel will also provide some physical relief.
A study tested the ability of aloe vera to fight powerful bacteria S. aureus, S. pyogenes, P. aeruginosa and E. coli. The plant extract suppressed growth of bacteria in three cases.
Researchers attributed the direct antibacterial effect of aloe vera to “specific plant compounds such as anthraquinones and dihhydroxyanthraquinones as well as saponins”.
You can add oral care to the list of areas where aloe vera can be beneficial. In a study comparing aloe vera mouthwash with conventional mouthwash containing chlorhexidine, aloe vera proved just as effective as a the antiseptic.
Researchers found that “There was a significant reduction in plaque in aloe vera and chlorhexidine groups and no statistically significant difference was observed among them. Aloe vera mouthwash showed no side effects.”
How to Use Aloe Vera
So, after reading all of that, you want to get the benefits of aloe vera for yourself. Of course how you use it depends on where you want the benefit. For skin conditions, you obviously need to apply it topically, whereas for internal benefits you can eat or drink it in various concoctions. Here are some of my favourite ways to use aloe vera:
Put It on Your Skin
If you have your own personal aloe vera plant, simply break a leaf open and apply the gel to your wound. The following video explains how.
If you want internal benefits, you can find many recipes online using aloe leaf as an ingredient. Remember to be careful with the latex content, however, and avoid using the whole leaf. Why not try this cooling aloe salad on a hot summer day?
Probably the easiest way to take aloe vera internally is to add the fresh gel to a smoothie or juice. You can also buy aloe vera juice pre-made but watch out for sugar content.
If you want a cheap, perpetual source of first aid lotion, I suggest buying an aloe plant and keeping it indoors. This guide explains everything you’ll need.
This miracle plant sounds too good to be true, huh? What’s the catch? Well, as I’ve mentioned already, you need to avoid the latex like the plague. Even if you are severely constipated, I prefer to take a senna tablet as those are more commonly used. We’re not really sure if aloe is safe for this purpose yet.
If you have any health conditions or take any regular medicines, especially diabetes drugs, diuretics or blood thinners, you must check with your doctor before using aloe vera as it can interact. (source) If you are pregnant or breastfeeding, aloe vera is not safe.
Topically, aloe vera is generally safe. Some people can experience allergic reactions or mild itching so start out easy.
To read a full list of side-effects and situations where aloe vera is not suitable, check out WebMD. The list is very comprehensive and emphasises why it’s necessary to talk to a healthcare professional before incorporating this potent plant into your diet.
The evidence for the health benefits is quite compelling, and I bet more effects will be discovered in coming years.
Have you used aloe vera for skin or internal ailments? Let me know your experience in the comments, I’d love to hear about it.