What Is It?
A succulent perennial plant belonging to the lily family, aloe vera grows wild in Madagascar and large portions of the African continent. Because of its many therapeutic uses, it is now commercially cultivated in the United States, Japan, and countries in the Caribbean and Mediterranean. Many individuals also grow aloe as a houseplant.
The aloe plant is best known for its healing aloe vera gel, a thin, clear, jellylike substance that can be squeezed or scraped from the inner part of the fleshy leaf. A soothing juice is also made from this gel.
Another substance from the same plant, aloe vera latex, is taken from specialized cells along the inner leaf skin (called the pericyclic tubules). The latex is extracted as a liquid, then dried into a yellow powder. Because it’s such a potent laxative, the latex is not usually used alone but combined with gentler herbs, such as cascara sagrada. Germany’s Commission E approves of using small amounts of aloe vera latex to relieve constipation, but only for short-term use.
For centuries, the gel of the aloe vera plant has been used as a soothing topical remedy for minor burns and wounds. It continues to be popular for treating sunburns and other first-degree burns because it appears to speed healing.
In addition, aloe vera gel is used to treat minor surface irritations, to reduce psoriasis symptoms, to lessen the painful effects of shingles, and to shrink warts. It even has a reputation as a beauty aid.
Various research studies are underway to explore the potential of aloe vera components to boost immunity and combat the HIV virus, and to treat certain types of cancer (particularly leukemia). It may even have a role to play in managing diabetes.
Specifically, aloe vera may help to:
Speed healing of first-degree burns, including sunburns. The gel is excellent for easing first-degree burns (including sunburns) and certain minor second-degree burns. If applied after the burn has cooled, it will relieve pain and inflammation and accelerate healing. In one study of 27 people with moderately severe burns, those who used aloe vera healed in about 12 days on average, whereas the control group, who covered the affected areas with a regular gauze dressing, took 18 days to heal.
Soothe and hasten healing of cuts, scrapes, and other minor wounds and skin irritations. The gel contains a number of active ingredients, including substances known to help relieve pain, reduce swelling, quell itching, and increase blood flow to an injured area. Some research even indicates that the gel has antifungal, antibacterial, and antiviral properties. Conversely, aloe vera gel may not help treat deeper, infected wounds, or those incurred during surgery. In one study at a Los Angeles hospital, 21 women were given either aloe vera gel or a placebo for wounds resulting from a caesarean section or surgery to the abdominal wall. When the gel was used, it took 83 days for the wounds to heal; when the placebo was applied, it took 53 days. (Both groups also received standard anti-infective treatments.)
Lessen painful effects of shingles. Applied gently to the painful lesions that characterize this condition, aloe vera gel acts promptly to soothe these sores and provide relief from itching. It also works to decrease the chances that the blisters will become infected.
Reduce symptoms of psoriasis. The ability of aloe vera gel to promote healing and quell itching and pain may offer some relief to those who suffer from this troubling condition. In a recent study of 60 people with chronic psoriasis, 83% of those who applied aloe to lesions three times a day for eight months experienced substantial improvement. Only 6% of those using a placebo benefited from its effects.
Ease heartburn, ulcers, diverticular disorders, and other types of digestive upset. A juice made from the aloe gel acts as an anti-inflammatory and can be taken internally as a remedy for certain digestive complaints. European folk medicine calls for using aloe vera juice to relieve heartburn and ulcers. While there is very little substantive evidence to support these internal uses, preliminary research has shown promising results. In one Japanese study, 17 of 18 patients who took aloe vera juice found some relief for their peptic ulcers. However, none of the participants was given a placebo, so comparisons of its effectiveness could not be made. Other clinical trials in Japan indicate that certain compounds in aloe vera reduce the secretion of stomach juices and the formation of lesions.
–As a general rule, keep in mind that products that include “aloe vera extract” or “reconstituted aloe vera” may be much less potent than pure (more than 98%) aloe vera. Put another way, be sure to look at the label on any commercial aloe product to see if aloe vera is one of the first few ingredients listed.
–For sunburn preparations, confirm that the product contains at least 20% aloe vera.
–Aloe vera latex is available in capsule form, usually in combination with other (and more gentle) laxatives.
For burns, cuts, scrapes, shingles, and other skin problems: Apply aloe gel to affected area 2 or 3 times a day. For sunburns, you can also add 1 or 2 cups of aloe vera juice to a tub of lukewarm water and soak.
For heartburn: Drink 2 ounces of juice four times a day.
For ulcers and diverticular disorders: Drink 1/2 cup of aloe vera juice twice a day for one month. If you are also taking psyllium for a diverticular disorder, allow at least two hours to elapse before having aloe vera juice.
For warts: Dab a small amount of fresh or prepared aloe vera gel on a compress made of cotton gauze or flannel, and place over the wart. Change the dressing and apply new aloe vera daily. Improvement should be evident in 3 to 4 days.
Be sure to check out our Dosage Recommendations Chart for Aloe Vera, which lists therapeutic dosages for specific ailments at a glance.
Guidelines for Use
The most effective and economical source of the gel is an aloe vera plant, which is easy to grow, even on a sunny city window sill. Cut off one of its plumper leaves and wash it off with soap and water. Then slit the leaf lengthwise, and squeeze out the clear gel from the center. Apply and gently spread the gel on to the painful area and let it dry; repeat the application as needed.
Use common sense when treating a wound; before applying aloe vera gel, first clean the area thoroughly.
When buying aloe vera juice, check to make sure that the one you select is derived from aloe vera gel, not from aloe latex. Also make sure the juice produce contains a minimum of 98% aloe vera and that it does not have any aloin or aloe-emoin compounds, the key substances in aloe latex.
Be sure to drink aloe vera juice between meals.
When shopping for aloe vera juice, look for the “IASC-certified” seal; it is allowed only on products that contain certified raw ingredients that have been processed according to standards set by the International Aloe Science Council, a voluntary certification organization.
Creams and ointments should contain at least 20% aloe vera.
Be aware that the long-term use of any laxative, including aloe vera latex, can cause you to lose an excessive amount of the mineral potassium. The low blood levels of potassium can be further worsened if you are also taking a potassium-draining diuretic (“water-pill”) like hydrochlorothiazide or furosemide.
Dangerous heart rhythm abnormalities can develop if you take a digitalis heart medication (like digoxin or Lanoxin) along with a potassium-losing diuretic and the aloe vera latex. Consult your doctor for guidance.
If you are on oral corticosteroids, such as beclomethasone, methylprednisolone, or prednisone, it is important not to overuse or misuse aloe vera juice. A potassium deficiency can develop, and you may experience toxic effects from the medication. Note: For information on interactions with specific generic drugs, see our WholeHealth Chicago Drug/Nutrient Interactions Chart.
Possible Side Effects
As a topical treatment, aloe vera is quite safe. Occasionally, some people develop a mild allergic reaction marked by itching or a rash. If this occurs, discontinue use.
Due to improper processing, aloe vera juice sometimes contains small quantities of the laxative compound in aloe latex. Should you begin to have cramps, diarrhea, or loose stools, do not ingest any more of the juice and replace it with a new supply.
Don’t take an aloe vera latex laxative if you are pregnant or breast-feeding; it may trigger uterine contractions. Also avoid using it during a menstrual period.
Children and the elderly should not consume an aloe vera latex laxative internally. In addition, laxatives of any kind should never be used by anyone with an intestinal obstruction, an acutely inflammatory intestinal disease (such as Crohn’s disease or ulcerative colitis), appendicitis, or abdominal pain of unknown cause.
For product recommendations and orders click here for the Natural Apothecary or call 773-296-6700, ext. 2001.
David Edelberg, MD