ALOE VERA'S HEALTH BENEFITS

DR. S. M. ALAM
(feedback@pgeconomist.com)

Oct 17 - 23, 2011

Aloe vera known as the true aloe or medicinal aloe, is a species of succulent plant in the genus Aloe that is believed to have originated in the Sudan.

Aloe vera grows in arid climate and is widely distributed in Africa, Pakistan, India, Nepal and other arid areas. The species is frequently cited as being used in herbal medicine.

Many scientific studies on the use of extracts of Aloe vera have been undertaken, some of them conflicting. Despite these limitations, there is some preliminary evidence that Aloe vera extracts may be useful in the treatment of wound and burn healing, minor skin infections, sebaceous cysts, diabetes, and elevated blood lipids in humans.

Aloe vera has been widely grown as an ornamental plant. The species is popular with modern gardeners as a putatively medicinal plant. The succulence enables the species to survive in areas of low natural rainfall, making it ideal for rockeries and other low-water use gardens. It is intolerant of very heavy frost or snow.

The species is relatively resistant to most insect pests, though spider mites, mealy bugs, scale insects, and aphid species may cause a decline in plant health. In pots, the species require well-drained sandy potting soil and bright sunny conditions; however, in very hot and humid tropical or subtropical climates, aloe plants should be protected from direct sun and rain, as they will burn and/or turn mushy easily under these conditions.

The use of a good-quality commercial propagation mix or pre-packaged "cacti and succulent mix" is recommended, as they allow good drainage.

Terracotta pots are preferable as they are porous. Potted plants should be allowed to completely dry prior to re-watering. When potted aloes become crowded with "pups" growing from the sides of the "mother plant," they should be divided and re-potted to allow room for further growth and help prevent pest infestations.

During winter, Aloe vera may become dormant, during which little moisture is required. In areas that receive frost or snow, the species is best kept indoors or in heated glasshouses. Large scale agricultural production of Aloe vera is undertaken in Australia, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Cuba the Dominican Republic, China, Mexico, India, Jamaica, Kenya and South Africa, along with the USA to supply the cosmetics industry with Aloe vera gel.

Scientific evidence for the cosmetic and therapeutic effectiveness of aloe vera is limited. The cosmetic and alternative medicine industries regularly make claims regarding the soothing, moisturizing, and healing properties of aloe vera. Aloe vera gel is used as an ingredient in commercially available lotions, yogurt, beverages, and some desserts.

Aloe vera juice is used for consumption and relief of digestive issues such as heartburn and irritable bowel syndrome, although it bears significant potential to be toxic when taken orally. It is common practice for cosmetic companies to add sap or other derivatives from Aloe vera to products such as makeup, tissues, moisturizers, soaps, sunscreens, incense, shaving cream, and shampoos.

Other uses for extracts of aloe vera include the dilution of semen for the artificial fertilization of sheep, use as fresh food preservative, and use in water conservation in small farms.

The supposed therapeutic uses of Aloe vera are not exclusive to the species and may be found to a lesser or greater degree in the gels of all aloes, and indeed are shared with large numbers of plants belonging to the family Asphodelaceae. Bulbine frutescens, for example, is used widely for the treatment of burns and a host of skin afflictions.

Aloe vera has a long association with herbal medicine, although it is not known when its medical applications were first started. Early records of Aloe vera use appear in the Ebers Papyrus from 16th century BC.

Aloe vera is nontoxic, with no known side effects, provided the aloin has been removed by processing. Taking aloe vera that contains aloin in excess amounts has been associated with various side effects. However, the species is used widely in the traditional herbal medicine of China, Japan, Russia, South Africa, the United States, Jamaica, Latin America, Pakistan and India.

Aloe vera may be effective in treatment of wounds. Evidence on the effects of its sap on wound healing, however, is limited and contradictory. Some studies, for example, show that aloe vera promotes the rates of healing, while, in contrast, other studies show that wounds to which aloe vera gel was applied were significantly slower to heal than those treated with conventional medical preparations.

A review (2007) concludes that the cumulative evidence supports the use of aloe vera for the healing of first to second degree burns. In addition to topical use in wound or burn healing, internal intake of aloe vera has been linked in preliminary research with improved blood glucose levels in diabetics, and with lower blood lipids in hyperlipidaemic patients, but also with acute hepatitis (liver disease).

In other diseases, preliminary studies have suggested oral aloe vera gel may reduce symptoms and inflammation in patients with ulcerative colitis. Compounds extracted from aloe vera have been used as an immunostimulant that aids in fighting cancers in cats and dogs; however, this treatment has not been scientifically tested in humans.

Topical application of aloe vera may be effective for genital herpes and psoriasis. However, it is not effective for the prevention of radiation-induced injuries. Although anecdotally useful, it has not been proven to offer protection from sunburn or suntan. In a double-blind clinical trial, both the group using an aloe vera containing dentifrice and the group using a fluoridated dentifrice had a reduction of gingivitis and plaque, but no statistically significant difference was found between the two.

Aloe vera extracts might have antibacterial and antifungal activities, which possibly could help treat minor skin infections, such as boils and benign skin cysts and may inhibit growth of fungi causing tinea. For bacteria, inner-leaf gel from aloe vera was shown in one study to inhibit growth of Streptococcus and Shigella species in vitro. In contrast, aloe vera extracts failed to show antibiotic properties against Xanthomonas species.

Aloe vera is now widely used on facial tissues, where it is promoted as a moisturizer and/or anti-irritant to reduce chafing of the nose of users suffering hay fever or cold. It has also been suggested that biofuels could be obtained from Aloe vera seeds.

It can also be used to re-twist dreadlocked hair, a favorite agent for vegans and those preferring natural products. Aloe vera is also used for soothing the skin, and keeping the skin moist to help avoid flaky scalp and skin in harsh and dry weather. Aloe vera may also be used as a moisturizer for oily skin.

Aloin was the common ingredient in over-the-counter (OTC) laxative products in the United States prior to 2003, when the Food and Drug Administration ruled that aloin was a class III ingredient, thereby banning its use. It should be noted that unprocessed aloe that contains aloin is used primarily as a laxative, whereas processed Aloe vera juice that does not contain significant amounts of aloin is used as a digestive healer. Manufacturers commonly remove aloin in processing due to the FDA ruling.

Research in Russia has shown benefits to conditions other than those for which aloe vera is most well known. These include improvements in bone tuberculosis and broken bones, inflammatory gynecological conditions, paralysis caused by polio, ear, nose and throat conditions, and bronchial asthma. They have also found that aloe vera can help slow the aging process - this is achieved through the antioxidant activity of aloe vera.

Both Russia and the United States have carried out extensive research into the use of aloe vera for all types of burns. They found that compounds within aloe vera can help burns heal, and can also have a cleansing and antibacterial effect.

A cream containing 70 per cent aloe vera gel extract has been developed in the U.S.A. that prevents partially damaged tissue from dying and allows new skin cells to close off the area thereby promoting healthy new skin beneath the scab, rather than scar tissue.

Research has also been carried out into whether aloe vera can play a role in the treatment of cancer. Aloe vera appears to cause the release of tumor necrosis factor Alpha that blocks the blood supply to cancerous growths. A study in Japan showed that drinking aloe vera juice regularly may be effective in preventing the onset of lung cancer in smokers.