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The Aloe vera plant—a perennial succulent in the lily family—is one you’re likely already familiar with. It’s elegantly beautiful and super easy to care for, and for these reasons extremely popular as a house plant. You may also have heard (or experienced firsthand) that the juice of Aloe vera leaves is an effective remedy for a wide variety of burns: sunburn; scalding and other kitchen-related burns; steam and other shop-related burns; and even radiation burns.
As it turns out, this is just the beginning of what the Aloe vera plant has to offer. For millennia, the humble Aloe vera has been celebrated for its medicinal qualities. Both the leaf-juice and the latex (the sticky yellow residue right under the skin of the leaf) of the Aloe vera can be used to enhance, beautify, and heal the human body. In addition to ornamenting your home or office with its elegant leaves, an Aloe vera plant can contribute significantly to your physical health and wellbeing.
The Aloe genus contains upwards of 500 species of flowering succulents. Though many species resemble cacti, they actually are members of the lily family. Of these, only three or four have proven medicinal properties, and the most potent among these is Aloe vera: also known as Aloe barbadensis or true Aloe (“vera” is Latin for “true”).
Aloe vera’s complete botanical name—indicating its genus (Aloe) and species (vera)—is also its common name. This rather unique scenario means that pytologists (biologists specialising in the study of plants) and laypeople typically refer to the plant by the same name. However, because Aloe vera is often used to treating burns and wounds, it’s also sometimes referred to more informally as the burn plant, the first-aid plant, or the medicine plant.
The majority of Aloes are native to Africa or Spain, though most species have also been successfully introduced to other parts of the world: They grow easily in hot dry regions of Europe, Asia, Australia and the Americas. Aloe vera is native to the south-west Arabian Peninsula, though like other Aloe species has been widely cultivated around the world.
As mentioned above, the medicinal use of Aloe vera has a long and distinguished history. Across continents and centuries, the plant has been heralded for its powerfully positive effects on human health. Highlights of this history include:
* Ancient Egypt. The many virtues of Aloe vera—for health and beauty purposes—were noted in written documents from Ancient Egypt dated nearly 6,000 years ago. Aloe was revered as a sacred plant, whose “blood” (i.e. juice) held secrets to physical health and beauty—and even immortality.
Aloe vera’s pain-soothing and anti-inflammatory qualities were mentioned explicitly in the Papyrus Eber: An Egyptian medical tract (circa 1,550 BC) of herbal knowledge. Both Cleopatra and Nofretete are said to have used Aloe vera juice daily as part of their skin care routine.
Aloe vera’s antibacterial and anti-fungal qualities made it valuable also as an embalming agent. The ancient Egyptians discovered that the gel from this “plant of eternity” could slow down or even seemingly halt the decomposition of the mummified corpse. And this, it was believed, would support the attainment of eternal life.
* Alexander the Great. In 332 BC Egypt was conquered by Alexander the Great. Egypt thus became one of the many territories amassed by the prodigious military leader, en route to establishing the largest empire in the ancient world. And it was Aloe vera that Alexander relied heavily upon, to treat the wounds suffered by his soldiers, within their innumerable battles.
As reported, Alexander even included mobile carts of potted Aloe vera as part of his military battalions—so that fresh gel from vitally alive plants would be close at hand for use as medicine for the warriors. What’s more, the Greek philosopher Aristotle convinced Alexander to capture Socotra Island for the sole purpose of securing possession of its abundant Aloe vera groves.
* Spanish Jesuit monks. During the 16th century, Spanish Jesuit monks—renowned (then and now) as accomplished phytologists, herbalists and healers—harvested wild Aloe vera. They were also fond of distributing the plant to areas where it had not yet been cultivated: planting it in towns or at monasteries that they visited.
* Maya Indians. The indigenous peoples of southern Mexico, Guatemala, Belize, El Salvador and Honduras referred to the juice of the Aloe vera—because of its numerous health and medicinal uses—as the "Fountain of Youth.”
* Hildegard of Bingen. The visionary 12th century German Benedictine nun, mystic, writer, composer, and philosopher wrote not only theological but also botanical and medicinal texts. In one of the latter, Hildegard describes Aloe vera as an effective cure for icterus, gastric-infections, migraine headaches, and ulcers.
* Indian Ayurveda. With historical roots in ancient India, Ayurveda is a medical system that relies heavily upon the healing power of plants—including Aloe vera. The Sanskrit name for Aloe vera is ghrita kumara, and it is revered as one of few very plants carrying a perfect balance between the three doshas (foundational energies in the body): pitta, kapha, and vata.
Because of its soothing and cooling qualities, Aloe vera is recommended within Ayurveda for the external treatment of burns (including sunburn) and wounds. It is also used internally to balance digestion and elimination, to detoxify the digestive system, and to treat a variety of skin problems.
Chinese Medicine. Over the course of its 2,500 year history, Chinese medicine has developed some very powerful healing technologies, including acupuncture and herbal medicine. The Chinese name for Aloe vera gel is Lu Hui. As a medicinal herb, Aloe vera effects the Liver, Large Intestine, and Stomach meridians. Its primary actions are to clear heat and cool the Liver; to act as a purgative; to kill parasites; and strengthen the Stomach.
The conditions that Aloe vera is used to treat, within Chinese medicine, include: dizziness, headaches, tinnitus, irritability, constipation and fever due to heat in the Liver, hemorrhoids, abdominal pain, painful swollen arthritic joints, scabies, roundworm, and ringworm.
Now that we’ve had a look at some of the ways that Aloe vera has been used historically within a variety of non-western healing traditions, let’s turn our attention to benefits that have been clearly verified by modern western medicine and science. What exactly is it that makes Aloe vera so medically potent?
The short answer is: Aloe vera contains dozens if not hundreds of vitamins, minerals, amino acids, polysaccharides, and enzymes that are absolutely vital to our body’s proper functioning and healthy growth. These biologically active constituents support digestive health and nutrient absorption, the formation of proteins, and a healthy immune system.
“Aloe vera is considered to be the most biologically active of the Aloe species; astonishingly, more than 75 potentially active components have been identified in the plant, including vitamins, minerals, saccharides, amino acids, anthraquinones, enzymes, lignin, saponins and salicylic acids. It provides 20 of the 22 human-required amino acids and eight of the eight essential amino acids.”
There are two parts of the Aloe vera plant that are used medicinally: (1) The gel from the centre of the leaf; and (2) the latex, a sticky yellow substance just beneath the leaf skin, between the skin and the gel. Both have proven useful for a variety of conditions:
“Most people use aloe gel as a remedy for skin conditions, including burns, sunburn, frostbite, psoriasis and cold sores, but there is a host of other aloe vera benefits. Aloe gel is used for treating osteoarthritis, bowel diseases, fever, itching and inflammation.
It’s also used as a natural remedy for asthma, stomach ulcers, diabetes and for soothing side effects of radiation treatment. Aloe latex is used to naturally treat depression, constipation, asthma and diabetes.”
This is the most well-known of Aloe vera’s healing effects. Application of the gel helps to prevent and heal damage to the body’s epithelial tissues. The largest epithelium is the skin covering the body, but epithelial tissues also line hollow organs such as the intestines. The skin absorbs Aloe vera up to four times as fast as it absorbs water—allowing the healing substance to be quickly integrated.
Applied externally, Aloe vera gel can support the healing of burns (including radiation damage to the skin) as well as insect stings, bruises, inflammation, poison ivy, eczema, psoriasis, dermatitis, frostbite, and genital herpes. It can also accelerate the healing of minor cuts as well as more serious surgical wounds.
Aloe vera gel has antiviral and anti-inflammatory properties that facilitate comfort and healing of cold sores, canker sores (mouth ulcers), or any other sores on the lips or in the mouth. And when used as a mouth rinse, Aloe vera gel reduces dental plaque (bacterial biofilms)—and has proven to be just as effective as commercial mouthwash.
The nourishing and moisturising properties of Aloe vera gel make it an effective treatment for an itchy scalp or dry hair. The enzymes that it contains promote the growth of new skin tissue around the hair follicles. And its antibacterial qualities make it useful also in resolving dandruff. Over time, it can help keep your hair and scalp vibrantly healthy.
Aloe vera latex (sticky yellow residue right under the skin of the leaf) has strong laxative effects—that have been well documented scientifically. Its biologically active components increase intestinal water content, stimulate mucus secretion, and increase intestinal peristalsis: the rhythmic contractions that move the bowels.
As mentioned above, Aloe vera gel has healing effects upon the internal as well as external epitheliums—including the lining of the gut, the bronchial tubes, and the genital tract. What this means is that taking Aloe vera gel internally can support digestion and absorption of nutrients, facilitate healing of stomach ulcers, and encourage the growth of “good” intestinal flora.
Aloe vera gel has antiviral, antifungal, antibacterial, and anti-inflammatory qualities. It also includes powerful antioxidants. As such, it supports the immune system and helps to ward off disease.
Aloe vera has been used traditionally as a remedy for diabetes—and there is some scientific evidence for its effectiveness in blood sugar management.
There is some evidence that Aloe vera gel—applied directly or via lotions or facial masks—can help to prevent wrinkles and improve overall skin quality. These anti-aging effects have to do with the stimulation of fibroblasts: the skins cells involved in wound healing as well as in the manufacture of collagen: the protein primarily responsible for the growth and structure of skin, bones, tendons and muscles.
As we’ve seen, Aloe vera gel and latex offer a wide variety of powerful healing benefits. How wonderful!
As with any supplement, it’s best to consult with a healthcare professional to determine protocols and dosages that are appropriate to your unique circumstances. There have been some cases reported of liver damage associated with long-term ingestion (i.e. internal use) of Aloe vera supplements. So definitely do speak with a doctor before using Aloe vera internally to treat a medical condition.
That said, the many topical uses of Aloe vera gel are generally entirely safe—and profoundly beneficial—for the vast majority of people. And the freshest, most vital gel available will be from a plant that you keep in your own home. So unless you require huge quantities of the gel, you can easily snip a leaf from the Aloe vera perched in your windowsill. If inspired, ask permission first and/or express gratitude to your plant-friend (in whatever way makes sense to you) for their kind contribution to your health and wellbeing.