The aloe plant is one of the world's oldest and most frequently used natural supplements. Aloe juice, gel, and leaves have played a role in medicine since the 4th century B.C., when ancient Greek doctors obtained it from Arab traders for its healing properties. Using aloe topically gained popularity in the United States in the 1930s, with reports of its success in soothing x-ray burns. Today, the aloe plant is used in the production of a wide range of products created to treat what ails you, from digestive tract issues to mouth ulcers.
Aloe: Then and Now
Christopher Columbus once said, "Four vegetables are indispensable for the well-being of man: Wheat, the grape, the olive and aloe. The first nourishes him, the second raises his spirit, the third brings him harmony, and the fourth cures him." Many people would agree with Columbus that the aloe plant is worth keeping around for its bountiful benefits. It is one of nature's most useful plants, and one that people have been turning to for centuries.
The first recorded reference to the aloe plant as a treatment or remedy was found on a Sumerian clay tablet in 2200 B.C., discovered south of Baghdad. The second reference to aloe was in 1550 B.C. on a piece of papyrus discovered in Egypt. This artifact contains what is considered to be the first detailed discussion of the medicinal value of aloe. The piece of papyrus lists 12 recipes that utilize aloe to treat internal and external conditions.
Today, aloe juice and aloe leaves continue to be a natural, reliable ingredient in both topical and ingested formulas designed to promote wellness. Aloe vera gel is the most commonly known form of aloe, and is used in skin lotions and sun blocks for its ability to protect skin. The aloe gel is the thin, clear jelly-like substance that comes from within the leaves and is used to treat minor skin irritations, burns and eczema. The gel has agents that control pain and inflammation and helps to repair damaged cells. The emollient effect of the gel is due to the polysaccharides, or long chains of sugar, contained in the gel. It is theorized that aloe's anti-inflammatory effect may result from blockage of the conversion of histidine to histamine as a result of the inhibition of histidine decarboxylase. Wound healing is believed to result from increased blood flow to the wounded area.
Although it is used most commonly to soothe minor skin injuries, aloe can treat a wide variety of health issues. Aloe latex, also called aloe sap, is a bitter, yellow liquid derived from the outer layer of the leaves of the aloe plant. It contains naturally occurring substances, including anthraquinones that stimulate contractions of walls of digestive track. When taken by mouth, aloe latex has a very strong laxative effect in pharmaceutical medications. Aloe juice works gently within the intestinal tract to help break down impacted food residues and cleanse the bowel. It can help ease occasional constipation and help maintain regularity, thereby reducing discomfort and bloating. When aloe sap is used in products other than digestive medications, the manufacturer can remove the anthraquinones so that there is no laxative effect.
To take advantage of the digestive benefits of the aloe plant, aloe juice is used as a whole leaf extract. Obtained by pressing the entire leaf, aloe juice can be used as a functional ingredient in the form of a juice or powder. In dietary supplements, acemanna, the major water-soluble carbohydrate derived from the botanical, has been used for immune support and relieving oxidative stress.
Oral application of aloe is gaining popularity because the gel has the ability to promote healing against mouth ulcers, which occur in 15 to 20 percent of the population, and have been resistant to conventional approaches to treatment. Application of aloe orally promotes optimal healing. In addition, denture patients who use aloe often experience increased comfort. It is theorized that oral administration of aloe vera might be a useful adjunct for lowering blood glucose in diabetic patients, as well as for reducing blood lipid levels in patients with hyperlipidaemia.
Although the aloe plant is known to be a highly-effective and safe treatment option, there are some individuals who should use caution when considering using the aloe plant. If a person is allergic to plants in the lily family; such as garlic, onions and tulips, they should avoid taking aloe in any form or applying it topically to the skin. Women who are pregnant or breastfeeding should consult a doctor before using aloe because aloe juice can affect potassium levels and cardiac rhythm. In addition, oral aloe latex should be avoided by people with cardiac disease or electrolyte abnormalities because the laxative effect can affect blood potassium levels.
Aloe juice, aloe gel, aloe vera and other derivatives of the aloe plant have supported the health of people from all over the world throughout history. Known mainly for its ability to soothe sunburns or minor pains, the botanical is a precious resource that can be used to treat an extensive range of ailments, including many digestive problems. Aloe, a plant recognized for its unique properties for centuries, will no doubt play a significant role in consumers' health well into the 21st century.
By Mark Lange Ph.D.
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