Back to nature:
Aloe Vera is a medicinal herb that has been used by mankind for thousands of years. It has acquired the nicknames 'nature's gift' 'the miracle plant', 'the potted physician' and many more. The first documented use of Aloe Vera by humans dates back to an Egyptian papyrus from 3500 BC. It was used to great effect by Greek and Roman physicians and researchers have found that both the ancient Chinese and Indians also used Aloe Vera. Egyptian Queens associated its use with their physical beauty and legend has it that Alexander the Great conquered the island of Socotra in the Indian Ocean to secure supplies of Aloes to treat the battle wounds of his soldiers. Even Mahatma Ghandi used it to maintain his strength during times of fasting.
Recently, there has been a tendency for society to move towards synthetic and processed products for health and beauty. Although modern medicines and drugs are undoubtedly effective in treating ailments, long term use can result in undesirable side effects. As a consequence more consumers and scientists are returning to traditional, natural therapies that have been neglected for so long. As a result Aloe Vera is once again attracting attention, but is this attention justified? This article will examine that question.
What is Aloe Vera
Although it looks rather like a cactus, Aloe Vera is in fact a member of the lily family and is related to onions, garlic and asparagus. There are over 200 species of Aloe, but it is the Aloe Barbadensis Miller (Aloe Vera or "true aloe") plant that has been of most use to mankind because of the medicinal properties it exhibits. It can be harvested and key elements preserved and bottled. One of the most useful aspects of Aloe Vera is that is can either be taken internally for its nutritional effect or it can be combined with other ingredients and applied topically to nourish and improve the quality of the skin.
What does it contain
The active 'inner gel' contains:
- Vitamins – a wide range of vitamins, most importantly the antioxidant vitamins C, E and A (as beta-carotene). It is also one of the few plants in the world to contain Vitamin B12, so is particularly beneficial to vegetarians and vegans.
- Minerals – these include Calcium, Chromium, Copper, Iron, Magnesium, Manganese, Potassium, Phosphorous, Sodium, and Zinc. The western diet is frequently mineral deficient, mainly due to intensive farming on mineral depleted soils. Many bodily functions depend on minerals to work properly.
- Amino acids - the 8 essential Amino Acids (the building blocks of proteins) that the human body needs but cannot manufacture. These must therefore be obtained from food.
- Enzymes – some of which aid digestion and others which have anti-inflammatory properties.
- Antimicrobials – these fight infection with their antibacterial, antiviral and antifungal properties.
- Long chain sugars – these act on the immune system to boost its effects.
- Salicylic acid – a substance similar to aspirin that can help reduce fever and inflammation.
- Lignin – a woody substance that gives Aloe Vera its penetrating powers so that it can be absorbed deep into the skin.
- Saponins – natural soapy substances that have both cleansing and antiseptic properties.
How does it work and what are the benefits
There is nothing magical or mystical about Aloe Vera and a scientific explanation exists to explain the numerous benefits of this plant. The 3 main areas of benefit can be summarised as follows:
- It has been called 'nature's finest vegetable juice' as it contains a wealth of nutritional components thus promoting health and addressing nutritional deficiencies. The rich cocktail of nutritional elements produces a more powerful effect than would be expected if the individual components were taken separately.
- It has beneficial effects on epithelial tissue (surfaces and membranes in the body) including the skin, digestive tract, linings of the lungs and sinuses. It helps firstly to prevent injury to epithelial tissues and also promotes healing when they are damaged. Healing is promoted because the Aloe Vera provides micronutrients, reduces infection, has an anti-inflammatory action and promotes cell growth.
- It balances the immune system by 'fine-tuning' it so that we are more efficient in defending the body from attack but also so that excessive or inappropriate actions of the immune system do not cause damage as in hypersensitivity or auto-immune conditions:
Who can benefit
Aloe Vera is not just for people with ailments or problems. Most people who take good quality Aloe Vera report an improved sense of wellbeing.
An increasing number of people also report improvements in a number of skin complaints including eczema, psoriasis, burns, ulcers, acne, bites and stings. Benefits have also been noted by sufferers of Irritable Bowel Syndrome, colitis and diverticulitis. Individuals affected by conditions that arise as a result of a disordered immune system can also benefit. This group includes suffers of rheumatoid arthritis, asthma, chronic fatigue syndrome and lupus.
Aloe Vera can therefore play a role in managing a number of conditions as well as in improving general health and wellbeing.
What to look for in a product
It is always important to look for a product with a high Aloe content. Unfortunately, there are a number of products on the market that may be labelled as 'Aloe Vera juice' but may only contain a small amount of the actual inner leaf gel. Ensure that Stabilised Aloe Vera gel is listed as the FIRST ingredient on the contents list, and beware of products that state "aqua" (Water) as the first ingredient as this almost certainly means that the re-constituted powder is being used. Also be aware that in some cases, the processes used to produce what you see on the shelf can itself result in the active, natural substances being broken down.
If in doubt, look for the Seal of Approval of the International Aloe Science Council, the independent regulatory body that monitors the quantity of aloe in products.
Common sense caution: Information in this article should not be used as replacement for medical advice. Any symptoms of concern should always be checked by a doctor.
For those who wish to enhance their health and well being or to complement the management of existing conditions, Aloe Vera does seem to be a sensible, natural choice. It has stood the test of time and we are likely to see its use increase in years to come as it becomes accepted in conventional as well as complementary healthcare environments.
By Dr Sylvia Chukwuemeka MBBS FRSH FIMS (Dip IMS) MIHPE
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