The Aloe vera plant has been used for thousands of years to heal a variety of conditions, most notably burns, wounds, skin irritations, and constipation. It is grown in most subtropical and tropical locations, including South Africa, Latin America, and the Caribbean. Aloe was one of the most frequently prescribed medicines throughout most of the 18th and 19th centuries and it remains one of the most commonly used herbs in the United States today. However, oral use of aloe for constipation is no longer recommended, as it can have severe side effects.
Aloe gel, made from the central part of the aloe leaf, is a common household remedy for minor cuts and burns as well as sunburns. It can be found in many commercial skin lotions and cosmetics. Aloe contains active compounds that may decrease pain and inflammation and stimulate skin growth and repair. For this reason, aloe vera gel has gained tremendous popularity for relief of burns, with individual success in helping minor burns. In a review of the scientific literature, researchers found that patients who were treated with aloe vera healed an average of almost 9 days sooner than those who weren't treated with the medicinal plant. However, other studies show mixed results, including at least one study that found aloe actually delayed healing. Aloe is best used for minor burns and skin irritations, and should never be applied to an open wound.
Herpes and skin conditions
Preliminary evidence also suggests that aloe gel may improve symptoms of genital herpes and certain skin conditions such as psoriasis. In fact, one study found that aloe vera gel displayed anti-inflammatory effects superior to 1% hydrocortisone cream or a placebo gel. As such, researchers claim that aloe vera gel may be useful in the treatment of inflammatory skin conditions, such as ultraviolet-induced erythema.
Aloe juice or aloe latex, a yellow, bitter liquid derived from the skin of the aloe leaf, is a powerful laxative. However, it can cause painful cramping and is not recommended. Other gentler, herbal laxatives from the same plant family as aloe (such as cascara and senna) are generally recommended first.
Preliminary studies suggest that aloe juice may help lower blood sugar levels in people with type 2 (adult onset) diabetes. More research is needed to determine whether aloe is helpful for diabetes.
Aloe vera is a perennial, succulent plant (meaning its leaves hold large quantities of water). The plant can grow up to 4 feet tall, and its tough, fleshy, spearlike leaves can grow up to 36 inches long. The clear, thick gel found in the inner part of the leaf is most commonly used for minor cuts and burns.
What's It Made Of?
Although aloe is 99 percent water, aloe gel also contains substances known as glycoproteins and polysaccharides. Glycoproteins speed the healing process by stopping pain and inflammation, while polysaccharides stimulate skin growth and repair. These substances may also stimulate the immune system.
You can get aloe by simply breaking off leaves of the plant (which can be grown as a houseplant), but it is also available commercially in ointments, creams, and lotions. Aloe gel is often included in cosmetic and over-the-counter skin care products as well. You can purchase aloe in the form of capsules, tablets, juice, gel, ointment, cream, and lotion.
How to Take It
Pure aloe gel may be applied to the surface of the skin for minor skin irritations.
Slit the leaf of an aloe plant lengthwise and remove the gel from the inside, or use a commercial preparation. Carefully clean affected area and then apply aloe gel liberally to the skin. Do not apply to open wounds.
The use of herbs is a time-honored approach to strengthening the body and treating disease. Herbs, however, can trigger side effects and can interact with other herbs, supplements, or medications. For these reasons, you should take herbs with care, under the supervision of a health care provider.
Aloe gel is considered safe when applied to the surface of the skin, but should not be applied to open or deep wounds. In rare cases, it may cause an allergic reaction, mainly a skin rash. If you develop a rash, stop using the gel.
Taking aloe latex orally may cause severe intestinal cramps or diarrhea and is not recommended. Pregnant women should never take aloe latex because it may cause uterine contractions and trigger miscarriage. Nursing mothers should not take aloe latex either because the effects and safety for infants and children are not known.
If you are currently being treated with any of the following medications, you should not use aloe vera without first talking to your doctor:
Medications for diabetes -- The combination of aloe vera and glyburide, a medication used to treat type 2 diabetes, may help control blood sugar and triglyceride (fat) levels in the blood. People with diabetes who use aloe latex either alone or in combination with other medications must be monitored closely by their doctor to make sure blood sugar levels don't fall too low (a condition called hypoglycemia).
Hydrocortisone -- Aloe gel may enhance the ability of hydrocortisone to reduce swelling.
Digoxin and diuretics -- Because taking oral aloe can decrease levels of potassium in the body, aloe latex should not be used by people taking diuretics (water pills) or digoxin (a medication used to treat irregular heart rhythms and congestive heart failure). These drugs also lower potassium levels in the body, so a combination of aloe and digoxin or diuretics could cause potassium levels to fall too low.