Getting To Know Aloe Vera
Aloe Vera | Its Medicinal Components And Benefits
Recently, the use of alternative medicine in North America has been in constant increase. Alternative medicine can be defined as a term encompassing the broad spectrum of supposed medicinal agents that include herbal and homeopathic substances as well as the services offered by homeopaths, chiropractors and massage therapists. Eisenberg et al reported a nearly fivefold increase of adults using herbal medicines in United States from 1990 to 1997. In two studies conducted in New York and California, 56% and 43% in that order, respondents reported the use of some forms of alternative medicine. The success of herbs as supplements or replacements for conventional treatment is soaring to greater heights and one especially notable herb on the list is aloe vera.
What is aloe vera? Aloe vera is widely used today in Chinese, Indian and Western traditional medicine. Even today, Aloe vera is a valuable ingredient in pharmaceutical and cosmetic industries, mainly in California, for its great moisturizing property.
Aloe vera is a short-stemmed perennial, succulent plant that grows 60 – 100 centimeters, spreading by offsets. The spear-like leaves are thick, tough and fleshy, and may grow until 36 inches long. On top of that, the leaves’ color ranges from grey-green to green with other varieties characterized by white spots on the lower and upper stem surfaces. The inner part of the leaf is composed of clear, thick gel that is usually applied to minor cuts and burns. The plant produces flowers during summer on its spikes.
Although aloe vera leaf contains 99% water, it also contains over 200 different active components. Aloe vera gel consists of glycoprotein and polysaccharides. Glycoprotein is a protein-carbohydrate compound, and is known to speed up healing processes by alleviating pain and inflammation. On another note, polysaccharides hasten skin cell regeneration and repair. Other constituents include acemannan, aloe-emodin, aloins, barbaloins and isobarbaloins, amino acids, amorphous alons, enzymes, essential fatty acids, essential oil, glactomannans, minerals, resin, vitamins C & E and zinc.
Going beyond the chemistry, though, what is aloe vera and what are its traditional uses? The history of aloe vera use dates back thousands of years ago. Recorded history claims that Ancient Egyptians were one of the first peoples to have used and understood aloe vera for its numerous health benefits and healing qualities. Aloe vera was known to be one of the most effective herbal plants throughout the world. Native to Africa, its uses spread to the ancient Persian, Russian, Indian, Japanese and Chinese healers.
Amongst its important benefits are moisturizing and softening of skin, a soothing effect on various skin irritations (burns, insect bites and cuts), speeding up of wound healing, remedy for constipation, diarrhea and other GIT complaints, and general improvement of body functions. It also helps in fighting fungi and pathogenic bacteria inside the body as well as enhances the effect of sunscreen products. This plant is readily available; some people even plant aloe vera in pots and display it on their kitchen. As such, one can open a leaf spike right in one’s home and use it as instant remedy for burns or cuts.
Aloe Vera Plant | Useful Facts
If you ever get to an extensive botanical database and start looking for “aloe”, you may be surprised by the number of results you will get. That’s because there are more than 275 species of the genus Aloe around the world. The one we have been talking about thus far is the most popular. Aloe barbadensis Miller. It is also known as Aloe vulgaris Lamarck, Aloe vera Linne and other names, including the famous “aloe vera”.
The name means ‘true aloe’ in Latin. It was perhaps given to this specific plant since it is one of the few aloe species truly known for its medicinal and therapeutic benefits. Also, it is the most commonly available species of beneficial aloes and the only aloe plant cultivated in the west. Most aloe growers and aloe vera product makers advise that the use of immature aloe vera plants may not have the same medicinal potency compared to the mature plant, so keep that in mind if you are cultivating your own aloe in the backyard or kitchen.
The term aloe comes from the Arabic word alloeh or halal in Hebrew, which means ‘bitter, shiny substance’ – an account that suits one of two unique compounds found in aloe leaf. Found in a corrugated lining beneath the plant skin’s inner surface is the latex. The sap is bitter to the taste and can irritate the lips. Currently, it is commercially grown in India, China, Spain, Mexico, South and Central America and North America including Texas and Florida. It is also a common sight in the sunny regions of California.
The thick, spiny-edged leaves of aloe vera plant ranging in color from bright green to grey give the plant the appearance of a cactus, yet it is actually a member of the Liliaceae family (lily). Related to onion, asparagus, garlic and turnips, the plant’s relationship to the lily genus becomes apparent when it produces flowers. Common aloe vera produces 2 to 3 tube-like yellow flowers, similar to flowers of the Easter lily, and blooms intermittently all year-round. The spear-like aloe vera leaf grows from the foot of the plant in a unique rosette pattern. Mature plants grow from 1 ½ feet to 4 feet tall with an average of 15 leaves. The leaf typically measures 3-4 inches across from the base and weigh about 1 to 3 pounds. An aloe vera plant usually reaches maturity from 1½ to 5 years, depending on the weather and the soil condition.
Aloe vera has a wide variety of uses. Indeed, the aloe vera plant is the basis for many healthy, healing and beautifying products sold today. While the popularity of aloe vera seems positive, it has also led to many substandard products, which contain little or no therapeutic value. As such, be careful when buying herbal products containing aloe vera.
Users Alert | Side Effects of Aloe Vera
Now, one common misconception held by people advocating natural, organic products is the belief that all of these products are generally safe and don’t cause any side effects. On the contrary: not all herbal products are entirely safe and good and aloe vera is not an exception. Even though side effects of aloe vera are uncommon, people taking aloe products should still be cautious about possible herb side effects.
In general, side effects of taking aloe vera are minor and even those taking medication or who have pre-existing medical conditions can ingest aloe vera without any problems. Still, it is better to identify and understand its potential side effects before using it. Below are some of the most common side effects of aloe vera.
Although topical application of aloe vera is harmless, it may cause localized allergic reactions such as eczema-like rashes and hives in certain cases. Based on reports, the application of the substance to surgical wounds may also cause a slowed healing process in certain cases. In addition, redness and burning sensation have been noted after applying aloe juice on the face following a skin enhancement procedure (dermabrasion) as well as rashes when used prior to sun exposure.
Taking aloe vera internally for its laxative property can cause abdominal cramps or diarrhea. Using it for a straight seven days may promote laxative dependency constipation once the aloe therapy is stopped. Some reports claimed ingestion of aloe over a year may increase the risk of developing colorectal cancer. People with a history of appendicitis, diverticulosis, colitis, hemorrhoids, peptic ulcer, ileus, chronic constipation or severe abdominal pain are advised not to take aloe vera. There are also reports of liver inflammation after using oral aloe.
Due to its laxative effect, electrolyte imbalance may develop following loose bowel movement. One serious electrolyte imbalance is low potassium level or hypokalemia, particularly for people with diabetes or kidney disease. Low potassium levels can result to muscle weakness and abnormal heart rhythms. As such, people with disease kidney and heart problems as well as electrolyte abnormalities should refrain from taking aloe by mouth. Besides electrolyte imbalance, one of the side effects of aloe vera is the lowering of blood sugar levels. People taking herbs or medications that affect the blood sugar level as well as diabetics should watch out for hypoglycemic symptoms when taking aloe.
While it’s rare, allergic reactions are also another side effect to watch out. In fact, people with a history of allergies to tulips, onions, garlic and other herbs of Liliaceae family may develop an allergic reaction to aloe vera. On another note, aloe injections must be avoided since they are associated with severe reactions and may even cause death.
In general, the side effects of aloe vera are caused by long-term use or ingestion of large amounts of aloe vera products. Oftentimes, taking aloe vera in its recommended safe dosage may still cause minor side effects. Keep in mind that adverse effects due to aloe vera use are still possible. Because of limited research on aloe vera use, there will also be limited safety information for the public to know.
Medicinal Effects Of Aloe Vera | A Broader Range
Despite the relative lack of scientific research on the plant, it has certainly had a lot of practical research and anecdotal evidence behind it. While native to Africa, it has expanded to all parts of the world already, most notably to Latin America, a few regions in Mediterranean and southern areas of the United States. In fact, the beneficial effects of aloe vera gel in the skin have led to many skincare manufacturers in the United States producing various aloe vera skin care products. In the state of California alone, aloe vera has been cultivated extensively to be used for mass production of creams, lotions and other skincare and beauty products. In additions, health drinks made from aloe vera gel with a sweet blend of fruit are distributed in all parts of the United States.
While the plant is mainly composed of water, the benefits of aloe vera are believed to be from its polysaccharide and glycoprotein content. Experts think that these compounds may have unique anti-inflammatory properties and may help in rejuvenation of damaged skin cells, hence contributing to skin healing processes. Research studies also indicate another important component found in aloe vera called acemannan that may have immune system stimulating activity.
The skin rejuvenating effects of aloe vera are thought to be valuable in alleviating symptoms of dry skin. With this, aloe gel is often included as a natural ingredient in many hand creams, body lotions, shaving creams, deodorant and other cosmetic products as an emollient. Sufferers of acne vulgaris and other scaly rashes may benefit a lot from applying aloe vera gel.
Worldwide too, one of the most highly regarded effects of aloe vera is its potent laxative property. Many think that the inner substances of aloe vera gel could be taken as an oral laxative, which may be effective when taken alone or in conjunction with another herbal plant. One study even suggested that the benefits of aloe may extend to the treatment of genital herpes. It may also be effective against skin conditions such as dandruff, psoriasis and extreme skin dryness. Actually, more and more people are turning to aloe vera creams and lotions due to its time-tested reputation as a moisturizer.
Besides being a proven moisturizer and healer against skin diseases and constipation, some studies believe in the potential benefits of aloe vera in treating cancer and diabetes. For instance, certain scientific studies found out that aloe vera may be useful in retarding lung cancer risks. Studies on its effect on diabetes are still vague but a few have resulted positively, pointing out its potential benefits in dealing this type of chronic disease. In addition, other research showed the herb’s potential help in ulcerative colitis and other similar diseases.
While you may want to enjoy the beneficial effects of aloe vera to the fullest, it is important to understand that herbal remedies and dietary supplements containing an herbal remedy like aloe vera may not be safe for everyone. As mentioned before, some may develop allergic reactions, terrible side effects or worsening of the condition. As such, it is recommended to ask your doctor before starting to take aloe vera. Take note that aloe vera can cause drug interactions too when taken internally.
Uses Of The Aloe Vera Herb
It’s just as well that the uses of aloe vera have become widespread knowledge: this should help minimize ignorance as to how one should use it properly and safely. Availability is no object either, thanks to the different aloe products created to serve consumers opting for natural, organic health products.
We already noted the herb’s efficacy against skin issues such as acne, skin dryness, and psoriasis. To expand on that, when used topically, aloe vera can also treat various diseases and infections including blisters, insect bites, sores, rashes, allergic reactions, and dry skin. It is also potent against different forms of fungal and bacterial infections such as Athlete’s foot, conjunctivitis, urticaria, vaginal infection and herpes. Other topical uses include treatment for frostbite, sunburn, warts, eczema, wrinkles from pre-mature aging and prevention of scarring.
While using the raw plant for topical use is better, many people use commercial preparations of aloe vera herb for oral uses, since this plant tastes awful. When taken thus, aloe vera effectively treats arthritis, pain, rheumatism, arthritis and asthma. Other conditions that can be treated with oral aloe vera include congestion, indigestion, peptic ulcer, colitis, liver problems, intestinal worms and hemorrhoids. As with everything else, it pays to consult your doctor and do a test run with a small amount first, of course.
Something that has to be noted here is the increasing interest in using aloe vera to fight AIDS. Studies revealed that the HIV virus drops and becomes virtually untraceable in some patients using it regularly, probably due to the herb’s immune system-stimulating properties. It also appears to assist in preventing pathogenic infections in HIV/AIDS cases. Cancer patients too may benefit from using aloe vera by getting enhanced white blood cells and encouraging the growth of healthy non-cancer cells. The National Cancer Institute even recommends aloe vera for more testing due to its apparent anti-cancer activity.
Today, aloe vera can be seen in different preparations that include aloe sprays, ointments, supplements, creams and lotions, jellies and health drinks, just to name a few. However, the industry of aloe in the United States is still practically unregulated, making it difficult for consumers to look for genuine aloe products that contain real aloe components. When searching for authentic aloe products, keep in mind that there are standard aloe contents for each product. For instance, sunburn treatment products, creams and ointments must contain more than 20% aloe while juices should have at least 95% aloe content.
In terms of aloe vera dosage, start taking a minimum dosage and work your way up until you reach the ideal therapeutic dose. Aloe juices are perhaps the best preparation, with pills as the least recommended preparation. Since aloe vera gel is mostly composed of water, the drying process for pill manufacturing may cause reduction of the herb’s active components. In addition, aloe is a slow-acting herb, which may require two months of continuous aloe treatment until you notice real effects, so be patient with your regimen.
Due to its increasing popularity as herbal medicine, numerous studies have been conducted to discover other uses of aloe vera. Remember that the use of herbal plants, including aloe vera, can still cause side effects so make sure to consult your health care provider before taking any herbal products.