Aloe vera, sometimes described as a "wonder plant," is a short-stemmed shrub. Aloe is a genus that contains more than 500 species of flowering succulent plants. Many Aloes occur naturally in North Africa.
The leaves of Aloe vera are succulent, erect, and form a dense rosette. Many uses are made from the gel obtained from the plant's leaves.
Aloe vera has been the subject of much scientific study over the last few years, regarding several claimed therapeutic properties. In this article, we will look at some of these claims and investigate the research behind them.
What is Aloe vera?
Aloe vera is more popular than ever according to Kew Gardens, England.
According to Kew Gardens, England's royal botanical center of excellence, Aloe vera has been used for centuries and is currently more popular than ever. It is cultivated worldwide, primarily as a crop for "Aloe gel," which comes from the leaf.
Aloe vera is widely used today in:
- Food - it is approved by the FDA (United States Food and Drug Administration) as a natural flavoring
- Food supplements
- Herbal remedies
The earliest record of a human use for Aloe vera comes from the Ebers Papyrus (an Egyptian medical record) from the16th century BC. According to a study published in the Indian Journal of Dermatology, in ancient Egypt, they called Aloe vera "that plant of immortality." The authors added that the plant has been used therapeutically for many centuries in China, Japan, India, Greece, Egypt, Mexico, and Japan.
Health benefits of Aloe vera
The medicinal claims made about Aloe vera, as with many herbs and plants, are endless. Some are backed by rigorous scientific studies while others are not. This article focuses mainly on those that are backed by science.
Teeth and gums
Aloe vera might be useful in fighting cavities.
A study published in General Dentistry reported that Aloe vera in tooth gels is as effective as toothpaste in fighting cavities.
The researchers compared the germ-fighting ability of an Aloe vera tooth gel with two popular toothpastes. They found that the gel was just as effective, and in some cases even better than the commercial toothpastes at controlling cavity-causing oral bacteria.
The authors explain that Aloe latex contains anthraquinones, compounds that actively heal and reduce pain through natural anti-inflammatory effects.
The scientists warned that not all gels they analyzed contained the proper form of Aloe vera - they must contain the stabilized gel that exists in the center of the plant to be effective.
Germany's regulatory agency for herbs - Commission E - approved the use of Aloe vera for the treatment of constipation. Dosages of 50-200 milligrams of Aloe latex are commonly taken in liquid or capsule form once daily for up to 10 days.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) ruled in 2002 that there is not enough data on the safety and efficacy of Aloe products; so, in the U.S., they cannot be sold to treat constipation.
Diabetes-induced foot ulcers
A study carried out at the Sinhgad College of Pharmacy, India, and published in the International Wound Journal looked at Aloe's ability to treat ulcers.
They reported that a "gel formed with carbopol 974p (1 percent) and Aloe vera promotes significant wound healing and closure in diabetic rats compared with the commercial product and provides a promising product to be used in diabetes-induced foot ulcers."
Antioxidant and possible antimicrobial properties
Researchers at the University of Las Palmas de Gran Canaria, Spain, published a study in the journal Molecules.
The team set out to determine whether the methanol extract of leaf skins and flowers of Aloe vera might have beneficial effects on human health. The scientists focused on the extract's possible antioxidant and antimycoplasmic activities.
Mycoplasma is a type of bacteria that lack a cell wall; they are unaffected by many common antibiotics. Antimycoplasmic substances destroy these bacteria.
They reported that both Aloe vera flower and leaf extracts had antioxidant properties, especially the leaf skin extract. The leaf skin extract also exhibited antimycoplasmic properties.
The authors concluded that "A. Vera extracts from leaf skin and flowers can be considered as good natural antioxidant sources."
Protection from ultraviolet (UV) irradiation
Scientists at Kyung Hee University Global Campus, South Korea, wanted to determine whether baby Aloe shoot extract and adult Aloe shoot extract might have a protective effect on UVB-induced skin photoaging, i.e. whether they could protect the skin from the aging effects of sunlight.
Baby Aloe shoot extract (BAE) comes from 1-month old shoots while adult Aloe shoot extract (AE) comes from 4-month old shoots.
In an article published in Phytotherapy Research, the authors concluded: "Our results suggest that BAE may potentially protect the skin from UVB-induced damage more than AE."
Protection from skin damage after radiation therapy
Aloe might help protect against skin damage following radiation therapy.
A study carried out at the University of Naples, Italy, tested five different topical creams to see how effective they might be in protecting the skin of breast cancer patients receiving radiation therapy. One of these creams contained Aloe.
They divided 100 patients into five groups of 20; each was prescribed a different topical treatment. They applied the creams twice daily, starting 15 days before radiation therapy treatment, and carried on for 1 month afterward.
During the 6-week period, the participants underwent weekly skin assessments.
In the journal Radiation Oncology, the scientists reported that the preventive use of the topical hydrating creams reduced the incidence of skin side effects in the women treated with radiation therapy for breast cancer, none performed significantly better.
"All moisturizing creams used in this study were equally valid in the treatment of skin damage induced by radiotherapy."
Depression, learning, and memory - an animal experiment
A study published in Nutritional Neuroscience found that Aloe vera reduced depression and improved memory in mice.
After carrying out experiments on laboratory mice, they concluded: "Aloe vera enhances learning and memory, and also alleviates depression in mice."
Further studies are needed to establish whether humans might also receive the same benefits.
Wounds from second-degree burns
A team of plastic surgeons compared Aloe vera gel to 1 percent silver sulphadiazine cream for the treatment of second-degree burn wounds.
They reported in the Journal of Pakistan Medical Association that the burn wounds among the patients treated with Aloe vera healed remarkably earlier compared with those treated with 1 percent silver sulfadiazine (SSD).
The researchers added that those in the Aloe vera group experienced significantly more and earlier pain relief than those in the SSD group.
The authors wrote: "Thermal burns patients dressed with Aloe vera gel showed advantage compared to those dressed with SSD regarding early wound epithelialization, earlier pain relief, and cost-effectiveness."
Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS)
Many of Aloe vera's claims need proper scientific investigation.
A randomized, double-blind human trial carried out at St. George's Hospital Medical School, London, United Kingdom. Their results were published in the International Journal of Clinical Practice. Participants with IBS were given either Aloe vera or a placebo. After 3 months, there were no significant differences in symptoms of diarrhea.
However, the researchers wrote:
"There was no evidence that AV [Aloe vera] benefits patients with IBS. However, we could not rule out the possibility that improvement occurred in patients with diarrhea or alternating IBS whilst taking AV. Further investigations are warranted in patients with diarrhea predominant IBS, in a less complex group of patients."
Many claims about Aloe vera lack scientific studies
Most global health authorities say that many of the dozens of therapeutic benefits associated with Aloe vera require further scientific evidence. This does not mean the claims are necessarily inaccurate.
According to the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM) in the U.S., part of the National Institutes of Health, Aloe latex contains strong laxative compounds.
Products containing aloin, aloe-emodin, and barbaloin (components of Aloe) were once regulated by the FDA as oral OTC laxatives. In 2002, the FDA required that all OTC Aloe laxatives be removed from the market or reformulated because of a lack of safety data.
However, the use of topical Aloe vera is likely to be safe. If you choose to use it, do an allergy test (apply a small circle on the skin and wait 24 hours) before using it more widely on your body.
Some studies have shown that topical Aloe gel may help in abrasions and burns. However, the NCCAM wrote: "There is not enough scientific evidence to support Aloe vera for any of its other uses."