‘Allo Vera!’ – Joking aside – aloes are very special plants. These distinctive, robust succulents belong to an abundant botanical family, the Liliaceae. There are about 400 species of plants in the Aloe genus, with some, like the well-known Aloe vera and Aloe ferox, being indigenous to Africa.
Although it may be the striking flowers of the aloe that attract attention along many roads in the Eastern and Western Provinces of South Africa, it’s the fleshy leaves that contain a true hidden treasure – the healing aloe gel.
This plant species, along with its therapeutic and cosmetic virtues, has been utilised by Man for a very long time. Aloe usage is chronicled in ancient archives by famous physicians and historians such as Dioscorides, Pliny the Elder, and Galen, who apparently used aloe in their medicinal preparations. Egyptian queens are also purported to have used aloe for its skin-care properties. Such records show that the health benefits of aloe have been known for more than 5 000 years.
Although the inner gel of the aloe consist of over 95% water, it is the more-than 75 different constituents found in the remaining fraction that provide the distinctive healing properties of this substance.
Regarding the healing aspects of aloe, possibly the ‘Doctrine of Signatures’ concept can be applied, especially relating to cuts or wound healing. To extrapolate: when an aloe leaf is cut, it almost immediately seals the cut by secreting a rubber-like protective coating that prevents sap loss i.e. it heals itself by that which is found within its substance. This characteristic possibly explains why it came to be both used, and highly regarded, in folk medicine, over time.
But aloe isn’t harvested only for its mucilaginous gel or juice – the bitter yellow exudate – known as aloe latex or aloe gum, which has commercial value in the pharmaceutical and cosmetic industries. Nail-biters of a certain vintage will probably remember the vile taste of aloe bitters, often liberally applied to nail stumps by frustrated mums! Aloe barbadensis is a species that is highest in the glyconutrients mannose and galactose, which have demonstrated health benefits for the gastrointestinal and immune systems.
Unless you have a ready supply of aloe growing in your garden, it is important to ensure that you use only properly stabilised aloe products, since unstabilised juice or gel spoils easily. Aloe is most potent in a form that is as close to the original leaf extract as possible.
Medicinal properties ascribed to aloe include:
- immuno-modulatory benefits – probably due to the glyconutrient components
- blood sugar stabilising benefits – important for diabetics and those with low blood sugar (hypoglycaemia) problems; requires long-term usage
- anti-inflammatory benefits – useful for conditions such as arthritis
- cholesterol and triglyceride lowering benefits; requires long-term usage
- gastro-intestinal benefits – helpful for disorders such as Crohn’s disease, ulcerative colitis, irritable bowel syndrome, and constipation
- anti-cancer benefits – it is postulated that the polysaccharide acemannan present in aloe may have some anti-cancer properties, possibly due to an increased production of nitric oxide
- topical skin benefits due to the soothing, regenerative, hydrating and moisturising properties in the gel. Aloe also exhibits anti-microbial effects, making it beneficial for wound healing, as well as being indicated for fungal and viral skin conditions.
- Modern research into aloe is not only confirming the knowledge of bygone days, but also adding to it, as the medicinal potential and value of this ancient plant is verified. Aloe has stood the test of time, which is proof positive that there is significant value in age!
The Aloe Vera industry is governed by the International Aloe Science Council, which was established as an independent regulatory body.