Plants Migrate, Too: On The Trail of Aloe Vera

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Some of the earliest uses of aloe vera involved the use of its sap as a powerful purgative during the 18th and 19th centuries

The use of aloe vera gel, which is found inside the leaves, was popular as a skin salve for burned and damaged skin and later as a treatment for eczema

 Fresh aloe vera gel is rich in enzymes and has antibacterial, anti-fungal, and anti-viral properties  It’s also a powerful anti-inflammatory, making it useful for soothing a number of digestive complaints

Aloe vera is one of the world’s most-used natural plants, with a market worth an estimated $13 billion a year.1 It’s also one of the oldest. Historical documents make mention of aloe vera as medicine circa 65 AD, when it was used to treat soldiers’ wounds and bleeding. Yet by this time in history aloe was already widely cultivated, which suggests its origins date back much further. Working together, researchers from London’s Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew, the Natural History Museum of Denmark in Copenhagen, and botanists in Africa and Europe have actually analyzed the DNA of close to 200 aloe species to build a “map” of how they’re related and where they originated. Aloe is said to be native to Africa, but the new research suggests it actually launched from the Arabian Peninsula and migrated along with traders in the region. Olwen Grace of London’s Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew told New Scientist:2

“People in the region had probably been using and cultivating it for generations, and traders would have carried it as a sort of living medicine chest,” she says. It helped that the plant is easy to transport. Cut leaves stay fresh and useful for a long time, and plantlets produced by suckering survive a long time without soil or water – even seemingly dead ones will grow if you plant them. ‘This is the most likely way it spread to Egypt, Ancient Greece, and Rome, then to India and later to the Americas.’”

Today, aloe vera is the only aloe species that isn’t at risk of extinction, simply because it’s so widely cultivated. As for why aloe vera became so popular while other species have dwindled, Nina Rønsted, a specialist in the evolution of medicinal plants at the Natural History Museum of Denmark in Copenhagen, suggested to New Scientist:3

“Maybe it had larger leaves, grew closer to town, stayed fresher during transportation, or was easier to cultivate… But once people discovered it had healing properties they stuck with it.”


Aloe’s Been Prized for Its Medicinal Properties Since Ancient Times

Some of the earliest uses of aloe vera involved the use of its sap, which is different from the gel. The sap, found just beneath the leaf’s epidermis, was used as a powerful purgative during the 18th and 19th centuries. This effect might be due to the anthraquinones it contains, which also happen to give rhubarb and senna pods a laxative effect. The use of aloe vera gel, which is found inside the leaves, surged soon after, first as a skin salve for burned and damaged skin and later as a treatment for cancer and eczema. According to New Scientist:4

“Long before this, however, the Chinese applied Aloe vera gel to clear dermatitis. In India, people have dabbed it on sore eyes and inflamed joints for centuries. The Javanese slathered chopped gel on burns and drank it mixed with rosewater as a treatment for TB [tuberculosis] and gonorrhea. Malaysians and Mexicans pressed slabs of gel to both aching foreheads and tumors. Jamaicans boiled the leaves with salt to cure constipation and applied cut leaves to treat damaged nerves and tendons. Coughs, colds, bruises, bronchitis, and even baldness – there were few complaints that someone somewhere didn’t treat with Aloe vera.”


Impressive Health Benefits of Aloe Vera

Fresh aloe vera gel is rich in enzymes and has antibacterial, anti-fungal, and anti-viral properties. It’s also a powerful anti-inflammatory, making it useful for soothing a number of digestive complaints. Aloe vera juice can be helpful for acid reflux, for example, but ideally should be made from homegrown aloe with leaves that are 18 inches long before harvesting. Species that produce thick leaves (1/2 to 1 inch thick, ideally, but at least 1/4 inch) are best. Aloe also contains high amounts of an immune-stimulating polysaccharide, especially mannose, which has been shown to induce white blood cells to secrete interferon, tumor necrosis factor, and beneficial cytokines. One recent review published in a Polish medical journal noted:5

“Fresh leaves of aloe contain various groups of chemical compounds such as: glycoproteins, polysaccharides, anthraquinone derivatives, vitamins, minerals, amino acids, and many others, which show multidirectional therapeutic action. These active components are responsible for immunomodulatory, anti-inflammatory, and antimicrobial effects of aloe. Recent data confirmed that aloe possess a unique therapeutic profile and has positive potential for medical application.”

The benefits come from the inner gel of the plant, not the outer leaf. The inner gel can be combined with a lime or lemon and blended with a hand blender to make it more palatable when drinking. When taken internally, you’ll get the benefits of aloe vera’s 20 minerals, 12 vitamins, 18 amino acids, and 200 active plant compounds, including not only polysaccharides but also enzymes, triterpenes, and more.6 In addition, aloe vera has been found to be helpful for:7

Easing inflammation and soothing arthritic pain Ulcers, including those caused by H. pylori bacteria8 Crohn’s disease, colitis, irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), and other digestive disorders
Helping treat and prevent candida and parasite infections Accelerating healing from wounds, burns, and ulcers (externally and internally) Relieving constipation
Stabilizing blood sugar Protecting kidneys Oxygenating the blood and protecting the body from oxidative stress
Helping repair “sludge blood” and reversing “sticky blood” Reducing high blood pressure Providing electrolytes
Improving physical performance and recovery Improving skin Helping reduce and reverse acid reflux
Helping heal gum disease Reducing heart attacks and strokes Helping halt growth of cancer tumors9

Aloe for Digestive Health

Aloe vera shows promise for soothing a variety of digestive complaints, from ulcers to acid reflux. If you want to give it a try, add 1/2 to one ounce of aloe vera gel into a daily smoothie. It does have a bitter taste, which is why lemon or lime juice works well to mask it. You can also blend the gel with a bit of water and drink it down as a digestive tonic. As noted by Epoch Times:10

“Due to its very high enzymatic content; its antibacterial, anti-fungal, and antiviral properties; and the fact that it is a powerful anti-inflammatory, aloe vera is a boon to anyone suffering from digestive complaints.”


What You Need to Know About Using Aloe Internally: Look for Decolorized (Purified) Aloe

You need to be cautious when consuming aloe vera, as drinking too much in its unpurified form can lead to cramping and diarrhea. The Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) has actually listed aloe vera in its “Avoid” category for food additives, along with deserved toxins like aspartame, artificial colorings and partially hydrogenated vegetable oil.11 This rating was based on an animal study that suggested aloe vera extract may cause intestinal cancers in rats, but this study used non-decolorized aloe. The International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) has also noted that whole leaf aloe vera juice is possibly carcinogenic to humans, due to its high levels of aloins, which are digestive irritants. But purification by decolorization removes this toxic component, rendering the aloe safe to consume.12 Decolorized aloe should not irritate your digestive tract or cause the diarrhea that unpurified aloe may. As noted by Devon Powell, executive director of the International Aloe Science Council (IASC):13

“The powerful laxative effect from ingesting unpurified aloe vera products would make it obvious if that’s what people were consuming. Decolorized (or purified) whole leaf aloe vera juice is devoid of toxic chemicals that have caused so much concerns, yet CSPI seems willing to make uninformed and sensational comments that will only serve to confuse and frighten consumers despite the facts.”

The IASC created a certification program to ensure the purity of aloe vera products. Those that are IASC certified have a maximum limit of 10 parts per million (ppm) of aloins, although most of them actually contain less than 1 ppm. For comparison, the unpurified aloe used in the above-mentioned animal study contained 10,000 to 13,000 parts per million (ppm) aloin – or 2,000 times higher than most purified aloe products.14 So if you intend to use aloe internally, be sure you’re using a certified, purified version.


How to Use Aloe to Soothe a Sunburn

If you accidently spend too much time in the sun and end up with a sunburn, one of the most effective first-aid strategies I know of is to apply raw aloe vera gel topically to the burn. It’s loaded with powerful glyconutrients that accelerate healing. Research has shown applying aloe to sunburn offers both anti-inflammatory and pain-relieving effects, likely due to its antioxidant components.15 To apply to burns, after cutting the leaf from the plant, cut off the prickly edges. Then, using a peeler, peel the skin off one side. You can now rub the jelly side directly on your sunburn. Apply it five times a day until your condition improves. This also works well for other skin irritations, such as minor burns, poison ivy, and insect bites. Aloe is also easy to grow if you live in a southern location, and is an excellent medicinal plant to keep in your home garden (or keep one in a pot on your balcony). You need to be careful of the species, as many have very flat leaves with virtually no gel. As mentioned, the best plants have the thickest leaves. If you don’t have your own plant, you may be able to find fresh whole aloe leaves at your local grocery store. However, they are relatively easy to propagate and you can turn one plant into six or more in under a year. I now have about 300 aloe vera plants on my property, and suggest this as one plant virtually everyone can benefit from growing.

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