Although originating in the hot and arid climes of northern Africa, Aloe Vera is no longer an exotic stranger to most of us. Not only do we see it advertised as a common ingredient in a multitude of household products, from dishwashing liquid to latex gloves and even razors, but many of us have in fact encountered the plant itself. Aloe Vera is a perennial succulent, undemanding and not particularly eye-catching, vaguely resembling a small version of the century plant that is such a common sight in the North American Southwest. However, despite the superficial similarities, Aloe is an entirely different species of plant. In fact, it is a member of the Lily family and distantly related to onions, garlic and asparagus. Its fleshy, succulent leaves contain a clear, gooey gel. The leaf margins bear 'sharp teeth' which act as quite an effective deterrent against many casually browsing animals. Aloe loves hot and dry conditions and appears to wilt only if it receives excessive amounts of water or if exposed to freezing temperatures. If grown in the right conditions, that is -mostly ignored, the plant will do fine. If it is really happy with its care and location it may even send up a central shoot once a year with short tubular yellowish flowers growing around the top to middle part of the spike.
There are about 400 species in the genus Aloe, of which Aloe Vera is considered medicinally the most useful. Mature plants of about 4-5 years of age provide the most potent healing compounds.
Originally Aloe Vera is native to arid regions of north-eastern and southern parts of Africa and Madagascar. Thanks to its tremendous value as a healing plant, it quickly spread to arid regions throughout the world. Today it is widely cultivated in similar environments around the world, including Mexico, USA, Japan and China.
As is often the case with so called 'miracle plants' their exaggerated reputation actually discredits them. Aloe Vera is a truly wonderful plant with no shortage of members for its fan club. It has a very long and well established reputation as a healing plant, particularly for skin conditions, minor cuts and abrasions. The dried latex, which is not the same as the gel, but instead derives from the yellow juice contained in the pericyclic tubules of the inner leaf is a well known laxative.
Despite the fact that Aloe has been in documented use for at least 3500 years, controversial and contradictory information about this plant abounds. The earliest reference to its use can be found in the famous Egyptian Ebers Papyrus, which dates back to 1500 BC and is widely regarded as one of the earliest documents on what was to become the western Materia Medica. However, it is more than likely that it has been commonly used for centuries before it was recorded. In fact, it seems more likely that Aloe was such a commonly used plant, that earlier documents (of which few have survived) never even bothered to mention it. In the hot and dry countries of the Mediterranean and the Middle East Aloe Vera served as a soothing household remedy for sunburns and moisturizing cosmetic lotion.
Some of the confusion one encounters when researching this plant, stems from the fact that it is still frequently mistaken for lignum Aloes or Wood-Aloes, which, however, is an entirely different species of plant altogether. Although abundantly mentioned in the Bible as an incense ingredient and constituent of embalming oils, Wood-Aloes in fact is not even a Mediterranean plant. Also known as Agarwood, it is a tree of the genus Aquilaria and native to Southeast Asia. While the latex of Aloe Vera does dry and transforms into a hard substance, which is sometimes referred to as Aloe resin, it is not a particularly aromatic substance and has never been used in incense blending.
As mentioned above, Aloe Vera's best known and most widely documented use is as an external topical application - usually in the form of a commercially produced gel. However, it must be said that commercial Aloe Vera gels are not quite the same as the fresh gel that one can squeeze from a freshly cut leaf. The reason for this is simple. The natural jelly-like substance is not very stable and deteriorates quickly once the leaf has been damaged. Thus commercial producers have to process it in some way in order to preserve its freshness and extend its shelf-life. But processing rarely enhances a plant's properties. More often it reduces a miraculous healing herb to a mediocre substance that may still give you some benefit if you are lucky. But by the time this processed gel has been even further adulterated to make it suitable as an ingredient for creams and lotions, you can be fairly certain that the remaining benefit, if any, will be minimal.
And this sheds some light on some of the rather puzzling research results: although Aloe Vera has a glowing reputation in folk usage, when tested in laboratories the results have often been fairly disappointing. Why would that be? The answer seems to lie not so much with the plant, but in the processing methods. Laboratory research rarely tests plants for their efficiency when used in traditional ways. Instead, keen to exploit a plant's 'active principle', extracts are concocted that are supposed to concentrate the healing principles - unfortunately the plants' natural synergy is destroyed in the process, as some supposedly inactive principles are discarded. Also, where actual gel has been used instead of extracted components, the quality of gel used is questionable. Conventional methods of stabilizing and preserving Aloe gel involve pasteurizing procedures that heat the gel to a high temperature, which destroys many of the more sensitive constituents, and adding preservatives, which further adulterate the final product. So, while many research results seem to demonstrate that much of Aloe's benefits may be hype, what they actually show is that we lack proper processing methods that can preserve as closely as possible the composition of fresh Aloe Vera gel.
A recent trend has popularized 'Aloe vera juice' (as well as a myriad of spin off products that contain the juice). This product is always processed, and often mixed with all kinds of other flavourings of dubious origin. In a natural form, Aloe juice (gel) is not very palatable - it is bitter and not exactly a pleasure to swallow, which is probably why it is not usually found mentioned as a healthful drink in our folk medicine repertoires, but rather as an emergency measure or 'heroic' medicine to treat parasitic intestinal or stomach infections.
Thus all Aloe Vera juice found in commerce has been processed, not only to make it more palatable but also to extend its shelf life. Aloe Vera gel quickly deteriorates once extracted. In fact the deterioration process starts the minute the leaves are cut. Thus, even handling during the harvest is of utmost importance. Once cut, removing the green, outer skin as quickly and efficiently as possible is the first step, as the breakdown of the gel is triggered by enzymes that are released when the outer, green skin in damaged.
Traditionally the leaves are cut and taken to a processing facility as quickly as possible, and ideally, in a refrigerated truck. Here the leaves are filleted by hand to remove the outer, green skin. However, unfortunately most of the beneficial compounds are concentrated just beneath that outer skin. Thus, filleting removes these compounds and discards them along with the skin.
More efficient processing methods have recently been developed that utilize the whole leaf and just remove the green parts of the leaf in a cold process involving a cellulose dissolving substance. This retains the biochemical activity of the Aloe Vera Leaf in its integrity. The resulting gel is of a yellow color as it still retains the aloin, which is the bitter, laxative compound. Further processing involves adding various innoxiously oxygen scavenging chemicals. Any oxygen present in the gel promotes breakdown and deterioration as well as providing a life support system for aerobic bacteria to develop. Then the pulp is removed from the liquid part, the aloin is filtered out with the addition of a carbon compound which is subsequently removed. To destroy any anaerobic bacteria the liquid is passed through tubes in which it is exposed to ultraviolet light.
This method still requires stabilizing compounds to be added to the final product, but it is a great improvement to conventional extraction processes that processed only the gel and used heat treatments in order to sterilize the liquid.
Another whole leaf extraction method involves the same cold process leaf processing in the first step, but then utilizes short duration low temperature controlled sterilization techniques that kill off bacteria without the addition of chemicals. The resulting gel is then concentrated in a vacuum chamber and subsequently dehydrated into a water soluble compound that retains the biochemical activity indefinitely without the addition of any preservatives. This method is currently regarded as the most efficient method, even though heat is used in the process. The heating process is closely controlled and it never reaches more than 65 deg or is applied over periods longer than 15 minutes at a time. Longer exposure times or higher temperatures would deteriorate the final product.
Thus it is very important to read the label of your aloe product carefully and research the methods of extraction and actual composition of the final product as there are huge differences between manufacturers.
A self-regulating body of Aloe Vera producers has been established which certifies companies products according to their standards of quality control. Their seal of approval gives a certain degree of reassurance that the products do contain what their labels claim. However, even between certified companies there are differences which are largely due to different methods of processing that are used.
resin, gel extracted from the leaf
Hydroxyanthracene derivatives of the anthrone type (principally barbaloin); 7-hydroxyaloin isomers, aloe-emodin, chrysophanol and their glycosides; chromone derivatives (aloesin and its derivatives aloeresins A and C, and the aglycone aloesone. Gel: glucomannan (a polysaccharide), steroids, organic acids, enzymes, antibiotic principles, amino acids, saponins, minerals.
latex: cathartic, laxative, emmanogogue, digestive stimulant
Traditionally Aloe Vera gel is used as a soothing topical application for sunburns and minor burns, abrasions, acne, psoriasis, shingles and even cold sores. The gel can be squeezed directly from the fresh leaf and applied directly to affected areas. Its skin repair qualities on burns, and sub burns is truly remarkable - healing occurs quickly and without scarring. In fact, aloe vera is also used to reduce scarring and stretch marks. Aloe vera shows even seems to protect the skin against the immune suppressant effect of ulta violet rays of the sun - thus it is not only an excellent 'after sun care' ingredient, but may also be useful as a protective sunscreen lotion. It is an excellent additive for cosmetic preparations as it can moisturize and rejuvenate the skin by stimulating synthesis of elastin and collagen.
External application of aloe gel penetrates the skin directly and produces a soothing, pain-relieving and anti-inflammatory effect on arthritic joints and tendonitis.
For internal use Aloe Vera latex preparations are usually mixed with antispasmodic herbs to reduce the cramping effect of its laxative action. Used by itself it would produce a rather cathartic and cramping effect. Aloe vera latex also stimulates the uterus and promotes menstrual flow. Pregnant women should avoid the use of Aloe vera as a laxative.
Internally high quality Aloe vera juice preparations can stimulate the immune system. Laboratory studies on mice have shown Aloe to be effective in the treatment of certain types of cancer and HIV, and further studies are on the way.
Aloe juice seems to have an overall healing and balancing effect on the digestive system, improving absorption of nutrients and eliminating toxins. This improves overall cell nutrition and activates the body's own healing powers. It can relieve gastro-intestinal problems associated with peptic or duodenal ulcers, improve regularity and enhance energy levels. It is also used to soothe colitis and irritable bowel syndrome. In fact many chronic conditions have a prominent digestive imbalance component, which triggers secondary symptoms due to malabsorption and subsequent cellular malnutrition. Aloe vera juice can help to restore balance to the digestive system.
Furthermore, aloe vera juice seems to have a beneficial effect on the liver and kidney. It appears to reduce levels of blood lipids that can clog up the arteries and lead to coronary heart disease. Aloe vera also seems to be able to reduces blood sugar levels, which can make it a useful nutritional supplement for diabetes sufferers.
Do not use Aloe Vera based laxative during pregnancy. Aloe Vera juice may also be adulterated or contain levels of aloin above what would be deemed safe during pregnancy.
If you are on prescription medication consult with your health advisor regarding possible interference reactions between internal use of Aloe Vera and other medicines.
The quality of Aloe vera gel or juice very much depends on the production process and some aloe vera products currently on the market have little or no medicinal value. Research your source carefully before spending a lot of money on what may essentially turn out to be an inert substance. Whole leaf extractions are recommended. Look for the International Aloe Science Council certificate for assurance on content and purity.
Everybody should have an Aloe Vera plant growing on their kitchen window sill. It is the best instant burn remedy you can have at hand. Growing Aloe Vera is easy, as it is a very undemanding plant. Just don't over-water it and protect it against freezing temperatures. It loves the sun, but will grow in semi-shade as well. It does not need particularly rich soil. Well draining, sandy soil will do.
When making your own skin care preparations and you want to incorporate the healing benefits of Aloe vera, you can use the gel to replace all or a portion of the amount of liquid your recipe calls for. However, be aware that unprocessed Aloe vera gel is not very stable and won't keep long, so make small batches only, store it in the fridge and use up quickly. For maximum benefit of Aloe Vera as an ingredient of skin care preparations such products should contain at least 20-40% of gel. Or simply cut off a leaf and rub it straight on the skin.
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