Aloe vera (Aloe barbadensis) is a fascinating plant. Although it resembles a cactus it is actually a member of the lily family, and is a stemless succulent plant growing up to 40 inches tall. The botanical name aloe derives from the Arabic alloeh meaning ‘bitter and shiny substance’ and vera from the Latin word for truth. Despite the nomenclature barbadensis (‘of Barbados’) it is native to North Africa and the Arabian Peninsula and thrives in warm, dry climates. It contains nearly 100 active ingredients including sugars, enzymes, lignins, amino acids, anthraquinones (aloin, aloe-emodin), saponins, fatty acids, salicylic acid, resins, sterols, chromones, protein, calcium, magnesium, zinc, vitamins A, E and C, tannin and germanium.
I like to keep a plant in the kitchen, as it is a handy first aid remedy for fungal infections, ringworm, nappy rash, eczema, psoriasis, insect bites, minor burns, sunburn, cuts and skin abrasions – just take a fresh leaf and open it to extract the clear gel within and apply this directly to the affected area. It reduces pain, speeds healing and encourages cell repair, due in part to the presence of aloectin B which stimulates the immune system. Aloe is reputed to have potent anti-inflammatory and antimicrobial effects. It is useful for almost any skin condition that needs soothing. It is useful for cosmetic purposes too as it sooths and softens the skin, while its astringent properties help tighten it and minimise wrinkles. It helps heal acne and reduce scarring. However, while external use is generally considered safe some people are sensitive, and aloe juice should never be applied to deep cuts and wounds or severe burns.
More and more products are being created advocating the drinking of aloe juice, and this is a cause for concern. Though it does have a place in herbal medicine, aloe juice should not be taken internally as a matter of course or on a regular basis, and indeed, internal use is prohibited in some countries. If you have certain health conditions, it can be dangerous.
I’ve seen people blithely recommending it online for all kinds problems, and on Facebook, I’ve noticed that as soon as someone posts that they have a stomach complaint, there is an avalanche of people recommending aloe juice as a cure, and this really worries me. Aloe can actually cause abdominal cramping, constipation, dehydration, diarrhoea, electrolyte imbalance, excess bleeding, hepatitis, increased risk of colorectal cancer, increased risk of irregular heartbeat, kidney failure, liver toxicity, low potassium in the blood, muscle weakness, stomach discomfort, thyroid dysfunction, urinary stone, uterine contractions, and widespread inflammation of the skin (Source: Mayo Clinic).
The internal use of aloe should definitely be avoided by anyone who has heart disease, abdominal pain, appendicitis, intestinal problems, heart disease, haemorrhoids, kidney problems, diabetes, or electrolyte imbalances, or liver disease. It should be avoided before and after surgery (it increases the risk of bleeding) and during pregnancy or lactation. Aloe lowers blood sugar levels, and should not be taken by diabetics or hypoglycaemia. It certainly shouldn’t be taken if you are suffering from nausea and vomiting – vomiting causes an electrolyte imbalance, which will be compounded by taking aloe vera. It should not be used internally by anyone taking heart medications, steroids, blood thinning medication, thyroid medication, laxatives, liquorice root, or any medications for the stomach or intestines.