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Unveiling Aloe: From Ancient Remedies to Modern Miracles

Posted by Karta Purkh Singh Khalsa on May 07, 2024

Aloe Vera

Say hello to aloe, the beloved medicinal plant that has captured hearts worldwide. Often hailed for its soothing properties against burns, this remarkable herb transcends its reputation, emerging as a potent panacea in global herbal medicine practices. From the shores of India to the fields of America, aloe stands as a testament to nature's profound healing capabilities.

From Ancient Egypt to Today

The therapeutic benefits of the plant have been known to many great civilizations, from Persia and Egypt to India and from Greece to Italy, and the African continent. It’s widely known in Asia and the Pacific, and is found in the folklore of diverse cultures. One of its earliest proponents was Dioscorides, the famous Greek physician.

Though it looks like a cactus, aloe is a member of the lily family, along with its cousins onion and garlic. There are over 240 species of aloe, but only 3 or 4 of them have known medicinal properties. The most well known, Aloe vera, is one to two feet tall, with succulent leaves that are broad at the base and pointed at the tips, with spiny edges.

Historical indications are that the aloe plant originated in the warm, dry climates of Africa. The hot weather plant is readily adaptable, though, and people have been eager to carry it with them as they migrated. The Spanish transported it with them to their colonies in South America and the Caribbean. 

This fleshy succulent remedy has by now expanded to many warm regions. In the U.S., it is commercially cultivated in the Rio Grande Valley of Texas, in California and Florida, and in special greenhouses in Oklahoma. 

Aloe leaf is the source of three distinct forms of medicine, each made from different leaf parts, each with its own purpose. The inner gel, the sap and the leaf skin- each has its own uses.

Famous for Women

The turgid leaves contain the clear healing gel. You might already think of this aloe gel as a remedy for sunburn, but Ayurveda takes a different tack, focusing on its internal benefits. This inner leaf gel, which contains 96% water, is consumed as a liquid.

Called “kumari” (“virgin”), this herb is said to restore the energy of youth and to renew the female nature. It is a main tonic for the female reproductive system, and it also nourishes the liver, spleen and blood. As such, it is one of the major remedies to promote female reproductive health in indigenous Asian health care. Women use it to regulate menstruation rhythm and encourage a period, and to help PMS symptoms and cramps.

Kumari Asava Tonic is a classic liquid aloe preparation for fertility that combines aloe with honey and several digestive herbs, including ginger, coriander and clove. Of course, you need to investigate the medical cause of any infertility. Aloe’s effect is very nonspecific, but I have seen it work wonders in cases where everything seemed fine, but pregnancy just wasn’t happening.  Most women do well with a dose of about 4 ounces of gel per day to supplement reproductive health.

Aloe can be used by anyone, as it balances all three Ayurvedic doshas. Since it is sweet, bitter and cooling, it especially reduces heat and inflammation, and combines well with shatavari, another cooling female building herb.

The inner leaf gel is anti-inflammatory, heals wounds and lowers cholesterol. A cooling medicine, its soothing nature coats the digestive tract, so it is used to treat ulcers and gastritis. 

An Immune Key

British herbalist and Bastyr University faculty member Rowan Hamilton commends the clear, mucilaginous gel collected from the fleshy part of the leaf, taken internally, for its antioxidant, immune stimulant, anti-cancer and anti-viral effects. 

Aloe contains an abundance of unusual active sugar constituents. Acetylated polymannose (aka “Acemannan”), a long chain sugar obtained from the gel, supports the immune functions. The juice of the roasted leaf can be taken with honey for cold and flu.

Ayurveda particularly values this gel as a general detoxifier. Aloe helps clear the toxins out of the digestive system, facilitating digestion. The cooling nature of the gel reduces acidity. Kumari purifies the body and aids liver function, so it is helpful for the skin, even when taken internally. 

Consume 1-2 teaspoons of   fresh gel daily for young and healthy skin. Many people tolerate several ounces per day of gel for acute needs. Along those lines, consider also the Kumari Asava preparation for anemia, liver inflammation, asthma and constipation.

Digestive Miracle

Cooling Aloe vera gel inhibits gastric acid secretion and soothes the stomach lining. Drink up to 4 ounces per day for ongoing heartburn.

Aloe balances blood sugar and fats, so consider it for preventing and treating diabetes.  A 2007 mouse study determined that a polyphenol-rich extract from aloe gel controlled insulin resistance. The wound healing powers also benefit the diabetic wound healing. 

A proper bowel movement depends mainly on peristalsis, the wave-like motion that propels feces out of the large intestine. When the bowel is functioning properly, muscles squeeze briefly every few seconds and then relax, propelling stool towards the rectum. So called “stimulant” laxatives promote this wave, and aloe is among the best. The fresh skin contains yellow latex, sometimes called aloin, containing anthraquinone constituents, which are dramatically laxative. The skin, after the gel has been scraped out, is also often dried and powdered. Even a 500 mg dose can be quite stool loosening. 

This should be used only short term for brief episodes of acute constipation. This laxative is rapid acting, and quite effective, but can cause cramps if used in excessively high doses. Uses it sparingly, with warming carminatives, to avoid creating a vicious cycle of disrupted intestinal function and more constipation

Hamilton says, “If the leaf is slit, this yellow latex exudes and dries to form a crusty material, which is traditionally called bitter aloe, or bitter aloes, and this concentrated material is profoundly purgative and extremely bitter.” Bitter aloe is typically dried to a brown resinous powder before use. (“Bitter Aloe” is also the common name for a specific species of aloe, also called Tap Aloe or Cape aloe. The scientific name is Aloe ferox.) 

A Healthy Mouth 

Mitchell Marder, DDS, a dentist with concerns for whole body health, practicing in Seattle, Washington, has aloe on his list of herbal toothpaste ingredients, along with calendula, myrrh, plantain, echinacea, gotu kola and green tea. Aloe gel also makes a great soothing mouth rise, for daily use, or to help canker sores.

Pace University researchers found that adding aloe and grapefruit seed extract to toothpaste and mouth rinses destroys harmful viruses. In one study, aloe and grapefruit seed extract were added to several toothpastes. After evaluating these mixtures against various bacteria, it was established that the mixtures killed every virus they were tested against. A 2008 study found that Aloe vera as a dentifrice produced a significant reduction in plaque and gingivitis.

Aloe and the Skin

Of course, we know that aloe leaf is a popular remedy for skin healing, and the outstanding plant gel is applied directly to the damaged skin. Hamilton says, “Aloe has been found to be effective in treating cosmetic dermabrasion, frostbite, psoriasis and eczema.”

The juicy aloe plant is justifiably famous as a treatment for burns and minor wounds, but there is little evidence it is effective for those purposes.

However, two studies suggest that aloe has potential value in the treatment of herpes infections.A 2-week double-blind placebo-controlled trial studied 60 men with active herpes. Patients used aloe cream (0.5% aloe) or a placebo 3 times daily for 5 days. The aloe cream decreased the healing time for lesions (4.9 days vs. 12 days), and upped the percentage of subjects who were fully healed by the end of 2 weeks (66.7% vs. 6.7%).

Aloe also influences inflammation, fibrous tissue formation and wound contraction. Hamilton mentions that it has been successfully used in tandem with hydrocortisone, helping reduce inflammation while suppressing hydrocortisone’s inhibitory effect on wound healing. Aloe also seems to inhibit free radicals, reducing damage at the site of inflammation. It appears that the aloe compounds emodin, aloe-emodin, and aloin produce anti-inflammatory compounds when metabolized. 

With all the great uses for aloe, why limit it to burn ointment? Maybe an aloe cocktail is just what you’ve been waiting for.

Learn more and sign up for an Herbalism course today.

Topics: Herbalism

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