Aloe vera: Nature's best kept secret  Aloe vera

by Dr. Caroline Shreeve

Aloe vera is a plant of many surprises. It looks like a cactus, grows in dry surroundings, but belongs to the lily family. It stays moist and cool where other plants wilt, shutting down its pores to prevent water loss. When cut or damaged, its healing powers come to light, forming a protective covering, to ensure that the plant continues to thrive. It grows naturally in Africa, America, Europe and Asia where there are over 200 varieties of the plant, but it is the Aloe barbadensis (Aloe vera) variety which has the best medicinal properties.

Aloe vera – history and legend

Most importantly, Aloe vera has a long history as a safe, effective medicine and skin care aid. For over 6,000 years, people have benefited from the remarkable relief that the plant can bring to a wide range of ailments. The ancient Egyptians used Aloe to heal battle wounds and cure infections. Writings of the early Greeks show how they valued it for relieving blisters, burns and leg ulcers as well as bowel and stomach disorders.

Legend has it that Aristotle persuaded Alexander the Great to conquer the Isle of Socroto, to secure enough Aloe vera to heal his soldiers’ wounds. Cleopatra relied on it for her unlined, youthful complexion, whilst the Chinese hailed Aloe as an elixir of youth. Aloe is also listed in St. John’s gospel as an anointing ingredient for the body of Christ.

Aloe vera rediscovered

Doctors rediscovered Aloe vera in the 1930s, when it was found to heal radiation burns due to X-rays, where other methods had met with little success. It did the same for atomic fallout victims a decade later, following the Nagasaki and Hiroshima bombings.

The plant’s clear, glassy leaf sap is used today to relieve ailments from insect bites, stings and sunburn to peptic ulcers, diarrhoea and stiff, painful joints.


Aloe vera’s healing actions

Traditional remedies are often founded on firm scientific fact. Studies have confirmed Aloe vera as a rich source of healing ingredients which work synergistically, enhancing one another’s effects. These ingredients include vitamins, minerals, proteins, enzymes and amino acids.

Aloe vera extract acts in three main ways:

    * as an anti-inflammatory agent

    * a wound healer

    * an antioxidant

one or all of which may contribute to relieving a particular ailment.

Aloe vera is anti-inflammatory

Inflammation is our body’s natural way of responding to infection, toxins or injury. It is characterised by redness, swelling and heat caused by an increase of blood to the damaged area. Sometimes, however, inflammation can backfire or get out of hand. Arthritis is a debilitating and painful condition which can be caused by antibodies produced against the body’s own tissues, resulting in sore, inflamed joints and loss of movement.

Steroids (e.g. hydrocortisone) suppress inflammation but can cause weight gain, brittle bones and thin, weak skin. Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (e.g. aspirin and ibuprofen) ease swollen joints and improve mobility but may trigger stomach upsets or peptic ulcers.

Plant steroids in Aloe vera can relieve inflammation, help to regenerate new cells and disperse damaged tissue with no side-effects.

Besides arthritis and rheumatism, these natural plant steroids also work well for sunburn, insect bites and stings, rashes, mouth ulcers, inflamed stomach and bowel disorders.

Three other common conditions which benefit from Aloe vera’s anti-inflammatory action are heartburn, peptic ulcers and piles. Heartburn happens when the foodpipe or gullet gets inflamed by stomach acid. Peptic ulcers erode the lining of the stomach or small bowel (duodenum), causing inflammation and pain. Piles, which are inflamed varicose veins at the exit of the bowel or anus, can also smart, sting and bleed.

Aloe vera as a wound healer

Soapy substances in Aloe vera gel (saponins) cleanse wounds of dirt and debris, treat oil-clogged pores and help kill any microbes present. The woody, pulpy microfibres in Aloe vera’s sap (lignins) soften hard skin and gently penetrate the tissues. Other active ingredients and oxygen can then reach down into the depths of the wound.

The anthraquinones in Aloe vera loosen debris, pus and dead cells, bring blood to the area and flush out matter from wounds and ulcers. They also kill bacteria, some viruses and fungi. A biological growth stimulator present in Aloe vera helps to regenerate new tissue, guard against sepsis and promote the healing in cuts and wounds.

Studies have shown that the growth stimulator attaches itself to tissue cells called fibroblasts. These produce long thin strings of collagen and elastin, adding strength and bringing the edges of the wound together.

Typical ailments to benefit from these actions include mouth and peptic ulcers, and the large ulcer craters often found on the legs of elderly people with diabetes or poor circulation. The antiseptic actions of saponins and anthraquinones also help peptic ulcers (now known to be partly due to bacteria); and acne in which infection with skin bacteria plays an important part.

One of Aloe vera’s most popular uses is in the treatment of minor burns which benefit from new skin regeneration without unsightly scarring. Eczema and psoriasis also benefit from the ability of lignins to penetrate the toughened skin surface.

Aloe vera as an antioxidant

Antioxidants are essential for a healthy metabolism and to protect against free radicals. These form when a molecule loses an electron as a result of the normal metabolism which occurs as food and oxygen are turned into energy. Large numbers of these highly-charged molecular fragments can weaken the immune system which fights infection and resists degenerative changes.

Triggers include growing older, viral infections, high intakes of animal fat and or alcohol, stress, smoking, pollution and other toxins. Effects include ageing, wrinkled skin and an increased risk of arthritis, cancer and infections.

Aloe vera contains naturally occurring antioxidants in the form of vitamins B complex, C and E, plus beta-carotene which is converted by the body into vitamin A. Dietary nutrients in Aloe vera also include potassium, calcium, magnesium, zinc, manganese, chromium and sodium and all are essential for maintaining a healthy metabolism.

Aloe vera – the choice

The extract from the leaves of the Aloe vera plant can be found in many health and beauty products. Aloe vera juice can be produced from either liquid or powdered Aloe, but it is only recommended and advisable to buy juice made from the liquid extract. Also ensure the Aloe content is a minimum of 95% by volume. This is not to be confused with the purity of Aloe vera which is often shown as 100%. A flavoured juice is considered by many to be more palatable but natural juices are more suitable for those with fruit allergies or who suffer from candida. A regular small dose is recommended and the effectiveness can vary, some experiencing benefits immediately, whereas others can take several weeks.

Aloe vera gel is primarily used externally for skin conditions such as acne, sunburn, psoriasis, cuts, bruises and stings. The pure gel is clear, non-sticky, odourless, easily absorbed and can be used as often as required.

Medical Advice

Consult your doctor for disorders that do not improve or which you suspect might be serious. Irritable bowel syndrome (with wind, pain and constipation or diarrhoea), peptic ulcers, diverticulitis (a type of large bowel inflammation) for instance, need to be diagnosed and require conventional treatment. Aloe vera, which is safe and without side effects, can work well with other medicines, bringing additional relief and hastening healing.

Summary of main uses

Aloe vera juice for internal use

Irritable bowel syndrome

Arthritis, diverticulitis and Lupus Erythematosis (LE)

Heartburn – peptic ulcers and hiatus hernia

Mild cases or oral thrush – candida (use natural unflavoured product)

ME (post-viral syndrome)

Sore throat

Mouth ulcers


Aloe vera gel for external use

Burns, scalds, sunburn

Insect bites, plant and insect stings

Ulcers of the lower leg (or other skin area)

Scratches, scrapes and minor abrasions

Skin care (softening and moisturising agent in many cosmetic products)

Itchy rashes, including eczema and psoriasis


Dr Caroline Shreeve MB BS (Lond.) - A Brief Biography

Dr Caroline Shreeve is a qualified doctor working in hospital medicine.

Since qualifying in the seventies, she has pursued several successful parallel careers in general medicine, psychology, complementary therapies and health journalism and is specially interested in herbal treatments, nutrition and dietary supplements.

Dr Shreeve has written regularly for the women’s press, national and regional newspapers, medical journals and trade magazines, appeared on Pebble Mill, the Gloria Hunniford Show, TV-AM and most UK regional radio stations. Her twelve books include titles on depression, the premenstrual syndrome, the menopause, and the ‘Alternative Dictionary of Symptoms and Cures’, which was a runner-up for the 1987 Booker Health prize.