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The healing properties of Aloe Vera
The healing properties of the succulent plant aloe vera have been known for thousands of
years. Belonging to the lily family and related to the onion, garlic and asparagus, evidence
supporting the early use of aloe was discovered on a Mesopotamian clay tablet dating from
2100 BC. In Cairo in 1862, George Ebers, a German Egyptologist, bought a papyrus which had
been found in a sarcophagus excavated near Thebes a few years earlier. Aloe vera as a herbal
preparation, was mentioned in the papyrus no fewer than 12 times.
Aloe vera was well known not only to the Egyptians, but also the Roman, Greek, Arab and Indian cultures. In fact, many famous physicians of those times, including Dioscorides, Pliny the EIder and Galen - considered to be the father of modem medicine - included aloe vera in their therapeutic armouries.
Myths and legends surrounding the use of aloe vera in ancient times suggest that it was an important part of the beauty regime of the Egyptian queens, Nefertiti and Cleopatra. Legend has it that, in 333 BC, Alexander the Great was persuaded by his mentor Aristotle to capture the island of Socotra in the Indian Ocean, famed for its supply of aloe which he needed to heal his wounded soldiers.
Some recent studies appear to show topical and orally administered aloe vera preparations in
patients with chronic venous leg ulcers may aid healing.
The research was undertaken in three parts:
• A literature review of the composition and actions of aloe vera
• A pilot study using aloe vera for the treatment of chronic venous leg ulcers.
The physical and chemical properties of Aloe Vera
The aloe plant, being a cactus plant, is between 99 and 99.5 per cent water, with an average pH
of 4.5. The remaining solid material contains over 75 different ingredients including vitamins,
minerals, enzymes, sugars, anthraquinones or phenolic compounds, lignin, saponins, sterols,
amino acids and salicylic acid. These are described in more detail below.
The plant contains many vitamins, excluding vitamin D but including the important antioxidant
vitamins A, C and F. Vitamins B (thiamine), niacin, vitamin B2 (riboflavin), choline and folic acid
are also present. Some authorities suggest that there is also a trace of vitamin B12 (Coats1979).
When taken orally, several of these biochemical catalysts, such as amylase and lipase, can aid
digestion by breaking down fats and sugars. One important enzyme, a carboxy-peptidase,
inactivates bradykinins and produces an anti-inflammatory effect. During the inflamma-tory
process, bradykinin produces pain associated with vasodilation and, therefore, its hydrolysis
reduces these two components and produces an analgesic effect (Obata et al
Sodium, potassium, calcium, magnesium, manganese, copper, zinc, chromium and iron are all
found in the aloe plant. Magnesium lactate inhibits histidine decarboxylase and prevents the
formation of histamine from the amino acid, histadine (Shelton 1991). Histamine is released in
many allergic reactions and causes intense itching and pain. The prevention of its formation may explain the antipuritic effect of aloe vera.
Sugars are derived from the mucilage layer of the plant under the rind, surrounding the inner
parenchyma or gel. They form 25 per cent of the solid fraction and comprise both mono- and
polysaccharides. By far the most important are the long chain polysaccharides, comprising
glucose and mannose, known as the gluco-mannans (Beta - (1, 4) - linked acetylated mannan).
When taken orally, some of these bind to receptor sites that line the gut and form a barrier,
possibly helping to prevent ‘leaky gut syndrome’. Others are ingested whole by a method of
cellular absorption known as pinocytosis. Unlike other sugars which are broken down prior to
absorption, the polysaccharides are absorbed complete and appear in the blood stream
unchanged. Here, they act as immuno-modulators — capable of enhancing and retarding the
immune response (Green 1996, Kahlon etal
1991, Sheets etall9gi).
These phenolic compounds are found in the sap. The bitter aloes consist of free anthraquinones
and their derivatives:
• Barbaloin-lO- (1151
— anhydroglucosyl) — aloe-emodin-9-anthrone)
• Anthrone-C-glycosides and chromones.
In large amounts these compounds exert a powerful purgative effect, but when smaller they
appear to aid absorption from the gut, are potent antimicrobial agents (Lorenzetti et all
971 a), and possess powerful analgesic effects. Topically, they can absorb ultra violet
light, inhibit tyronase activity, reduce the formation of melanin and any tendency to hyper-
pigmentation (McKeown 1987, Strickland eta/i 993). Lignin
This woody substance, inert in itself,
endows topical aloe preparations with their singular penetrative ability to carry other active
ingredients deep into the skin to nourish the dermis (Coats 1979).
These soapy substances form 3 per cent of the gel and are general cleansers, having antiseptic
properties (Hirat and Suga 1983).
Sterols These include Campesterol, f3 Sitosterol and Lupeol (Coats 1979).
This is an aspirin-like compound possessing anti-inflammatory and antibacterial properties.
Topically, it has a kerolytic effect which helps to debride a wound of necrotic tissue.
These are the building blocks of proteins. Aloe vera gel provides 20 of the 22 necessary amino
acids required by the human body and seven of the eight essential amino acids which the body
cannot synthesise. These must be ingested in food.
What makes Aloe Vera work?
It is surprising that the evident healing effects of aloe vera can be produced by such a small
quantity of solid material. Some people believe that there is a synergistic action between all the
component ingredients, giving a result which is greater than the sum of the individual actions.
The combined action of all herbal preparations taken from whole stems, roots, leaves or fruits
containing huge numbers, but very small amounts of phyto-chemicals, stretches the boundaries
of the conventional medicinal paradigm.
In all allopathic (orthodox) medicine, the practice is to isolate, in a chemically pure form, the biologically active substance of the consitutent ingredients. These extracted drugs must be
uniform in their composition in order to demonstrate a consistent physiological effect. Perhaps there is some truth in an ancient Ayurvedic text from India: ‘Extracting drugs from a part of the plant is taking out the intelligence and throwing away the wisdom.’ Whole plant preparations, though less potent, are generally considered to be safer with fewer side effects.
The evidence suggests that the primary sites of action for aloe vera are:
• Epithelial tissues — the epithelium is the layer of cells which covers the surface of the
body or lines a cavity that communicates with the surface. The skin, the largest organ of the body, is also the largest epithelial surface — but other epithelial tissues line the nose, sinuses, lungs, mouth, oesophagus and alimentary tract, as well as the genital tract. This action on surfaces and membranes, rather than sol-id organs, may account for some of the healing properties of aloe vera (Davis et al 1987, Fulton 1990, Heggers 1996).
• The immune system — here, aloe vera exerts an effect on the cytokine system,
resulting in immunomodulation (Green 1996, Marshall et al 1993, Winters 1993). In the US, the polymannose sugar has been extracted by Carrington Laborat-ories and its product, Carrisyn, has been licensed to treat the onchogenic retroviral infection which causes Ieukaemia in cats. It is currently being tn-aIled in human retroviral infection (AIDS) where it has been found to be synergistic with Zidovudine.
Burns and leg ulcers
Aloe vera appears to speed up the healing of damaged epithelial tissue in bums and leg ulcers
• The stimulation of skin fibroblasts (Danhoff and McAnally 1983).
Should it be taken internally or applied topically?
Aloe vera can be taken internally as a drink or applied topically. The principle ingredient of any
product should be the stabilised aloe vera gel which is as near to the inner gel of the natural
plant as possible. It must not, therefore, be treated with excessive heat or filtered during the
manufacturing process, as this destroys or reduces the effect of certain essential compounds,
such as the enzymes and polysaccharides. Regrettably there are many products which contain
virtually no aloe and yet are marketed as though they do. Caution applies particularly to cheap
capsules of dried aloe leaf.
Not only does aloe vera provide nutrition and pro-duce an anti-inflammatory action, it also has a wide range of antimicrobial activity. In-vitro experiments have been carried out on numerous organisms and have regularly shown that, in normal strength, aloe vera is either bactericidal or bacteriostatic against a number of common wound pathogens.
• Coats BC (1979) The Silent Healer, A Modern Study of Aloe Vera. Texas, Garland
• Danhoff IE, McAnally BH (1983) Stabilised Aloe Vera, its effect on human skin cells. Drugs in the Cosmetics Industry.
• Davis RH Kabbani JM, Moro NP (1987) Aloe Vera and wound Healing. Journal of the American Podiatric Medical
• Fulton JE (1990) The Stimulation of postdermal abrasion wound healing with stabilised Aloe Vera gel – polythylene
oxide dressing. Journal of Dermatological and Surgical Oncology, 16, 5, 460-467
• Green P (1996) Aloe Vera extracts in equine clinical practice. Veterinary Times,26, 9.
• Heggers JP (1996) Beneficial Effect of Aloe on wound healing in an excisional wound healing model. Journal of
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• Kahlon JB et al (1991) Inhibition of Aids Virus replication by Ace Mannan in vitro. Molecular Biothermy. 3, 127-135.
• Lorenzetti LJ et al (1964) Bacteriostatic property of Aloe Vera. Journal of the Pharmaceutical Society. 53, 1287-1290.
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• Mckeown E (1987) Anthraquinones and anthracenic derivatives absorb UV light. Cosmetics and toiletries. 102, 64-65
• Obata M et al (1993) Mechanisms of anti-inflammatory and anti thermal burn action of carboxypeptidase from aloe
aborescens miller. Natalensis berger in rats and mice Physiotherapy research, 7, special issues, 530-533
• Sheets MA et al (1991) Studies of the effect of ace Mannan on retrovirus infections, clinical stabilisation of feline
leukemia virus infected cats. Molecular Biothermy. 3, 41-45
• Shelton MS (1991) Aloe Vera, its chemical and therapeutic properties. International journal of dermatology. 30, 679-
• Sims P Ruth M, Zimmerman ER (1971a) Effect of Aloe Vera on Herpes simplex and herpes virus (strain Zoster). Aloe
• Sims P, Ruth M, Zimmerman ER (1971b) The effects of Aloe Vera on Mycotic organism (fungi). Aloe Vera of
• Strickland FM et al (1993) Prevention of Ultraviolet radiation and induced suppression of contact and delyed
hypersensitivity by Aloe Barbadensis gel extract. Journal of investigative dermatology. 9, 6, 197-204
• Winters WD (1993) Immuno-reactive lectins in leaf gel form from aloe Barbadensis Miler. Phytotherapy Research 7,
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