In the aloe vera plant family there are around 200 different varieties of which only 4 or 5 have medicinal properties. Of these, Aloe vera barbadensis Miller is the most medicinally active and the most important. It is also the variety which most of us know as simply Aloe vera and to which some people refer to as the “miracle plant”.
The Aloe plant looks a little like a cactus and although classed as a succulent with thick, spiky, fleshy leaves, it is in fact a member of the lily family and related to garlic. The medicinal properties of the plant have been known for some time with evidence of its use dating back as far as the Egyptians some 2000 years BC. Additional information suggests that it was also used by the ancient Chinese, Indians, and Greeks as well as the Romans.
Originating in Africa, the aloe plant thrives in warm dry climates and is now grown commercially in Mexico, the USA and in the Caribbean. The medicinal benefits are at their best when the plant is over 4 years old. When mature, the inner substance of the leaves, a combination of gel and sap, can be harvested, stabilised and packaged to produce a product that retains all the properties and benefits of the natural plant.
The properties of aloe vera have been well researched revealing over 75 different substances broadly divided into the following:
Aloe contains the anti-oxidant vitamins A, C and E as well as being one of the few plant sources of vitamin B12.
Minerals include calcium, iron, sodium, potassium, copper, chromium, magnesium, manganese and zinc.
This group includes long chain mucinous polysaccharides sugars; these include gluco-mannans and in particular one sugar called acemannan. Polysaccharide molecules can link together forming a layer over the top of mucus membranes, both protecting them and reducing inflammation.
- Amino acids
These are the building blocks which make up proteins. Aloe can provide twenty of the twenty two the body requires and in addition contains seven of the eight essential amino acids that the body cannot make itself and which have to be provided by the diet or otherwise.
This is an inert woody substance which, in conjunction with cellulose, is thought to assist penetration of aloe vera through the skin and into the deeper tissues.
These are soap like substances that naturally clean the skin with the extra benefit of having antibacterial, antifungal and antiviral properties.
Principally, these include lipases and proteases, which can break down food and assist the digestion and absorption of food. Other enzymes in aloe are also believed to act as anti-inflammatory agents.
- Plant sterols
Aloe contains 3 types of plant sterol which have anti-inflammatory properties.
- Salicylic acid
Similar to aspirin, this compound also has anti-inflammatory, pain killing and antibacterial properties. Applied externally as an exfoliator, it helps break down dead tissue.
Aloe contains small amounts of these substances the most important being aloin and emodin. Both can act as natural pain killers and have additional antibacterial, antifungal and antiviral properties. They also have useful laxative properties and can help maintain gut motility.
The health benefits of Aloe vera
Based on the wide range of constituents, it is not surprising that aloe vera has a wide range of both internal and external health benefits.
- Immune system support
Aloe optimises the immune system helping it to function more effectively and efficiently by increasing the activity of the white blood cells in fighting infection. It can be used routinely in any situation where the immune system has been weakened, for example, after the use of steroids or after prolonged illness. It can also be used to provide support in ongoing conditions such as FIV, FeLV in cats and to support animals undergoing chemotherapy.
- Anti-inflammatory effects
One of the main benefits of aloe is its ability to reduce inflammation and the symptoms which accompany it, namely swelling, pain, redness and heat. As such, aloe has a wide variety of applications including helping treat dermatitis and eczema (reducing irritation and itching), combating bacterial skin infections, helping with arthritis and easing auto-immune conditions such as inflammatory bowel disease (IBD). It can also be of benefit in helping with gingivitis and stomatitis, particularly in cats.
Detoxification of the tissues generally provides some benefit in making both animals and people feel better and improving general health.
- Support for the digestive system
Aloe vera is particularly good for the digestive system. Apart from helping with IBD, its protective mucilaginous healing properties mean that it has a place in helping with stomach ulcers and chronic diarrhoea. It is known to help with absorption of nutrients from the gut and to promote peristalsis, the natural rhythmical motion of the bowel which propels food along. As such it is recommended in the treatment of constipation. Aloe also promotes the growth of gut friendly probiotic bacteria, which are vital for good health and for efficient digestion of food.
- As a source of essential nutrients
Containing a wide range of vitamins, minerals and amino acids, aloe provides good background support in conjunction with feeding good diet.
- Antioxidant actions
Aloe can protect the cells of the body against damage from free radicals, which disrupt the body’s ability to repair and detoxify itself.
- Anti-inflammatory effects
Aloe can be used on the skin directly to soothe burns, stings and to ease itchy patches of eczema or dermatitis.
- Cleansing actions
Wounds, bites, scrapes, abrasions and scratches to the skin can be cleaned with aloe vera.
- Wound healing
One of the main benefits of aloe is its ability to stimulate healing. It can be used to encourage healing of any wound, particularly those which are slow to heal.
- Skin care
Aloe both moisturises the skin in conjunction with cleansing, helps remove dead cells and other skin debris whilst helping kill off bacteria and fungi, which might invade the skin tissue.
Other useful Denes fact sheets to read include: