Aloe: An Herb for Summer

by Karyn Siegel-Maier

Most of us enjoy celebrating the summer months with festive gatherings and outdoor endeavors. Unfortunately, we can also fall prey to other, less welcome aspects of summer, such as insect bites, sunburn and poison ivy. If there is a single herb that shouldn't be overlooked in our summer herbal care, it is the aloe vera plant.

 

Aloe vera (Aloe barbadensis) has been recognized as a significant medicinal herb for more than 3,000 years. The Egyptian Papyrus ebers and temple walls bear testament to the use of aloe to treat burns, skin ulcers and parasites. Aloe was in such demand by the 4th century B.C., that Aristotle urged Alexander the Great to conquer the east African island of Socotra, the sole location of aloe cultivation at that time. By 1673, England began importing a steady supply of aloe from Barbados, which led to the plant's species name of barbadensis.

 

Today, aloe stands ready in many home kitchens in case one should receive a burn while cooking. Does the gel really soothe burns? Yes. There is evidence that the gel produced by the outer leaf may deter the presence of bradykinin, a pain producing agent. The gel also contains antibacterial and antifungal properties, and inhibits the production of thromboxane, an agent that restrains the healing of burns.

 

Aloe is a common ingredient in many commercial preparations for treating burns, including those caused by exposure to sun and radiation. The crystalline called aloin is a natural sunscreen that blocks up to 30% of the sun's ultraviolet rays. Aloe is also effective when applied to eczema, ringworm, and rashes induced by contact with poison ivy and poison oak.

 

One study on aloe vera involved patients suffering from frostbite who were treated with a solution containing 70% aloe. Of the 56 patients in the group receiving aloe treatment, only 7% developed infections. Of the 98 patients who were not treated with the aloe solution, 33 developed serious complications which eventually required amputation.

 

Another study provided evidence that aloe vera gel stimulates the regeneration and growth of normal human cells in artificial culture. The gel also demonstrated an ability to promote healing of damaged monolayers of such cells. Other experiments have proved successful in greatly accelerating healing in patients with leg ulcerations, severe acne, and in patients who had endured full face dermabrasion. Aloe has also shown to inhibit scarring.

 

There is some confusion surrounding the medicinal and historical significance of aloe vera. First of all, aloe vera is not the aloe described in the Bible. The aloe referred to in the Bible is agalwood or aloewood (Aquillaria agallocha), and is a soft, aromatic wood from India used in incense and perfume. Secondly, aloe juice is obtained from the inner leaf, which yields a bitter, yellow latex. This substance is usually powdered and used in commercial laxatives. You should be aware that a good deal of current literature incorrectly labels aloe juice as aloe gel, when the two agents possess different qualities. Also, be wary of preparations labeled with aloe vera extract, which may either be highly diluted gel, or the juice thickened with seaweed to make it gelatinous.

 

The early herbalist, Dioscorides, prescribed the juice for digestive and kidney disorders in the 1st century A.D. There is recorded evidence of using aloe vera juice as a laxative in writings of 6th century B.C. Arabs. In modern times, the juice has been used to successfully treat patients with peptic ulcers and colitis. In one study, 12 patients with peptic ulcers were completely healed of their stomach lesions after treatment with aloe.

 

Aloe has always been a popular addition to many cosmetic preparations. Supposedly, Cleopatra owed her natural beauty to a facial cream containing aloe. Aloe is a soothing emollient that stimulates circulation of the skin. In fact, with a natural pH of about 4.3, aloe is ideal for use on human skin, which varies between a pH of 4 and 6.