The juice of the aloe vera plant has a reputation for helping to heal skin disorders. But what did Aristotle recommend the juice for?

aloeCleansing the body…internally. You know what Aristotle said to Alexander the Great in 325 B.C.? Come here Alex, I have something to show you. And he showed him a plant. It was the Socotrine aloe, which originated from the island of Socotra, east of the horn of Africa. Aristotle had learned that the juice of the plant had an amazing effect. It was a purgative. You drank a little and everything came out. This was an important finding at the time because it was widely believed that illnesses could be cured by cleaning out the body. Alexander thought so much of this effect that he sent investigators to Socotra to find out if a purgative could be mass produced from the plants. Socotrine aloe is just one of about 200 species of aloes but is particularly potent as a purgative. Other aloes have less of a dramatic effect. But they all have some potential to act as purgatives. The aloe that is familiar to us is the Barbados aloe which originated in the Mediterranean regions and was taken by the Dutch to the West Indies for cultivation. It was mostly a decorative plant and sometimes used as a purgative. But it also found use as a remedy for mild skin disorders, burns, scratches and cuts. This effect had actually been described by the Egyptians as early as 1500 B.C. Aloe is mentioned in the famous Ebers papyrus which catalogued drug use at the time. Cleopatra is said to have used aloe to beautify her skin. Today aloe shows up in a myriad products ranging from creams to shampoos. Aloe juice is widely promoted in the Internet as an internal cleanser and some sites even suggest that it can boost the immune system and fight off cancer. Nature’s gift to humanity, they call aloe. I’m always suspicious of webmasters bearing gifts. The thin, clear gel that leaks from an aloe leaf when it is cut does have some healing properties. Nobody knows exactly which chemicals are responsible for this effect but it is probably a slew of them. An enzyme called bradykininase destroys bradykinin, a chemical found in our body that produces pain. Magnesium lactate has an anti-itching effect. Other components have anti-fungal and antibacterial effects. Several studies have shown that aloe gel helps with frostbite, sunburns and wound healing. In test tube studies fluid from fresh leaves promotes the growth of normal human cells. Whether this effect is retained in processed products that use aloe is more questionable. Some of these products may not have very much aloe to start with; just enough to allow its presence to be declared on the label. But some others have been shown to improve wound healing after facial dermabrasion. The recommendations for internal use are more iffy. The juice is sometimes contaminated with the aloe components which act as laxatives and this may not be a desired effect. The benefits claimed for healing ulcers and soothing digestive problems have not been confirmed by scientific studies, neither have the very tenuous claims about cancer treatment. At this point it is better to limit use of aloe to external mild skin problems. I say mild because studies have shown that for serious cuts, such as after a Caesarian section, applying aloe may actually retard healing. But for your everyday burns, abrasions and cuts, fresh aloe gel squeezed from a leaf may be just what the doctor ordered. So it’s a good idea to keep an aloe plant at home. Even if the skin healing results are not that great, you’ll have a very pretty plant.

 

Joe Schwarcz

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