The plant of Immortality

In ancient Egypt they called it the plant of immortality. Dating back to 2100 BC this plant has been used for medicinal purposes. Read about its benefits, uses, side effects and all things Aloe Vera.

During my summer holidays this year I visited an Aloe Vera plantation, which for me, health addict that I am, turned out to be the highlight of my holiday. Well, to be honest, the rest of the area did not have that much to offer considering that this plant thrives in dry, hot and desert-like wild areas, I guess I should not have been surprised.

The drive to the plantation was up and down a tortuous mountain road which had my stomach up in my throat for most of the journey and didn’t do much for my heart rate. I wouldn’t have made the trek for anything other than to gain greater insight into this plant, which has recently become increasingly more popular in the health conscious community.

It was interesting not just to touch and feel the leaf, but especially to cut, play with and eat the gel inside whilst learning about how it is cultivated, harvested and used, as well as its many claims to promoting health and wellbeing.

Did you know that there exist 300 species of this plant? Did you also know that only 4 of these species are non-toxic? Did you also know that out of these, only ONE species is suitable for ingestion, and all others would kill us if we were to eat them? 

Nobody tells you this when you are standing at the health food section or in front of the organic shelf of cosmetic products at the shop. Incidentally, after the visit to the plantation, I started reading the labels of all the products advertising themselves as being or containing “pure” or “natural” aloe vera. I was shocked. But I am getting ahead of myself, more of that later.

The origins and history of Aloe Vera

The botanical name for it is Aloe Bardensis Miller. It is believed to be originally from Yemen or Sudan, which explains the Aloe part of the name which appears to derive from alloeh in Arabic, meaning shining, bitter substance. The vera part is Latin for true. Whatever its name, there are records of its being used for medicinal purposes as far back as 2100 BC in Mesopotamia, and later by ancient Egyptians, who called it “the plant of immortality”, followed by the Greeks. It is not mentioned in English medical literature until 1655, but it has been used for an array of different purposes throughout the ages.

Aloe Vera is widely cultivated in North Africa, Sudan, the Canary Islands, Cape Verde and Madeira Islands. It can also be found growing wild in many areas of mainland Spain, in the region of Murcia in particular. There is now also widespread industrial production in other parts of the world where it was exported.

The different parts of the Aloe Vera leaf

The Aloe Vera plant has a number of leaves, only a few of which can be harvested at any one time. The way in which these are cut also allows for more than one harvest per plant per year. Once cut, the leaf is composed of two parts.  The latex is a yellow substance with very bitter taste, which is the liquid that oozes out when the leaf is cut.  This has strong laxative properties and can easily lead to diarrhoea and taken in excess can lead to serious health complications.

The safest part to ingest is in fact the gel, the transparent inner part of the leaf. This is used to make most commercially available products.

Health Benefits

Where should I start? There are many claims as to the multiple health benefits of Aloe Vera and over the centuries even more were made. Some have been proven, with careful research and studies, others are considered, in scientific circles, to require more studies, others still will remain just claims (such as the claim to immortality). However, here are the most salient:

1.       The most known benefit of aloe vera is its laxative properties and is prescribed as a treatment for constipation in countries such as Germany, either in liquid or in capsule form, for no longer than 10 days.

2.       Aloe vera is full of vitamins (A, C, E, B1, B2, B3, B6 and B12. This gives it its antioxidant properties that fight free radicals, and helps fight cancer, heart disease and other diseases.

3.       The unique polysaccharide it contains, Acemannan, is believed to have antiviral properties which help ease gastrointestinal problems and at the same time strengthen and stimulate the immune system.

4.       The fatty acids have anti-inflammatory and antiseptic properties which help relieve pain.

5.       Taking Aloe Vera can also help to quickly reduce blood glucose levels which help prevent and cure diabetes.

6.       Studies have also shown that it can significantly reduce LDL cholesterol (the bad guy) in just three months.

7.       Aloe Vera has also been used as a natural moisturiser and to soothe skin after minor burns, sunburn (UV irradiation)and also to relieve and reduce the symptoms of psoriasis. It has also effectively been used as a protection for the skin damaged following radiation treatment for breast cancer patients in particular.

8.       It is also believed that the use of aloe vera gel can stimulate blood circulation, preventing phlebitis (blood clotting disease).

9.       Tests on mice have indicated that aloe vera is effective against depression and in improving learning and memory. However it is not clear whether this is also true in humans.

10.   Last, but not least, pure Aloe Vera gel has been used by Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) to cure Kidney yin deficiency (which affects the liver, heart and lungs with symptoms including dizziness, ringing of the ears, dry throat and mouth, fever, low backache, weak legs, spontaneous sweating, a very red tongue, agitation, irritation, nervousness, insecurity and fear). However, TCM does not recommend it for cold patterns and those with a tendency to loose stools.

Side effects

Ø  As I mentioned above the latex part of the leaf can be dangerous. According to studies, as little as 1gm of latex a day taken for many consecutive days can be fatal. The aloin contained in the latex is what has the laxative properties. This, together with another anthraquinone, called emodin, is often removed from commercial products. To give you an idea, excess latex can lead to potassium depletion, muscle weakness, cardiac problems and kidney failure. As well as the excess diarrhoea mentioned earlier. This is why only the gel part is used in many products, including laxatives.

Ø  Aloe Vera can exacerbate Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis, so if you suffer from these you might like to stay well away from it.

Ø  Similarly if you suffer from diabetes, since aloe vera quickly reduces blood glucose levels, you are advised to monitor your sugar levels closely while using it.

Ø  Pregnant women and women breastfeeding should also refrain from use. Aloe Vera con lead to uterine contractions and miscarriage.

Ø  Finally, it is believed aloe vera taken orally reduces the capacity of blood clotting, so avoid drinking it if you are going to have surgery!

How to choose your Aloe Vera products

As I mentioned at the beginning of this article, Aloe Vera is contained in many commercially available products. As with everything else, you should read labels carefully. “Pure” and “Natural” Aloe Vera means nothing, they are just marketing ways to attract buyers who read something in a magazine once that it was good for your health.

Check the origin of the Aloe Vera, that it is from a trusted producer and that it is organic. The ingredients list should be as short as possible and not full of chemicals or additives. You want to avoid triethanolamine, diazolidinyl urea, carbomer, SD alcohol 40, tetrasoidum EDTA, glycerine, DMDH hydration, polysorbate 20 and any other toxic chemicals mentioned in previous articles (see here for more). Price will also be an indication of the quality of the Aloe Vera. 

I read the labels of a myriad of products, from creams, to shampoos, to toothpaste and gels, as well as juices, all of which were marketed as pure, all natural and containing Aloe Vera. The reality was that most had only a very small percentage of aloe vera (less than 10%, and I am being generous with the number). They were mainly composed of SLS, Parabens and all those other toxic chemicals I cannot even pronounce. What’s the point in changing over to these products when all they have done is added a little bit of aloe so they can splash the picture on the packaging?

I bought natural cosmetics from the plantation’s own manufacturing plant and that was after carefully checking the ingredients list.  Among these, a moisturising face cream, pure aloe juice (with stevia as sweetener), pure gel cream to soothe skin, cold gel and hot gel for circulation and muscular problems after sports injuries, shower gel and deodorant. They were not cheap, but then they didn’t use lots of harmful ingredients to bulk up a little spoonful of gel. Quality comes at a cost.

Remember this, according to “Healing with Whole Foods” ONLY unrefined, bitter tasting aloe has the healing properties attributed to it. As will all things processed, the more processed it is, the less likely you will be getting the health benefits. You might save some money, but if that is your only concern, then save even more and simply stay away from the bad quality stuff altogether. A standard toothpaste or face cream will do the same job at a fraction of the cost.

If you do decide to have a little detox and improve your constipation or overall immune system (70% of which resides in your gut anyhow), and you cannot stomach (pun intended) the pure aloe juice, just mix it with water and add either a little honey or some stevia.

Time for my aloe juice now…

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