Aloe a summer must-have & so much more
Two hours on the phone with Gene Hale, in "faraway" Irving, Texas, dispelled some of my misconceptions that aloe is one of those unglamorous, goopey, bland products limited only to soothing burns and healing wounds.
Hale, as the Executive Director of the International Aloe Science Council, Inc. (IASC), a not-for-profit organization dedicated to maintaining the highest quality standards for aloe products worldwide, knows aloe's myriad uses very well, indeed.
After our conversation, and my review of the aloe literature, I came away with one conclusion: aloe is a veritable medicine chest enclosed in a little cactus-like plant.
Aloe (Aloe barbadensis Miller or Aloe vera) is a member of the lily family, a sister to onions, leeks, garlic, tulips, and asparagus. For over 4,000 years, aloe has been widely used by many different cultures.
Traditional use. Alexander the Great, during his conquest of Egypt, used vast supplies of aloe vera for his wounded soldiers. Cleopatra's servants made lotions and healing balms from aloe vera for their queen. Julius Caesar's legions supposedly used healing aloe, as did the average citizens of Rome and Greece.
Highly recommended by early physician-philosophers from Egypt to China to ancient Greece (Pliny the Elder) for its healing properties, aloe is sometimes called "Nature's Pharmacy" due to its multitude of applications, most notably for burn/wound healing -- including those "oops, I forgot to put on sunblock" sunburns.
Aloe and its varieties
There are over 200 species of aloe, ranging from little one-inch plants to others as tall as trees. A succulent herb that grows indigenously only in tropical climates, aloe, when cultivated, or growing in a pot in your kitchen window sill, can't survive freezing or over-watering. However, you can remove one of its heavy, spear-like, green leaves, put it away for a couple of years, then plant it into the ground, and soon have a thriving aloe plant.
All this information is gospel truth from Hale, who grew up with aloe, raised the plant for many years, and sold aloe products.
Now, deep in the heart of Texas, Hale heads a communications and quality control organization (IASC) whose mission is to improve and maintain the quality of aloe products, growing procedures, processing, and selling practices in order to ensure that aloe lives up to its publicity, ads, and labeling, and that you get exactly what you pay for.
The IASC is supported by 175 member companies in 52 nations who grow and manufacture aloe vera products, with worldwide sales that are approaching $65 billion.
Aloe's treasure-trove of uses
The range of products derived from aloe stretches from horizon to horizon: a nutrient-packed gel that, with water, makes a wholesome, healing drink; a common ingredient in natural cosmetics, deodorants, lipsticks, moisturizers, salves, shampoos, and soaps; a healing ingredient in over-the-counter natural remedies for virtually hundreds of ailments that beset us mortals -- from athlete's foot to sports injuries to gastrointestinal disorders.
Deep in the heart of ... aloe
One of the lesser-known compounds in aloe -- taken from the leaf's tough epidermis -- a yellow and bitter substance named aloin, was historically used to promote regular bowel movements. However, it was caustic to the intestinal lining and far from popular. The principal compound in the aloe plant is a clear, gooey gel-like substance found and taken from inside the broad leaf.
As a food and supplement, this plant's gel is a nutrient Fort Knox a treasury of over 75 ingredients, including 20 amino acids, vitamins, nine minerals, enzymes, steroids, organic acids, antibiotic agents, and polysaccharides (complex carbohydrates).
Aminos. Biochemist Richard A. Passwater, Ph.D., writes that aloe's 20 amino acids are close to the total of 22 essential aminos required for our bodies to, in turn, make thousands of proteins. These nutrients are a must for creating new cells and maintaining and repairing others. Dietary non-essential amino acids are made by our bodies from essential amino acids. Amazingly, aloe is rich in both kinds.
Zinc and other minerals. Among the nine minerals in aloe, zinc is one of the most beneficial, as it is widely recognized for promoting healing. Because of its high zinc content, aloe is also used for helping to prevent enlargement of the prostate gland and for reducing its enlargement.
The role of aloe's minerals goes far beyond these health benefits. They act as coenzymes that trigger cell enzymes to translate food, oxygen, and thyroid hormone into energy. Minerals play a key part in hormone action in body and mind, proper heart function, and maintenance of body organs.
B vitamins. Aloe contains a brimming supply of the B-complex vitamins, including choline, the precursor of the brain neurotransmitter, acetylcholine, which is of paramount importance to effective thinking and remembering. In addition, it contains folic acid, much supported to guard mothers-to-be against giving birth to a child with neural tube defects.
Folic acid, combined with vitamin B-6, is reported to prevent a build-up of homocysteine, the most recently discovered contributor to cardiovascular disease and cancer.
Antioxidants. Vitamins C and E are two other critically important, free-radical fighting nutrients aloe supplies, along with other top antioxidants, including beta-carotene.
Triglycerides. Aloe's wealth of triglycerides supply fatty acids vitally important to good health, as they serve to carry fat-soluble vitamins throughout our billions of body cells.
Immunity support: the research
A paper by Lawrence G. Plaskett, a researcher in Cornwall, England, reveals how, in one study, aloe increased the resistance of mice to a killer bacterium, Klebsiella pneumoniae.
According to Plaskett, "Apparently, it [had this effect] not through any [action] of directly killing the bacterium -- no antibiotic effect but, rather, through positive effects on the performance of the animals' immune system." Other researchers have also found aloe to have dramatic effects in protecting against infections. Passwater cites the 15-plus years of aloe research conducted by Dr. Wendell Winters, associate professor of biology at the University of Texas Health Science Center.
One of the newest findings is that an ingredient in aloe causes cells to divide and multiply, enhancing the growth of white blood cells and other immune system cells that defend us.
Other immune-boosting possibilities
What about AIDS? One study indicates that aloe vera can markedly delay the death of patients with acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (AIDS). Joan Priestley, M.D., administered aloe, along with other nutritional supplements, to AIDS patients, as described in the article "AIDS and Aloe Vera Extract" in Health Consciousness.
In most circumstances, when the T-cell count of these patients falls to 50, half of them die within nine months. However, when the T-cell count of Priestley's patients dropped to 50, half of them lived 18 months longer, and 30 percent lived two years longer than normally projected.
Back to aloe's basics
Not the least of aloe's assets are its anti-inflammatory and wound-healing functions, which were the first to draw attention to this plant.
Burns. One of the most admirable uses for this plant's gel in recent times has been for healing nuclear radiation burns. This so impressed researchers that it led to their investigation of aloe for other medicinal purposes. Your standard, painful-to-the-touch sunburn is an ideal use for aloe, as well, making it a "summer must-have."
Skin problems. One such explored purpose was using aloe for the skin disease psoriasis, characterized by red patches covered with silvery scales. In a doubleblind, placebo-controlled study of 30 psoriasis patients, mentioned by Hale in our conversation, aloe applications cured 25. The placebo was able to help only two out of 30.
Cholesterol and digestive tract disorders. Researcher I. Tizard, et al., as reported in the journal, Molecular Biology, found that, taken orally, the complex sugar, mannans (derived from aloe), blocked cholesterol absorption. For other internal uses, various biochemists theorize that aloe gel plus water may help heal digestive tract irritations, such as colitis and peptic ulcers.
In a study reported by H. Keller, in the Journal of the American Osteopathic Society, duodenal ulcer patients took a tablespoon of an aloe preparation daily for a year. At the end of the experiment, all of them had recovered.
Vision. An exciting study, reported in the book, Remarkable Aloe: Aloe Through the Ages, by Ivan Danhof, M.D., Ph.D., suggests using aloe to treat eye disorders. Danhof reports that "some agents contained in aloe [vera] stimulated positive cell growth in the retina," in this way preventing some kinds of blindness.
Pain. In the book, Amazing Medicines the Drug Companies Don't Want You to Discover, the authors and editors mention that among the 75-plus useful substances in aloe are salicylates, which have both anti-inflammatory and pain-killing properties. "An enzyme in aloe [vera] has been found to inhibit bradykinin, a producer of pain in inflamed tissue," the book states.
In an article based on much research, "Growing Aloe," writer Janet R. Edwards states:
"When taken internally, aloe's certain components relieve the pain and inflammation of arthritis, reduce the severity of some forms of asthma, reduce the blood sugar in diabetic patients, and suppress the activity of certain types of bacteria, fungi, and viruses.
"In addition, aloe may protect hair follicles during chemotherapy, reduce stomach acids, and protect the lining of the gastrointestinal tract."
So why is aloe so good?
Today, there's a difference of opinion about why aloe is such an effective healer. A small group believes that its polysaccharide ingredient makes all healing possible. The opposing, and larger, faction believes that all of aloe's compounds work together (synergistically) like musical instruments in a symphony orchestra. Inside Aloe, a publication of the IASC, agrees:
"No single component [...] can do the complete job," says aloe authority, Robert H. Davis, Ph.D., of the Pennsylvania College of Podiatric Medicine. "Aloe vera has 200 biologically active agents, as well as polysaccharides, to act as a biological vehicle and treatment possibility."
So, whether you call it "Nature's Pharmacy," or any similar moniker, make sure you call it "beneficial." Used wisely, and with care, aloe, like most plants with medicinal powers, will reward us with a treasure-trove of benefits.
PHOTO (BLACK & WHITE): James F. Scheer
By James F. Scheer, Contributing Writer
James F. Scheer is co-author, with Better Nutrition contributor Stephen Langer, M.D., of Solved: The Riddle of Illness, a perennial best-seller. Jim is also co-author of Solved: The Riddle of Weight Loss and Solved: The Riddle of Osteoporosis.