Chances are you’ve slathered a cooling aloe vera gel over a searing sunburn. Perhaps you’ve even cracked open an aloe plant leaf and drizzled its milky juice directly onto inflamed or dry, itchy skin.
Topically applied, aloe’s soothing benefits are widely known—and have been extolled by nurturing grandmothers for decades. But the plant harnesses a host of other potential applications for health and wellness. Although human studies on aloe’s effectiveness have yielded varied and even conflicting results, naturopaths and herbalists have long touted its ability to ease constipation, flush toxins from the body, tackle gastric problems and even help lower blood sugar when consumed orally as a supplement or a juice.
Skin and gastric healing
According to the American Botanical Council, there are more than 300 species of aloe plants that grow all around the world. Because its documented use dates back to the ancient Egyptians, who dubbed aloe the “plant of immortality," and spans much of the globe, botanists aren’t entirely sure where the genus originated. Regardless, the species commonly grown and used for medicinal purposes in America are those familiar perennials with fleshy, dark green, upright leaves with serrated edges.
Aloe plants contain two key substances with therapeutic properties: gel and latex. Gel is the translucent, gooey substance packed into the inner leaf, while latex is yellowish and found just beneath the plant’s skin. Aloe gel contains active compounds that help temper inflammation and block bacteria from infecting damaged and vulnerable organs—including our biggest organ, the skin. Gel constituents are also thought to aid in cell regeneration, resulting in faster healing times. For these reasons, aloe enthusiasts swear by gel and gel-based topical products’ healing prowess.
Research largely supports aloe’s effectiveness in these areas. One study published in the Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine in June 2010 found that aloe cream reduced patients’ postoperative pain, sped wound healing and cut the need for analgesic painkillers significantly more than placebo. As for burns, a trial published in the journal Surgery Today in July 2009 found that second-degree burn patients given an aloe gel–based cream healed more quickly than those treated with topical silver sulfadiazine.
Another interesting trial, published in the American Journal of Infection Control in February 2003, examined the hands of factory assembly-line workers after wearing aloe gel-lined gloves for a series of shifts. All participants had complained of dry hands and repeated superficial skin trauma due to the rigors of their occupation, but by study’s end, the aloe-gloved hands had healed significantly and become much smoother, while non-gloved hands remained damaged. Something to note: Researchers overwhelmingly advise against applying aloe gel to open wounds.
Just as aloe gel shows promise in soothing and healing skin, preliminary research suggests it may also protect against and help heal gastric ulcers. According to a study published in theWorld Journal of Gastroenterology in April 2006, aloe vera, given internally, reduced gastric inflammation and sparked ulcer healing in mice. And research detailed in the Journal of Ethnopharmacology in July 2004 found that aloe protects mucous membranes in the gastric systems of mice from injury.
Another promising benefit of taking aloe internally is its antidiabetic effects. Research findings on aloe’s impact on blood glucose and triglyceride levels have been inconsistent, but a paper published in the Saudi Pharmaceutical Journal in July 2009 points to several studies that support the plant’s blood sugar-lowering effects in patients with type 2 diabetes. In their own trial, the authors found that an aloe vera extract resulted in lower triglyceride and glucose levels within four and six weeks, respectively, in a small sampling of diabetic patients.