Sandy’s Garden ... Some Notes of Caution About Aloe Vera

Sandy Simpson
Sandy Simpson
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Aloe vera is a perennial plant which flourishes in subtropical and tropical locations.

These include southern Africa, where it most probably originated, the warmest parts of the Mediterranean, Latin America, and the Caribbean. As befits a plant which likes lots of hot sunshine, its leaves can hold a lot of water … in technical terms, it is a succulent. It will grow to a metre in height, with fleshy, spear-like leaves of similar length. These leaves contain a gel which is mainly water but which also contains substances called glycoproteins and polysaccharides. Glycoproteins inhibit pain and inflammation; and polysaccharides stimulate skin growth and repair.

These … and other … beneficial properties have been recognised by mankind for thousands of years. Egyptians have made medicinal use of aloe vera for more than six millennia, at one time calling it the “Plant of Immortality.” Arab traders first took aloe vera plants to India more than two-and-a-half thousand years ago; and in rather more recent times, The East India Trading Company relied heavily on the plants for their commercial value in the seventeenth century. The first known reference to aloe vera in Ancient Greece was made by the physician, Aulus Celsus, who recommended aloe as a purgative. The Greek herbalist Dioscorides noted that aloe vera induced sleep, cleansed the stomach, had skin benefits and stopped hair loss. The Chinese have used aloe vera as a medicinal plant for well over a thousand years; and the plant has been used throughout Asia for many centuries.

So aloe vera has a proud history of proven medicinal value. Today, its use is more widespread than it has ever been, with Americans using it in the treatment of a huge variety of conditions while the citizens of our islands are in hot pursuit. In the U.S., aloe vera gel is used topically to reduce the appearance of acne, as well as for all sorts of other skin care issues. The University of Maryland Medical Center has this to say on the subject. “Aloe gel … is a common household remedy for minor cuts and burns, as well as sunburns. It can be found in many commercial skin lotions and cosmetics. Aloe contains active compounds that may reduce pain and inflammation and stimulate skin growth and repair. It is also an effective moisturizing agent. Aloe vera gel has gained tremendous popularity for relief of burns. It’s also used as an additive in beauty products. And many people are starting to drink aloe vera juice for its nutritional value.”

With such an authoritative report, what on earth prompts me to add a note of caution? Let’s start with one of the wilder claims made for aloe vera. First, be wary of any claims that aloe vera can treat or cure cancer. These are not my words, but are taken from the website of Cancer Research UK (CRUK). Heed these words; and be wary of any claims that aloe vera can treat or cure cancer. Second, since aloe vera can interact with other drugs, it’s a good idea for people on prescription drugs to have a word with their doctor before starting to drink the juice. Third, products made with aloe vera juice or gel are widely available from herbal shops and from chemists, in supermarkets and on-line. Prices for similar products can vary widely; so caveat emptor … let the buyer beware! It’s well worth while comparing prices, especially if you intend to use the product regularly. And finally, CRUK recommends that customers for aloe vera products check that the label carries the THR Certification Mark – a sign that the product meets the quality and safety requirements of the Medicines & Healthcare Regulatory Agency (MHRA). But I can’t find any aloe vera products on the MHRA website nor, unsurprisingly, can I find such a thing in the shops. I suspect CRUK is mistaken on this point.