All About Aloe Vera, Including the Health Benefits Associated with the Plant
If you thought it's just for soothing sunburns, think again.
For more than 6,000 years—according to stone carvings found in Egypt—the aloe plant has been a valuable part of human health; its healing properties even earned it the title of "the plant of immortality" as Egyptians used it for pain relief and anti-inflammatory treatments. Today, extracts from the spiky plant, which grows well indoors in pots or outdoors in warm climates, are sold as a clear topical gel, juice, powder, or dietary supplements.
The Health Benefits of Aloe as a Gel
Aloe products come from one of two substances that develop inside the succulent's tall, rough-edged leaves; the first, a clear gel, is most commonly applied to the skin. "For topical use, aloe is well-known, well-tolerated, and has a handful of known benefits," says Dr. Craig Hopp, deputy director of the division of extramural research at the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health (NCCIH) at the NIH. It's a familiar balm for skin conditions that include psoriasis, cold sores, frostbite, and burns, and is often added to soap, shampoo, moisturizers, and other cosmetics.
The Health Benefits of Aloe as a Supplement
Oral supplements are formulated using the aloe's other component—a yellow material called latex—for a single purpose. "Aloe's main use has been as a laxative," says Dr. Hopp. "It's very powerful—it will very quickly produce the desired effect." As a laxative, aloe worked so effectively that the FDA regulated it alongside other over-the-counter (OTC) laxatives—instead of other dietary supplements—until 2002, when they pulled it entirely: "The FDA required that all OTC aloe laxative products be removed from the U.S. market or reformulated because the companies that manufactured them did not provide the safety data necessary for continued approval," according to the NCCIH.
A two-year study from the National Toxicology Program also raised concerns about aloe supplements when it linked intestinal tumors in rats to a diet that included non-decolorized whole leaf extract from the plant. A later study tweaked the experiment to focus on decolorized whole leaf extract—removing a component of the latex called aloin—and did not produce tumors, leading researchers to conclude that the aloin and tumors were related. Though today's dietary supplements should contain only aloe that has had the aloin extracted, a lack of regulation means consumers need to be wary. "If you process aloe properly, it does not contain these carcinogenic compounds," says Dr. Hopp. "But you can't always be sure by looking at the label whether or not the aloe in that product has been processed properly." If you do buy aloe supplements, Dr. Hopp recommends sticking with products from well-respected brands. "I wouldn't tell somebody, 'Do not ever take aloe for any condition under any circumstances'–I think that's going too far," he says. "But you do have to be cognizant of these concerns about the way it was processed. You have to be cautious, you have to shop carefully, and you have to educate yourself."
Dr. Arielle Levitan, founder of Vous Vitamin, recommends staying away from aloe supplements. "Overall I would say there may be some possible benefits to taking oral aloe, but our research suggests there are too many potential harms from these products," she says. "Oral aloe can cause GI side effects—namely cramping and diarrhea—and can cause dangerous drops in blood sugar for those taking medication for diabetes." Another reason she does not recommend the use of the plant as a supplement is that it's hard to guarantee removal of aloin. "As we know, there is no regulation in the supplement industry so there is no oversight of these processes and we are accepting someone's word this was done properly," she says. "So yes, if you have a guaranteed high-quality source (USP or GMP certification helps) then I think it is safe." Instead of aloe, she recommends "magnesium oxide can be a very useful supplement for its laxative properties or other forms of methylcellulose fiber supplements."
The Health Benefits of Aloe in a Recipe
Clear aloe gel has also gained traction as an ingredient in cocktails, smoothies, and the occasional baked dessert. Though the taste is often described as bitter, watery, or acidic, it offers a sharp flavor contrast to sweeter fruits and savory spices. You can purchase aloe gel or juice for use in recipes, or remove the fresh gel directly from the leaves; if you opt to DIY the gel removal, be careful to separate the clear gel from the yellow latex to prevent yourself from ingesting aloin and to avoid the latex's laxative properties. Try it in 24-Karat Juice—along with beet, ginger, carrots, apple, and blue-green algae—for a refreshing nutrient-filled beverage.