Aloe vera (L. Webb et Berth, also known as Aloe barbadensis Mill.) is a medicinal plant native to South Africa, but it is cultivated in other temperate and tropical regions around the world. Probably because of the ancient Romans, it can be found growing naturally in the ruins of southern Turkey.
Aloe gel is obtained from the parenchyma tissue under the outer epidermis of the hard yet succulent leaves of the aloe vera plant. This gel contains polysaccharides, and the large pericyclic cells between the plant’s two layers contain a juice containing laxative anthraquinones. When the leaf is cut laterally, the gel and juice ooze out together. When this is collected and dried, it results in dark-yellow resinous chunks called aloes (sarısabır in Turkish). Commercial aloe gel is obtained from cultivated aloe vera plants that contain almost no anthraquinone in their leaves. This gel is then used in cosmetic products, and it is a controversial ingredient. Aloe gel has been found to be useful in cosmetics, as well as topical skin preparations because of its healing properties for wounds, burns, and frostbite.
The emollient and rejuvenating properties of aloe have been scientifically proven, but there is no scientific proof, other than a couple of conflicting studies, of its potential to treat diabetes, cancer, liver diseases, gastrointestinal diseases, and psoriasis. Such claims are generally based on the common belief that polysaccharides strengthen the immune system. A WHO (World Health Organization) monograph published in 1999 did not approve its use as an internal medicine, warning instead that its internal use could cause complications because the gel is a good medium for microbes. When I encountered an aloe gel sample that claimed to be an analgesic, it smelled of methyl salicylate. The gel is normally odorless, but it seems this gel was combined with methyl salicylate, an analgesic found in wintergreen (Gaulteria) oil. This is seriously misleading because the inclusion of this chemical was not declared on the label. This suggests that the so-called drinkable diluted Aloe gels may also have been combined with other medicinal substances, such as antibiotics, cortisone, antidiabetics, and so on. It’s worth investigating how such chemicals, which may also contain strong enzymes as well as polysaccharides, may transform when combined with aloe gel.
Recent reports have indicated how some patients suffered liver damage after ingesting aloe gel in Turkey. While there are no arguments about using aloe gel externally, consumers should be warned of the possible harmful effects of aloe vera when used in herbal teas, toothpastes, yogurts, and other edible products. Some of the more creative uses of aloe vera include toilet paper and scarves.
Where Did Aloe Vera Come From?
Because of the discovery of the healing properties of aloe vera on wounds and burns, possibly even radiation burns, there has been a trend to use it in cosmetic products since the 1980s. The subsequent worldwide demand encouraged farmers in the USA to begin cultivating it. Spurred on by the efficient production of the gel using modern technology, the global cosmetics industry started using this new material more in their products. After a few years, however, the cosmetics industry turned its attention to newer trends. The use of aloe gel lost momentum, so aloe vera growers started searching for new markets. Because aloe vera is only effective in gel form, which is too unstable for long-term storage, some producers claimed to achieved the production of a stable, storable gel. However, studies on human tissue cultures showed these gels were not as effective as the fresh gel and even killed tissue.
The healing effect of the fresh gel on skin wounds has been reported to be due to the stimulating action of polysaccharides on the growth of fibroblasts and epithelium cells. It is assumed that a glycoprotein element is effective rather than all the polysaccharides, but these compounds decompose when the gel is stored for long periods or dried.
A clinical study of 77 diabetic patients administered two spoons of aloe gel a day for 42 days. This study claimed a significant decrease in blood sugar and triglycerides, but a previous study disputed its efficacy.
So, What Should We Do?
As explained above, there are various myths concerning aloe vera. There is no harm in ingesting a small amount of the anthraquinone-free gel to treat a stomach ulcer, but how are we going to obtain fresh gel? This is the basic problem. This is maybe why aloe vera water is often sold through shady pyramid marketing schemes. If manufacturers were so sure about their products, they would obtain proper marketing authorization from governments. When everything is so obvious, why do people drink this expensive water by the barrel? Maybe it’s the secrecy that triggers people’s curiosity.
It may be impossible to convince people not to drink these products, but it’s curious how such products are so freely available and often marketed by physicians and pharmacists. Shouldn’t this be better controlled?
K. Hüsnü Can Başer