Teaching Tuesday-Aloe Vera

Aloe vera is probably the most widely known and most often used cosmetic additive. In fact, many families keep a bottle of the gel in the refrigerator year round, for sunburns and minor incidents. So, as Summer is upon us, I thought we'd take a more in depth look at this additive in today's installment of  Teaching Tuesday!

The Aloe vera plant is a stemless, or very short-stemmed, succulent plant. It grows from 24–39 inches tall and spreads by offsets. The leaves are green to gray-green, and are thick and fleshy. Some varieties have white flecks on stem surfaces, but not all. They flower in the Summer, with pendulous, yellow petals that extend from a spike that may shoot up to 35 inches tall. Like other aloe species, aloe vera forms arbuscular mycorrhiza, which is the formation of an unique fungus that penetrates the cells of the roots of a vascular plant. This fungus forms a symbiotic relationship that allows the plant to have better access to minerals and nutrients in the soil.

While the aloe vera plant looks like a member of the cactus family, it really belongs to the lily family! The name actually comes from the Arabic word  alloeh, which means "bitter" , stemming from the bitter taste of the liquid that is found in its leaves.  The aloe vera plant is made up of about 96% water, but it also contains other active ingredients, such as steroids, minerals, vitamins, essential oil, glycoproteins, amino acids and enzymes. Research has shown that the aloe vera gel penetrates human skin almost four times faster than water does. It is this ease of permeability that makes it a highly effective additive in moisturizers, soaps, shampoos, conditioners, and other products.

The plant is used for both its gel and its latex. The clear, see through, jelly-like gel that is contained in, and harvested from the plant's pulp, inside the meaty leaves is the gel. Aloe latex is yellow, and it comes from just under the plant's skin. Some aloe products are made from the entire crushed leaf, so they will contain both the gel and the latex.

Some aloe medications are made to be taken internally,  usually from the latex. These medications are often for the treatment of constipation, colds, asthma, osteoarthritis, bowel diseases, ulcers, diabetes and a few others. However, the most popular and familiar use is the use of aloe gel, topically. In fact, it has been used as a remedy for skin conditions such as burns, sunburn, frostbite, psoriasis, dandruff, cold sores, and minor wounds for thousands of years.

There is promising, albeit preliminary data, from laboratory studies of animals, as well as humans, that support the suposition that topical aloe gel has immunomodulatory properties which [may] improve wound healing and skin inflammation. In fact, some studies purport that aloe contains active compounds that [may] decrease pain and inflammation, as well as stimulate growth and repair. It appears that some chemicals in the aloe gel are able to increase circulation in the small blood vessels of the skin, as well as kill bacteria. Together, these effects seem to make aloe effective in speeding wound healing. The University of Maryland reports that "....in one study, burn sites treated with aloe healed completely in less than 16 days compared to 19 days for sites treated with silver sulfadiazine. In a review of the scientific literature, researchers found that patients who were treated with aloe vera healed an average of almost 9 days sooner than those who weren't treated with the medicinal plant."

There is however, also evidence that certain wounds should not be treated with aloe at all, as the healing will be dealyed and/or the tissue health risked. Most literature agrees that this is true with surgical wounds and severe (3rd degree) burns.

Powdered aloe, which is simply aloe that was freeze dried then pulverized, is frequently used in facial formulas, body wraps, bath salts, milk baths, soaps, body scrubs and the like. It, as well as the gel, are often touted as being perfectly safe for everyone, with some even saying that it is "hypoallergenic." While the topical use is generally considered safe for most individuals, according to health information disseminated by the Mayo clinic;

"People with known allergy to garlic, onions, tulips, or other plants of the Liliaceae family may have allergic reactions to aloe. Individuals using aloe gel for prolonged times have developed allergic reactions including hives and eczema-like rash. Aloe injections have caused severe reactions and should be avoided." 

They also report that;
-Aloe used on surgical wounds has been shown to slow the healing process.
-Aloe juce applied to the face after dermabrasion (a skin-peeling procedure) has been reported to cause burning and redness in some patients.
-Using aloe prior to sun exposure may lead to a rash once exposed.

They specifically warn that the use of aloe or aloe latex, when taken internally for laxative effects can cause cramping or diarrhea. When Use for over seven days may cause dependency or worsening of constipation after the aloe is stopped. Ingestion of aloe for over one year has been reported to increase the risk of colorectal cancer. 

-Individuals with severe abdominal pain, appendicitis, ileus (temporary paralysis of the bowel), or a prolonged period of time without a bowel movement, should not take aloe by mouth at all. 

In fact, they state that there is a "...report of hepatitis (liver inflammation) with the use of oral aloe".

-They also warn of the "...potential for electrolyte imbalances, including low potassium levels, caused by the laxative effect of aloe. This effect may be greater in people with diabetes or kidney disease."

-They caution that "...Since low potassium levels can lead to abnormal heart rhythms and/or muscle weakness, this is something to be watched closely, and people with heart or kidney disease, or electrolyte abnormalities should not ever take aloe by mouth. And healthcare professionals should be advised, and be monitoring for changes in the electrolytes of any individual taking aloe [by mouth] for more than a few days."

-"Additionally, aloe taken by mouth may lower blood sugar levels, so extreme caution is advised for those with diabetes and/or hypoglycemia, as well as those taking drugs, herbs, or supplements that may affect blood sugar. Serum glucose levels may need to be monitored by a healthcare professional, and medication adjustments may be necessary." 

-"People with thyroid disorders, kidney disease, heart disease, or electrolyte abnormalities should also use oral aloe only under medical supervision."

They also recommend that everyone "avoid Aloe vera injections, which have been associated with cases of death under unclear circumstances."

-As far as pregnant and breast feeding women, they state that, "..although topical (skin) use of aloe is unlikely to be harmful during pregnancy or breastfeeding, oral (by mouth) use is not recommended due to theoretical stimulation of uterine contractions. It is not known whether active ingredients of aloe may be present in breast milk. The dried juice of aloe leaves should not be consumed by breastfeeding mothers."

From personal and family history, I will say that I love using aloe topically. I am one that has a plant growing most all times, ready to cut and use whenever needed. And I do not recall too many Summers, where a bottle of gel wasn't stashed in the refrigerator for use after a day at the beach.

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