’Allo Aloe!

The prickly leaves of the aloe vera plant belie a benign interior – and the benefits for us are myriad

When we talk about aloe vera, we are talking about a whole genus of succulent, flowering plants, with more than 500 varieties. Growing naturally across much of Northern Africa, these plants have been used as herbal medicines for thousands of years. According to the ancient Egyptian medical text known as Ebers Papyrus, from the 16th century, aloe vera was known to the pharaohs and their doctors as ‘the plant of immortality’, and word of its health-giving properties spread as far as China and Mexico. 

Also known as the ‘lily of the desert’, today it is cultivated mainly for the gel extracted from the interior tissue of the aloe leaf, and the juice from the green skin beneath. The former is more often used for herbal remedies and alternative medical therapies, and the latter for cosmetic and beauty treatments such as moisturising creams, shampoo and leave-in hair conditioner, although there’s a degree of crossover. The market for aloe vera products is valued at USD 13 billion per year, and rising, as researchers keep finding evidence to support new applications for this wonder-plant. Here’s a brief rundown of its present uses:

The gel of the aloe plant contains various bioactive compounds, including vitamins, minerals, amino acids and antioxidants. Scientists have been especially interested in the high concentration of polyphenols, which are known to inhibit the growth of bacteria that cause infections and other disorders in humans. It has long been known to deliver excellent results when applied to burns and wounds, in terms of reducing healing times, though the jury is still out on the effects of taking aloe gel or juice orally for detox purposes.

Since tooth decay is caused by plaque, and plaque is caused by a build-up of bacterial biofilm, it makes sense that aloe vera can fight the good fight, in terms of dental hygiene. Recent studies have shown that pure aloe juice, when used as a mouth rinse, is at least as effective as chlorhexidine, the active ingredient in standard mouthwash.

The American Food & Drug Administration (FDA) first approved aloe vera as an over-the-counter hydrating treatment for sunburn way back in 1959, and no sensible sunbather has gone without it since. More recently, researchers at South Korea’s Kyung Hee University found evidence that young aloe vera shoot extracts mitigated the irradiating damage of ultraviolet light, reducing the ageing effect on the skin. (Studies also show that aloe-based gels help minimise skin damage from radiation treatments for breast cancer.) As a beauty treatment, meanwhile, it has been solidly proven to increase collagen production and improve skin elasticity, making it indispensable to the cosmetics industry.

The ‘latex’ part of the aloe plant – the sticky yellow residue on the underside of the leaf – contains a compound called aloin (or barbaloin), which is known to have a laxative effect. Hence its use as a treatment for constipation, although different countries have different rules on its availability for that purpose. At the same time, there are definite signs that ingesting aloe products can enhance insulin sensitivity and improve blood-sugar management, making it a possible treatment for type-2 diabetes, though more testing is required at this stage. The journal Nutritional Neuroscience has also reported encouraging results for aloe vera in reducing depression and improving memory in laboratory mice, but it remains to be seen whether these effects can be replicated in humans.

It’s easy to cultivate your own supply of aloe gel from home-grown plants. Using a sharp knife, simply cut off the prickly sides of the leaf and use a vegetable peeler to trim the outer layer. Then slide a knife beneath the gel layer to separate it from the leaf, and dice it into smaller pieces. Use one filleted leaf in your morning smoothie mix, pop of dollop of aloe gel onto a cotton bud and use this to remove makeup, or treat small cuts and minor skin irritations with the gel. You can blend the gel and refrigerate any that is leftover for up to a week. 

We source our aloe vera from Al Rawafed Agriculture Organic Farm in Abu Dhabi. Succulents grow easily in the UAE, and you can transplant them when their roots are well matured, or re-pot the offshoots (called ‘pups’), which grow from the parent plant- these should be removed when they are about two inches long. Don’t overwater your plant (once a week is enough), fertilise it twice a year (in September and March) and remember to keep it in light conditions, but not in direct sunlight.