By Kim Robson:
Aloe Vera is the common name for dozens of plant species in the genus Aloe. It’s been used in traditional medicine for hundreds of years in Greek, Egyptian and Roman cultures, and is cultivated around the world. It’s used in Ayurvedic medicine, and there are records of its use in the Ebers Papyrus from the 16th century BC, Dioscorides’ De Materia Medica, Pliny the Elder’s Natural History (both written in the mid-first century AD), and the Juliana Anicia Codex of 512 AD. Today, aloe is still one of the most popular and commonly used plants.
Everyone knows that aloe vera gel is soothing for minor burns and rashes, but what about all those drinks and other consumables made with aloe vera juice? Are they safe?
Benefits (and Non-benefits) of Aloe
Marketers of products made with aloe vera gel and juice make some pretty outrageous claims. Some are valid; many are not. Let’s sort them out. Some of the healing claims made about aloe vera include
Topical (External) Use:
- Analgesic and anti-inflammatory properties
- Soothes cuts, burns, infections, wounds, rashes and sunburns
- Glycoprotein compounds reduce inflammation and inhibit pain
- Polysaccharide compounds moisturize skin and promote tissue repair
- Treats canker sores, psoriasis and dental issues
Most of these claims are actually valid. According to a 2007 review of aloe vera use in burns, “cumulative evidence tends to support that aloe vera might be an effective intervention used in burn wound healing for ﬁrst- to second-degree burns. Topical application of aloe vera may also be effective for genital herpes and psoriasis.” However, it has not been proven to offer “protection” for humans from sunburn or radiation-induced skin damage.
Now, when we get to the claims made about the internal consumption of aloe vera, its miracle properties seem unlimited, as the following results are attributed to it:
- Treats IBS
- Lowers blood sugar levels in people with type 2 diabetes
- Lowers high cholesterol
- Treats constipation and upper respiratory tract infection
- Promotes detoxification
- Creates alkaline environment in the body / discourages inflammation from acidic environment
- Improves digestion
- Boosts immunity via disinfectant, antibiotic, antimicrobial, germicidal, antibacterial, antiseptic, antifungal and antiviral properties
- Acts as adaptogen
- Supports weight loss
- Lowers the risk of heart disease and cancer
There is little scientific evidence of the effectiveness or safety of aloe vera extracts for internal medicinal use. In fact, under the guidelines of California Proposition 65, orally ingested non-decolorized aloe vera leaf extract has been listed by the Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment, along with goldenseal, among “chemicals known to the state to cause cancer or reproductive toxicity.”
The reason why is Aloin, a bitter compound found in the gel and juice of many aloe species. It was a common ingredient in over-the-counter laxatives in the United States until 2002, when the Food and Drug Administration banned it because the manufacturers couldn’t provide required safety data. Although toxicity may be lowered by removing the aloin through processing, aloe vera that contains aloin in excess amounts may induce side effects. Aloe vera juice is said to support digestive health, but there is neither scientific evidence nor regulatory approval to support this claim.
Topical use of aloe vera is NOT associated with a significant risk of side effects, so go ahead and continue smearing it on minor burns, etc.
Oral ingestion of aloe vera, however, may lead to abdominal cramps, diarrhea, and decreased absorption of drugs. Studies by the International Agency for Research on Cancer have found ingested non-decolorized liquid aloe vera to be carcinogenic in animals, and state that it is a possible carcinogen in humans as well.
So, if you want to splash some aloe vera juice into a smoothie or even a cocktail for its refreshing taste, just make sure you use a brand that’s guaranteed to be free of aloin and backed by independent toxicology studies, as is Lily of the Desert. But we don’t recommend using aloe vera for internal use to treat conditions that should be properly addressed only by a doctor.