Aloe vera (Aloe barbadensis miller) is a potent healing plant that is cultivated around the world. Its use reaches far back into antiquity. The earliest historical mention of aloe vera’s use as a skin tonic dates back to an Egyptian medical record called the Ebers Papyrus, a text composed during the 16th century BC.
The word “aloe” comes from an Arabic word Alloeh which means “shining bitter substance.” Ancient Egyptian stone carvings depict aloe plants which are termed the “plant of immortality.” We know from modern archaeologists that aloe was presented as a funeral gift to pharaohs who were obsessed with how to attain eternal life after the death of the body.
The aloe plant is a succulent, evergreen, perennial, shrubby plant which grows year-round in some places and never requires re-seeding. The distinctive pea-green leaves have sharp spines or serrations along their edges to protect the juicy, fleshy interior from predators. The leaves are triangular in shape.
One of the most amazing sights I have ever beheld is a flowering aloe plant. In my experience, this doesn’t happen very often when the succulent is grown as a house plant. The yellow tubular flowers grow from a thin, long stalk which seems barely capable of bearing the weight of the plant’s reproductive organ. The fruits after the flowers contain many seeds.
Aloe plants love to be hot and dry. One way of the quickest ways to kill a living aloe plant (as I found out first-hand) is to give it “too much love” by overwatering and adding too much fertilizer.
Because these plants are native to the arid regions of Africa, Asia, Europe, America, and India, they have adapted to long periods of drought and intense heat from the sun. Their root systems lie close to the ground rather than penetrating deep down where moisture is scarce. The roots spread out so they can absorb rainwater or dewdrops quickly.
Aloe vera plants store water in their thick, fleshy leaves. Slice an aloe leaf along and inside the spines so you can peel back the thin skin (or rind) to reveal the gooey goodness within. That goodness breaks down into two different substances: aloe gel and aloe latex.
Aloe gel is the clear, jelly-like substance inside the leaf which is 99 percent water. The remainder is composed of glucomannans (dietary fibers), amino acids (building blocks of proteins), lipids (fats), sterols (organic molecules such as cholesterol), and vitamins (compounds of essential nutrients needed for healthy body functioning).
The yellow aloe latex is found just under the plant’s skin. It is a bitter sap – remember the Arabic word Alloeh? – which contains anthraquinones (plant dyes associated with laxative effects) and glycosides (molecules that bind sugar to other groups of functional molecules).
Aloe vera plants yield an incredible 75 vitamins, minerals, amino acids, and antioxidants! Antioxidants boost the body’s immune system.
In addition, four plant-based antibacterial fatty acids produce an analgesic (pain relief) effect.
Aloe is rich in vitamins A (beta-carotene), B1, B2, B3, B6, B12, C, and E. Vitamins A, C, and E counteract free radicals which can contribute to premature aging, inflammatory diseases such as cancer, heart conditions, and other illnesses.
The clear gel soothes burns, including sunburns, promotes general skin health, and accelerates the healing process of damaged skin.
For mineral content, aloe delivers calcium, chromium, copper, selenium, magnesium, manganese, potassium, sodium and zinc. These trace minerals are vital for the proper functioning of various enzyme systems in different metabolic pathways within our bodies.
The powerful-yet-humble aloe plant contains 20 of the 22 amino acids humans must have to survive, including salicylic acid which has both anti-inflammatory and antibacterial properties. About 3 percent of the gel is comprised of saponins which cleanse tissues and kill germs.
Aloe vera contains eight enzymes. One of them – bradykinase – helps reduce excessive inflammation when applied directly to the skin’s surface.
As previously mentioned, aloe contains anthraquinones: 12 in all. In addition to their laxative properties, two of them (aloin and emodin) reduce pain as they ward off bacteria and viruses.
Because aloe is so good for the skin, it is added to many commercial cosmetic products, from creams, lotions, shampoos, and soaps. The clear gel, with no dyes or other additives, is also available.
Aloe vera is one of the best treatments for sunburn or other skin damage (not open wounds, though) and has been found by scientists to protect the skin from radiation damage, as from the sun and UV (ultraviolet) light.
This miraculous plant’s gel also binds moisture within the skin and keeps it from sweating out and evaporating. Aloe stimulates the production of collagen and elastin fibers which tone the skin, making it more elastic and less wrinkled. It sticks together flaking epidermal cells on the surface of the skin, softening it. At the same time, amino acids soften hardened skin cells. Zinc, an astringent, tightens pores.
I personally swear by aloe vera for skin health and take the pure, unadulterated gel with me when I travel. I look for beauty products, including shampoos, which contain it as an additive.
Everyone can grow their own aloe plant, in a pot or in the garden, to harvest fresh gel and latex. These plants can grow quite large and send out “babies” from the shallow roots. These can be detached to start new parent plants. Water only when the leaves begin to wither a bit from dryness and never let an aloe plant stand in water – the roots need to drain and dry out again.
One final note: when the green leaves on an aloe plant are exposed to too much direct sunlight, they turn red. Move the succulent to a more shady spot and enjoy years of health benefits from this ancient healing friend.