Even though aloe looks like a cactus, it is actually a member of the Lily family, the same family that garlic and onions belong to. Believed to have originated in Africa, it quickly spread, and today over 300 different species are grown around the world. Of all these varieties, Aloe vera is probably the best recognized. The use of aloe goes back as far as the 4th century B.C.E. Early Egyptians, Persians, Greeks, Indians and Africans left records of its use, which mostly focused on topical ailments such as burns, lacerations, dermatitis and leprosy. Later, it was also used internally for a range of conditions such as peptic ulcers, blood pressure modulation and as a laxative.1 Today Aloe vera is available in a wide range of forms, including liquid juice, gel and capsules for internal use, in addition to being found in many body care products and maybe even in the produce aisle or your own home as the plant itself.
The leaves of the aloe plant can grow to be 20 inches long and five inches across at the base. It is from these leaves that the useful matter is harvested. The outermost layer of the leaf is comprised of a tough tissue or skin surrounding the inner layer of cells that contain the semisolid gel. In between these two layers is the corrugated lining which contains the bitter latex. In nature this bitter latex works to ward off predators by causing irritation should the leaf be bitten into. This same latex component is responsible for the laxative properties often associated with aloe and is sometimes isolated out of the plant and used specifically for this purpose.2
Over the years researchers have isolated and studied many different components of the Aloe vera plant in the hopes of discovering what exactly makes this plant so great. We know that the anthraquinones are responsible for the cathartic effect of the latex portion, but some studies suggest that their benefits may extend to modulating inflammation and possibly even modulating cell proliferation.3,4,5 Aloe vera is rich in polysaccharides that have been associated with improved wound healing, blood glucose modulation, inflammation modulation, protecting the stomach lining, healthy cell proliferation and immune function.6 Some of these polysaccharides help to feed our beneficial intestinal bacteria while keeping detrimental yeasts in check.7 Yet another compound, acemannan, has been used with good results for mouth health.8,9 Vitamins, minerals, and plant sterols are also abundant in Aloe vera. Even with all of these modern studies, it is difficult to tease out the different therapeutic benefits of each compound and, more than likely, the benefits come from the synergy of these compounds.
The uses of Aloe vera can be divided into two categories: topical use and internal use. Topically Aloe vera is cooling and moisturizing and softens and soothes the skin. It helps to modulate inflammation and encourages wound healing and even appears to help fight bacterial and fungal conditions.10 It has been used topically for burns of all sorts and many different skin conditions such as dermatitis.11 It is also a commonly used ingredient in natural beauty care products for the skin and hair. Internally, Aloe vera gel and juice have benefits similar to those of its topical use; it is cooling, soothing and healing. In Traditional Chinese Medicine, aloe used in small amounts is considered a tonic for the body.12 The most familiar internal use of aloe is probably its use for the digestive tract. In one small human study, Aloe vera juice decreased stool transit time and positively influenced the intestinal bacteria.13 In other studies it has been shown to benefit inflammatory conditions of the bowels.14,15 Recent research on Aloe vera suggests that it may help to modulate the immune system and support a healthy inflammatory response. It also supports healthy blood glucose levels as well as other parameters associated with blood sugar regulation issues such as weight and insulin sensitivity.16,17 In addition, Aloe vera enhances the absorption of other nutrients like vitamins C and E.18
Whole leaf gels and juices are produced using the entire leaf, while inner filet gels and juices use only the inner gel compartment. Both forms remove the aloe latex (the part responsible for the laxative effect). Whole leaf and inner filet will have similar benefits, but the manufacturers of the outer filet claim it to be more potent, while the inner filet is generally milder tasting.
The only difference between the gel and the juice is the consistency, with the gel being slightly thicker.
Aloe vera in capsules generally delivers the inner filet in a concentrated form, which is more convenient for some people to take.
George’s Aloe vera is unique in that it is fractionally distilled. The distillation process removes not only the latex but also removes the polysaccharides. The process results in an aloe that has a very mild taste and water-like consistency, but also a lower molecular weight which, according to the manufacturer, allows the body to assimilate it better and eliminates the need for preservatives.
The anthraquinones such as aloin, sometimes referred to as the latex, are the portion of the aloe leaf that is known to induce bowel movements. Most aloe juices and gels intended for internal use filter most of the latex out. The standard set by the International Aloe Science Committee is less than 10 parts per million.19 Aloe products with significant amounts of the latex left in will usually identify it as such on the label. Anthraquinones, like other stimulant laxatives, can cause cramps, diarrhea and electrolyte imbalances and prolonged use can lead to dependency or worsening of constipation.20
There are many Aloe vera gels and juices available with added juices or flavorings. There are also varieties that contain other herbs to enhance the benefits of the Aloe vera and to support a specific concern such as digestion or detoxification.