Healing Foods: Aloe
The beneficial properties of this medicinal plant go more than skin deep
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If you’ve ever squeezed the gel from an aloe vera leaf onto a burn or bought a cosmetic with aloe as one of the main ingredients, then you’ve experienced the topical benefits of this common house and garden plant. Turns out, aloe’s healing properties extend to internal ailments as well. Aloe gel and juice, both derived from the fleshy pulp inside aloe vera leaves, can aid people with digestive disorders and type 2 diabetes, and may help boost the immune system.
Mark Stengler, ND, coauthor of Prescription for Drug Alternatives, has found that aloe juice helps patients with gastric reflux, ulcerative colitis, Crohn’s disease, and chronic indigestion and constipation. “Aloe juice is a simple, effective, and inexpensive remedy,” he says.
Stengler describes the case of a 60-year-old patient—a woman with a six-month history of gastritis (stomach inflammation) and constipation. The burning pain in her stomach made it difficult for her to fall asleep, and her primary care physician recommended an acid-blocking drug, which she was reluctant to take. “I asked her to take 2 ounces of aloe juice before each meal, and within two days she had a 50 percent reduction in pain,” Stengler says.
“After two weeks, her stomach pain went away completely, and her bowel movements became regular. After a month, she was able to reduce the amount of aloe juice to 2 ounces daily to prevent any recurrences.”
In an analysis of 10 human studies, Edzard Ernst, MD, PhD, of the University of Exeter in England, noted that 2 tablespoons of aloe gel daily lowered blood sugar levels by 44 percent after about a month and a half.
But just what makes aloe juice work? It contains 75 active ingredients, though researchers attribute most of the health benefits to a handful of complex carbohydrates, particularly mannans and pectins, according to Josias Hamman, a professor of pharmaceutical sciences at Tshwane University of Technology in South Africa. In a recent article in the journal Molecules, Hamman wrote that aloe’s benefits most likely come from the synergism of its many natural chemical constituents, not any single one.
Aloe contains small amounts of digestive enzymes, such as amylase and lipase; antioxidants, including vitamins C and E, catalase, and superoxide dismutase; B vitamins; chromium; magnesium; and all eight essential amino acids. It also contains salicylic acid, a natural form of aspirin, and beta-sitosterol, a compound that may help lower cholesterol levels. One other important benefit: aloe seems to increase the absorption of what you consume with it, whether medications or vitamins.
If you are put off by the sour, slightly unripe flavor of aloe juice, add a splash of fruit juice, stir in a squeeze of lemon and a spoonful of honey the way they do in China, or raise a glass of Pineapple-Aloe Cocktail to your health twice a day.
How to take it: One tablespoon of aloe juice taken twice daily is the dosage used in blood sugar studies, but Mark Stengler, ND, recommends taking 2 to 4 ounces (1/4 to 1/2 cup) before each meal for digestive and immune support and to help improve blood sugar levels. Check product labels for water content, and look for pure, undiluted juice.
Safety: If you have diabetes or hypoglycemia, use caution and check with your doctor before trying aloe vera juice, since it has blood sugar—lowering properties. People with garlic or onion allergies may be allergic to aloe. Also, consuming aloe juice may cause stomach cramps and diarrhea. The juice and gel tend to be much gentler than aloe products in capsule and tablet form, which often deliver strong diuretic doses of aloe latex.