Aloe Vera - A Brief History
"Four vegetables are indispensable for the well being of man:
Wheat, the grape, the olive and aloe.
The first nourishes him, the second raises his spirit,
The third brings him harmony, and the fourth cures him"
Christopher Columbus (1451-1506)
"You ask me what were the secret forces which sustained me during my long fasts. Well, it was my unshakeable faith in God, my simple and frugal lifestyle, and the Aloe whose benefits I discovered upon my arrival in South Africa at the end of the nineteenth century".
Mahatma Gandhi (1869-1948)
There are in fact over 200 varieties of Aloe, but it is the Aloe Barbadensis Miller (Aloe Vera or "true aloe") plant which has been of most use to mankind because of the medicinal properties it displays. Ancient records show that the benefits of this plant have been known for centuries, with its therapeutic advantages and healing properties surviving for more than 5000 years.
Its antiquity was first discovered in 1862 in an Egyptian papyrus dated 1500 BC. It was used to great effect by Greek and Roman physicians. Researchers have found that both the ancient Chinese and Indian used Aloe Vera. Egyptian Queens associated its use with their physical beauty, while in the Phillipines it is used with milk for kidney infections. Legend suggests that Alexander the Great conquered the island of Socotra in the Indian Ocean to secure supplies of Aloes to treat the battle wounds of his soldiers.
Aloe Vera remained a prominent herbal remedy but as the Northern European countries expanded their colonisation of the globe, it starts to fall from grace. It is not clear why this was so, but a possible explanation is the difference between the use of Aloe Vera in tropical climes, compared with the temperate north. In tropical countries where the plants grew naturally, there was an abundance of fresh Aloe. However, Aloe Vera had to be imported to the temperate north, but inevitably degraded in transit. Physicians in Europe therefore never got to experience the true benefits, and scorned reports of the wonders that it could do for health. In consequence it never really took hold; in the knowledge of European Physicians, and the alleged remarkable healing powers; were felt to be more myth than fact. As science developed Aloe Vera became discarded along with many stalwart herbal remedies of an earlier age.
Aloe Vera Fights Back
Aloe Vera remained popular in tropical areas, and after the end of World War II interest was refreshed in it and the main obstacle to it being used outside tropical areas was the need to prevent the inner gel deteriorating. Many attempts were made, but failed as excessive heat destroys the essence of Aloe Vera, and higher than acceptable contents of Aloin remained which is a potent laxative. Indeed it was the laxative powers of the unpure gel that helped Aloe Vera maintain a toehold in Western medical science.
;Interest in Aloe Vera in the USA remained strong and by the 1920's there were over 25 popular preparations, but it was not until 1935 that the healing powers were firmly established. The big breakthrough came in the 1970's when American Scientists found an effective way of separating the Aloin and stabilising the inner leaf gel with natural ingredients and cold processing.
The Present Day
Although modern medicines and drugs are undoubtably effective in treating ailments, long term use often brings with it undesirable side effects. In consequence more consumers and scientists are turning back to look at traditional, and often natural, therapies which have been neglected for so long. As a result Aloe Vera is once again attracting attention as it can provide many benefits to our nutritionally deficient lifestyle.
What is Aloe Vera?
Although there are many Aloes the term Aloe Vera refers specifically to the Aloe Barbadensis Miller. Fully grown the plant stands 60 to 90 cm high, and a mature leaf is 7 to 10 cm across at the base weighing 1.5 to 2 kg.
The Aloe leaf structure is made up of four layers:
Rind - the outer protective layer;
Sap - a layer of bitter fluid which helps protect the plant from animals;
Gel - the inner part of the leaf that is filleted out to make Aloe Vera gel.
There is much confusion over the terms Gel and Juice, and it is often assumed incorrectly that they are the same thing, which they are not. Gel refers to the inner part of the leaf only. The term Juice refers to the bitter sap or Latex that resides just under the skin of the leaf, this contains Aloin a potent laxative, and unless this property is desired the juice should not be used for human purposes.
Aloe Vera (inner gel) contains:
The 8 essential Amino Acids that the human body needs but cannot manufacture. There are 20 "critical" Amino Acids in human metabolism, but the body can only make 12, the other 8 have to be obtained from food. These are: Isoleucine, Leucine, Lysine, Methionine, Phenylalanine, Threonine, Valine, and Tryptophan;
Enzymes - Amylase, Bradykinase,Catalase, Cellulase, Lipase, Oxidase, Alkaline Phosphatase, Proteolytiase, Creatine Phosphokinase, Carboxypeptidase. Most of these are beneficial to human metabolism;
Lignin -gives Aloe Vera its penetrating powers, but is not considered to have any other benefit;
Minerals - Calcium, Chromium, Copper, Iron, Magnesium, Manganese, Potassium, Phosphorous, Sodium, and Zinc. We do not need to be told how the western diet is mineral deficient mainly due to intensive farming on mineral depleted soils. Many bodily functions depend on minerals to work properly;
Mono- and Poly-Saccharides - The mono-saccharides are the familiar glucose, and fructose that we know as sugars. The more complex long-chain sugars are the poly-saccharides which are thought to give Aloe Vera its unique healing and immuno-stimulating properties;
Salicylic Acid - a substance similar to aspirin that can help reduce fever and inflammation;
Saponins - natural soapy substances that have both cleansing and antiseptic properties;
Sterols - naturally occurring plant steroids with analgesic, anti-inflammatory, and antiseptic properties.
Vitamins - these include A (beta-carotene and retinol), B1 (thiamine), B2 ( riboflavin), B3 (niacin), B6 (pyridoxine), B12 (cyanocobalamin), C (ascorbic acid), E (tocopherol) and Folic Acid.
Ensuring you take true Aloe Vera
Aloe Vera has a bitter taste which can be unpleasant in the raw state. Many preparations are available that purport to provide Aloe Vera in tablet or capsule form. It is unlikely that many of the beneficial components will have survived the drying process, and these products often contain so little Aloe Vera as to be of dubious benefit. Indeed the market is so clouded with conflicting claims, producers in for a quick buck, and shysters that it is no wonder that many health professionals remain skeptical of the benefits.
Leading authorities on Aloe Vera maintain that only Inner Leaf Gel as fresh as preservation allows has any remarkable properties.
It is possible to get used to the taste of plain Aloe Vera gel, but if you can't the addition of some fruit juice helps to make it more palatable.
Whole Leaf vs Inner Gel
Another argument that rages on is the difference of opinion between those promoting so-called 'whole leaf' Aloe Vera and those like Forever Living Products who only use the filleted inner gel. It is well established that the inner gel contains most of the beneficial parts of the plant and little of the less beneficial. Those who promote products based on the inner gel alone maintain that their product is as close to 'straight from the plant' as the preservation process allows.
The promoters of 'whole leaf' Aloe Vera maintain that as they use all the leaf, their product must be more abundant in the good properties. However, the components most likely to destroy the poly-saccharides, thought to give Aloe Vera its renowned properties, during processing (cellulose and bacteria), are present in the leaves either just under the rind or on the surface of the leaf. Certainly 'whole leaf' manufacturers use carbon filtration or other techniques to filter out the impurities in the liquidised whole leaf and these are thought to also filter out many of the beneficial constituents. If whole leaf is better why would the largest grower and processor of Aloe Vera in the world take the trouble to fillet by hand the inner leaf gel and use only that, and provide a 60 day 'money back' guarantee to back it up?
With so many shysters in the market, maintaining the quality of Aloe Vera is key to retaining Consumer confidence. There are four key tests of Quality:
The Official IASC (International Aloe Science Council) seal on the package or product container;
That Stabilised Gel is listed as the FIRST ingredient on the contents list, and beware of products that state 'aqua' (Water) as the first ingredient as this almost certainly means that the contents is re-constituted powder;
That the gel is sold in a sealed container that preserves the integrity of the contents;
That the product is supported by at least a 30 day money back satisfaction guarantee, but ideally a 60 day guarantee as offered by the leading grower and producer of Aloe Vera.
(Published 20 June 2006)