The results of my recent colonoscopy set me thinking. The doctor reported that my colon was healthy but blackened. This was the result, he said, of my using “over-the-counter laxatives.” I was shocked because I hadn’t used over-the-counter laxatives for years. What I had been taking, once or twice a week, was an Aloe vera supplement–a completely natural product, purchased from the reputable company I use for all my herbal supplements.
But now I had a problem. What was I really taking? Was it safe to ingest Aloe vera? I started digging for answers. What I found is the pros and problems of Aloe vera.
The Pros of Aloe vera
- It is an anti-inflammatory. Aloe vera contains plant steroids (Campesterol, Lupeol and beta-Sistosterol). These natural anti-inflammatory agents are what make it an effective wound and burn healer, and they act internally the same way. This can help chronic inflammatory conditions such as irritable bowel syndrome, arthritis, and diabetes.
- It is alkalizing. Our blood pH needs to remain slightly alkaline for optimal health (between 7.35 and 7.45). Eating too many carbohydrates, acidic foods, or drinking too much alcohol lowers blood pH. Respiratory problems and diabetes can also make blood more acidic. When this happens, we are more prone to certain diseases, but Aloe vera will raise blood pH.
- It aids digestion. Because of its anti-inflammatory and alkalizing effects, Aloe vera neutralizes stomach acid and helps soothe inflamed digestive linings. Two ounces of juice taken twice a day for one week was found to be helpful for people with peptic ulcers and/or IBS.
- It keeps bowels regular. Until 2002 Aloe vera was sold as an over-the-counter laxative (I did not know that before). It is a powerful laxative!
- It detoxifies. Aloe vera is a natural antimicrobial. This is due to the reasons listed above, and because the gel binds with toxins so that they are not absorbed and are easily eliminated.
- It aids weight loss. This is due to all the reasons listed above.
- It fights skin aging. Just as topical application moisturizes your skin, so Aloe vera will work within the body to affect skin health. It inhibits the enzyme that breaks down collagen, so skin cells can make more of their own collagen. This decreases signs of aging, and is reported effective when used both topically and internally.
- It manages blood glucose levels. Aloe vera can maintain blood sugar when used regularly, or can reduce spikes in blood sugar when used as needed.
- It can lower blood cholesterol. The beta-Sistosterol in Aloe vera binds to cholesterol molecules and keeps them from being absorbed.
- It promotes mouth health. Aloe vera’s alkalizing effect reduces acid that eats away tooth enamel. It’s anti-inflammatory properties help gum health. It’s antimicrobial action controls bacteria in the mouth. It’s soothing effects reduce mouth ulcers.
- It contains vitamins and minerals. Vitamins B1,B2, B6, B12, A, C, and E are all present. Also present are iron, copper, zinc, calcium, potassium, magnesium, manganese, and chromium.
- It provides essential amino acids. Aloe Vera is one of the few plant sources containing all eight of the essential amino acids we need to ingest through our food because our body does not make them.
All of these wonderful things are why Aloe vera is touted as a “wonder drug” and a “super food.” It is wildly popular and, according to the advertisements I keep getting, should be consumed by everyone to maximize their health. But, unfortunately, Aloe vera has a dark side.
The Aloe vera Leaf and Its Products
The Aloe vera leaf is made of two parts: the gel and the latex. The gel is the sappy stuff you get when you break or cut a leaf. The latex is the colored outer layer. Contained primarily in the latex, but also is in the gel, is a substance called aloin, also known as barbaloin. This is the problem part of Aloe vera.
If the ground aloe is run through a charcoal filter, the aloin is filtered out, and you are left with “decolorized” gel. According to everything I have read, ingesting this decolorized gel is safe. Many companies tout the fact that they use only this part of the Aloe vera.
The problem is, this decolorized gel is 99% water with only a bit of soluble fiber and a tiny amount of vitamins and minerals. It is the yellow-brown colored aloin that contains most of the amazing properties listed above. So, if you use a filtered, decolorized, gel, Aloe vera product, you’re getting cheated. But you’re also also avoiding life-threatening problems
The Problems of Aloe vera
- It can cause skin problems. If used for a prolonged time it can cause an allergy. For people with sensitive skin, a single generous application can cause a rash and irritation. These reactions are rare, however. Most people can use it topically with no problem.
- It can cause cramps and diarrhea. It is such a powerful laxative that this is a common side-effect.
- It can cause dehydration and electrolyte imbalance. This is a concern because diarrhea is such a common side-effect, and because diarrhea can result in dehydration and electrolyte imbalance. These can be deadly with little warning.
- It can bring on premature labor in a pregnant woman. The same cramping effect that occurs in the bowel occurs in the uterus also and can lead to labor. Pregnant women should never take more than trace amounts of aloin.
- It can create hypoglycemia. Diabetics should be very cautious in using it to control blood sugar spikes because it is so powerful that it will over-reverse the spike. If you are on diabetic medications, know that Aloe vera’s beneficial effects of blood sugar regulation will wreak havoc with your medications. If you choose to use both, check your sugar much more often and consult with your doctor.
- It interferes with absorption of medications. Aloe vera does not know what is a toxin and what is a necessary medication, so it binds with each alike and prevents them from being absorbed. If you are on thyroid or heart medication this is especially dangerous. Never take any Aloe vera product within an hour of either side of your medications. (In this case the gel is as much a problem as the aloin.)
- It can cause liver problems. The same effect that can cleanse the liver can also interfere with normal liver function. Hepatitis and liver toxicity were reported in Africa by people who took high doses or took it for a long time.
- It can cause anemia, muscle weakness, and irregular heartbeat. These findings were reported in various studies coming from Africa and China. The study which found anemia was not a human study.
- It can cause kidney disease and failure. Several cases of kidney failure in Africa were linked to aloin. Even high doses of the gel can damage the kidneys because it seems the bits of fiber in it are hard for the kidneys to process.
- It causes cancer in rats. This study, even though only done on rats, was conclusive enough for the FDA to pull all Aloe vera based laxatives from the market in 2002.
How can a substance, which has been used continuously since the days of ancient Egypt, be so dangerous? Well, except for the problem of drug interaction, these dangerous side-effects usually occurred in people who took high doses, took aloin for long periods, or who were extra sensitive to aloin. It is also worth noting that the FDA allows aloin to be added to alcohol as a bittering agent, and aloe gel is added to yogurt as well as sold in drinks. So what should you do?
First, I must say that I have no medical training. Second, I have not done exhaustive research on this. Third, I have, however, a very open mind. I used whole leaf Aloe vera and had only minor problems.
So, here are my personal conclusions.
- Treat Aloe vera, especially anything containing aloin, like you would a prescription drug. It is a very powerful substance!
- If you use it, use only the smallest amount necessary to achieve results. The potential benefits are vast, and the possible side-effects are serious.
- Don’t believe everything you hear about it. Advertisements are not responsible for your health–you are!
I’d love to hear about your experiences with Aloe vera. Please leave me your comments.