Long a staple of Jamaican bush medicine, aloe vera, aloe barbadensin, aloe vulgaris or sinkle bible, one of three hundred aloe members of the lily family, is touted by some to be a miracle cure-all. While it might not be the universal remedy of bush medicine repute, the entire world is now familiar with this tropical plant and its many uses.
In fact, there are thousands of commercial products available world wide which contain aloe. Unfortunately many of these cosmetic and health products do not contain enough aloe to be of significant benefit. In Jamaica, and in other tropical countries, many people have aloe growing in their gardens. In cooler climates it makes an excellent, trouble free house plant. I have had several aloe plants in my garden for all my life. I have never used fertilizers, fungicides, insecticides or any other garden treatment on them. I have never had to. They have never died in either drought or flood, they grow in shade or sun. If you root one out and throw it away then rescue it a month later and replant it, it will grow.
The history of aloe as medicine goes back to the ancient Egyptians who apparently used it both topically and internally as we still do today. It appears in medicine throughout history in various countries and in modern times has been the subject of medical research since the 1930s. Cleopatra was supposed to have bathed in aloe juice every day to retain her youth. In the Bible, it is said that Christ’s body was wrapped in aloe when he was removed from the Cross. Alexander the Great is supposed to have conquered the island of Socotra in the Indian Ocean to reap the aloe growing there to treat his injured soldiers.
This article however is not about the history of the plant but rather about the amazing medicinal uses that nature has supplied us with in the aloe vera plant.
Nowadays we apply sunscreen liberally and carefully limit our time in the sun. As a child and teenager, I spent many, many hours under the searing tropical sun. Sunburn was common and always treated with liberal doses of fresh aloe gel. As I grew older I started to avoid getting burned but still applied aloe after being out in the sun. If sunburn is treated immediately there is almost no likelihood of blistering. When applied to sunburn there is often an itching sensation but this goes away by the time the gel dries. It is not recommended for use as a sunscreen as using aloe before you go out in the sun may cause burning or blotchiness. Other burns and scalds also benefit from the application of aloe gel. For large burns you should always seek medical attention.
Topical application is the same for cuts and bruises. About twenty years ago my husband managed to cut off his thumb with a table saw. Husband and finger were quickly rushed to the doctor who immediately sent us to an orthopaedic surgeon. Dr. M. S. stitched back the thumb and sent us home. I immediately removed the dressing and applied aloe gel thickly all over the wound; I did this several times a day. Two days later when we returned to the surgeon he remarked that the injury was clean and healing extremely quickly. I confessed my home treatment. He raised his eyebrows then gave permission to continue as it was “obviously not doing any harm.” Today, though the thumb does not function 100%, there is absolutely no scar.
I have also seen two cases of skin cancer successfully treated with the regular application of aloe gel, including one very advanced case, as well as heard about several others. However I would not suggest using aloe as an alternative to seeing your doctor as what works to treat one type of skin cancer in one individual might not work on another type or another person.
Aloe is also used as a drink as it is rich in antioxidants. One caution: aloin, the yellow sap which oozes out from between the skin and gel, should be avoided. This sap, which turns purple when dry and which gives aloe its characteristic bitter taste is a potent purgative and can be harmful in large quantities. To prepare your aloe drink, peel off all the skin and rinse the gel before putting it in the blender with a small amount of water and a teaspoon or two of honey. Alternately, mix half and half with fruit juice. Drinking a glass or two of aloe juice a day does wonders for the digestive tract and there is some evidence that it actually helps treat ulcers, cystitis and colitis. Some diabetics say that when they take aloe juice they are able to reduce their insulin use. If you are diabetic, speak to your doctor and be very careful about self medicating.
Over the last decade or so aloe has become more and more popular as an ingredient in cosmetics. However, a lot of this is just marketing hype as the amount used in most commercial products is too minimal to do any good. Aloe is excellent as an astringent after washing your face. Your skin will feel tight but that is caused by the gel or juice drying on your skin not because it dries out your skin. One of our very popular uses in Jamaica is as a shampoo. The hair is saturated with aloe gel or liquid, allowed to dry then rinsed out. Aside from improving hair texture it also helps get rid of the build up of all the hair products we tend to use. It is also reported by many people that it helps to cure dandruff.
Throughout history, aloe has also been used to treat a host of ailments, from earache to athlete’s foot. Research and anecdotal evidence varies.
Research has shown that aloe vera works for a few very simple reasons. It is a natural antiseptic and helps retard bacterial growth, it promotes cell regeneration and, when applied topically, it dries and creates a film on the surface of the skin which helps protect the burn or abrasion.
Though aloe allergy is extremely rare, it might not be a bad idea, if you have never used it before, to apply a small amount under your arm and leave for twenty-four hours before using greater quantities. If there is any burning, redness or swelling wash it off immediately with a lot of water and do not use aloe at all.
While there are an overwhelming amount of books and websites devoted to aloe vera and its uses, I still use as my “bible” a small fifty page book from the 1980s called “Miracle Plants: Aloe Vera” written by Frena Bloomfield and published by Century Publishing, London. Its size makes it very easy to look up things and the author cites research on each individual use of the plant and includes a bibliography at the back. Unfortunately, I have been unable to find it online as it appears to be out of print.
I have noticed that when I have applied aloe all over after a shower, I am almost never bitten by mosquitoes or sandflies (gnats). I have recommended this to others who say it works for them too. Unfortunately I’ve been unable to find any research on this.
Some years ago NASA did a study of several house plants in space. The idea was to identify those which were more effective in cleaning the air in an enclosed environment. Most Jamaican homes are still fairly open to fresh air but office buildings, as well as homes in many countries, are often tightly sealed with the same air constantly recirculating. This leads to something called “sick building syndrome,” where people in these buildings are constantly breathing in benzene, formaldehyde and trichloroethylene. These chemicals are all around us in paints, carpets, particle board, plastic, even in our clothes. We can buy air purifiers or special filters for our air conditioners. Or we can keep certain plants indoors which help to clean the air without the cost of regularly changing filters. Chief among these plants is aloe vera. An aloe plant or two in your bedroom will drastically reduce the chemicals in the very air you breathe.