Aloe Vera: Folk Remedy or Much More?

By Schieszer, John | St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO), October 9, 1994 | Go to article overview

Aloe Vera: Folk Remedy or Much More?


Schieszer, John, St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO)


Aloe vera, a plant that many people keep around in case of burns, may turn out to be a more potent healer than most of us ever guessed.

Actually, the ancients may have had some idea of its usefulness. According to one published medical report, Aloe vera was used more than 2000 years ago by Egyptians to treat burns, ulcers and parasitic infections. The Chinese also reportedly used Aloe vera centuries ago for its healing properties. Even Alexander the Great counted on this plant to heal a host of health problems.

Now American scientists are taking a close look at Aloe vera, and it may soon be getting a great deal more respect from physicians who in the past considered it only a folk remedy with very limited benefits.

New studies confirm that Aloe vera has aspirin-like effects, anesthetic uses and even can be used to fight dangerous micro-organisms. Research also shows it may help prevent gum disease and subsequent tooth loss.

Researchers at the University of Texas M.D. Anderson Cancer Center have found that an extract made from Aloe vera plants may protect the immune system following exposure to ultraviolet (UV) rays.

The researchers say that applying Aloe vera after sun bathing cannot reverse the skin damage caused by UV exposure, damage that can cause skin cancer. However, the study they have just completed shows that a specially-prepared extract from Aloe vera may prevent most of the damage to the skin's immune system. This prevents weakening of the body's defenses against diseases, including cancer.

"We showed that it prevents the hidden damage to the skin. That is important in preventing cancers," says Dr. Faith Strickland, an assistant immunologist at M.D. Anderson.

Aloe vera, a succulent cactus-like plant in the lily family, has long been thought to be good for the skin. But Strickland's study is the first to show that extracts from Aloe vera applied after sun exposure may help protect the immune system from the harmful effects of UV rays.

"The sun harms your immune system because the sun reacts with cells in your skin and the cells protect against skin cancer. But they also protect against bacteria, fungus and viruses and one of the things they found out was that if you put Aloe vera into the equation, it diminishes the depression of the immune system," says Dr. Robert Ziegler, a dermatologist at St. Mary's Health Center in Richmond Heights.

Ziegler says the study is very important because it is the first to evaluate scientifically the use of Aloe vera extract applied topically after sun exposure.

Until now, it has been known that Aloe vera could help with a myriad of skin problems, including burns and sunburns. But there was little scientific data to back up the health claims. The Texas research, however, "is a controlled situation for a change and that makes a difference," Ziegler says. "The biggest problem they are running into is: What is the active ingredient in Aloe vera that is giving the results?"

This new study was conducted on laboratory mice and involved a specially-formulated extract from Aloe vera gel. Human studies are expected within the next 18 months. "Products can vary greatly and the amount of aloe in commercial products is also usually very low. Our studies used what was equivalent to 100 percent aloe," says Strickland, one of several investigators trying to discover how Aloe vera can treat disease. …

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