Often referred to as a ‘wonder plant’, the Egyptians called aloe vera the plant of immortality. The leaves can be added to juice or dried in a supplement as a remedy for constipation and other digestive disorders.
Gel from the leaves is also used to make skincare products to soothe minor burns, sunburn, cuts and dry skin conditions.
Dr Sarah Brewer says: ‘Aloe vera has been used for thousands of years and remains popular for its ability to support the digestive process, and to help ease constipation. When used topically, aloe vera gel is also beneficial in healing minor burns, sunburn and wounds.’
How does it work?
The precise mechanism isn't fully understood, but it is believed the outer layers of aloe vera leaves –which contain the bitter latex – provides substances called anthraquinones which have anti-inflammatory properties.
Taking aloe vera supplements containing aloe latex, may help if you have constipation, a common problem that affects around one in seven adults. The laxative effects of anthraquinones are believed to help by stimulating bowel contractions.
People who suffer from the inflammatory bowel disease ulcerative colitis, inflammation of the large intestine and rectum, have reported reduced symptoms after drinking aloe vera juice.
Another study of people who drink aloe vera juice for irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) – a collection of gut complaints which include constipation, diarrhoea, bloating, cramping pains and wind – showed slight improvement in those who had diarrhoea as the predominant symptom.
If you are particularly sensitive to the laxative element in aloe vera choose a product that is labelled 'aloin-free' which does not have a laxative effect.
If you are taking prescribed medication regularly, check with your pharmacist or GP before taking oral aloe vera. The laxative element of aloe vera may reduce the absorption of some prescribed medications.
Wounds and burns
Aloe vera is commonly used as a gel to help soothe skin conditions and wounds.
One set of research looked at studies into treatment for a painful condition, called erosive lichen planus (ELP), which affects the mouth, oesophagus (food pipe or gullet), anus and genital regions. In a small study, aloe vera gel was found to be six times more likely to produce at least a 50 per cent reduction in pain symptoms, compared to a placebo.
In another small trial, 50 patients with second-degree burns were treated with either aloe vera gel or silver sulphadiazine. All the patients who received treatment with aloe vera gel had healed completely by the 40th day compared to the 56th day for patients on silver sulphadiazine.
There is also some evidence that using aloe vera products on your skin may be helpful in easing discomfort from psoriasis, a dry skin condition which causes itchy, red raised plaques.
Getting aloe vera from your diet
Aloe vera doesn't occur naturally as a food. The elements of the aloe vera plant that are used in supplements and drinks, can only be harvested through processing its leaves. You can buy aloe vera juice; it's generally advised to drink this in small amounts.
Check with your GP first before taking aloe vera orally if you have diabetes or take any other drugs that may affect your blood glucose levels, as aloe vera may also lower these. Also discuss aloe vera with your GP before you take it if you have heart disease, bleeding disorders or are taking medication that may raise your risk of bleeding.
Avoid aloe vera during pregnancy as the anthraquinones can cause uterine contractions. Avoid when breastfeeding as it may affect the baby's bowel.
There is no UK or EU recommended dosage for aloe vera concentrated extract products. One tablet a day of 10,000mg aloe vera concentrated extract is a typical dose.