The sticky, oozy gel of the aloe vera plant has been used to treat skin and other health problems for thousands of years. I’m sure you’ve spread it on a nasty sunburn or to soothe a scrape, as it has both moisturizing and healing properties. Aloe is also increasingly used a nutritional supplement, especially to treat digestive disorders. People swear by drinking the juice or gel, but its internal uses are considerably less proven.
Aloe can supposedly help with regularity, as well as with the lessening of reflux and IBS symptoms. But there are scores of other reported advantages, too, including the regulation of blood sugar, reduction of inflammation and alkalization of the body. Even Dr. Oz touts the use of aloe vera gel as a treatment for bad breath.
Like lots of other herbal remedies, most of the evidence is anecdotal (although most of the anecdotes are overwhelmingly positive.) Almost everyone I talked to said aloe was great for their digestion and that’s why they made it a regular part of their health routine. Morgan Refakis, a dancer and Pilates instructor in New York City, said:
“It helps with my digestive system, which can be irregular sometimes. I’ve been drinking aloe for over two years. If you have an irritation, you can drink aloe and it’ll be soothing and less irritated.”
Dr. Dani Gordon, MD,CCFP, explains how aloe can aid in the body’s digestion:
“The proposed way that it works is through the anti-inflammatory phytochemicals in the aloe plant aiding the body’s immune system to reduce inflammation and speed the healing process.”
Kate Galliet, a personal trainer, also said that drinking a concoction made of aloe and probiotics helped cure her of a respiratory infection: “Within 24 hours of drinking it, I was feeling better.”
But despite its popularity in the natural health world, drinking or otherwise ingesting aloe vera isn’t totally undisputed. It’s hard to find non-anecdotal information on the effects taking aloe vera into your body, although there have been a few conventional medical studies.
According to Mike Roussell, writing for SHAPE magazine, there’s also been some good scientific evidence for aloe use:
“In a 2004 study from the U.K., researchers gave people with active ulcerative colitis, a type of inflammatory bowel disease, aloe vera gel to drink. After four weeks of drinking aloe vera gel in water twice per day, there was a clinical response towards improvement and remission of ulcerative colitis, compared to those given plain water. No significant negative side effects were experienced due to drinking the aloe vera gel.”
But the findings aren’t all positive. In fact, a study conducted by the National Toxicology Program actually found that aloe vera juice may have contributed to the growth of “carcinogenic activity in male and female rats, based on tumors of the large intestine.”
But before you throw away all your aloe juice for fear of getting cancer, let’s talk a little bit about the different kinds of aloe supplements. The rats in that study ingested whole-leaf aloe vera extract, a different compound than in the 2004 study. Whole-leaf means that the compound was drawn from the entire leaf of the plant, not just the inner gel (the gel is what you’d rub on a burn). The extract in this study was also non-decolorized; decolorization is a charcoal filtration process, which can remove some of the possibly harmful substances (namely, one called Aloin) that are thought to have caused the tumors in the animals.
So, there’s a big difference between the various kinds of aloe supplements. There’s juice and there’s gel and there’s lots of different processing concerns to take into consideration, as well. Generally, it seems like it’s best to avoid whole-leaf supplements, until more research about them is conducted. Also, make sure any supplement you buy is de-colorized.
It also seems like gel is the way to go: those products are less likely to have additional additives like sugar, in contrast to juice products. Look for a gel that contains at least a 70% concentration of aloe vera, as this study in the Internet Journal of Microbiology suggests. The experts I spoke to, like naturopath Dr. Stacy Mobley, also stressed choosing a supplement that is pesticide-free, GMO-free, and cold-processed; heat processing can eliminate some of the beneficial enzymes that make aloe so soothing.
As always, consult your doctor if you’re interested in using aloe vera internally. Do your research, weigh your options, and carefully read the label of the product you’re buying. Ultimately, the benefits of drinking aloe may well outweigh the possible negative side effects. Nikki Thomas of Las Cruces, N.M., a regular aloe drinker, told me:
“I did some research and liked the aloe vera benefits. In any case, it makes my mind happy because I feel like I’m doing something to improve my health.”