Gandhi knew a little something about guts.
And not just the kind required for world-altering nonviolent revolutions.
Though it often looked like the man could stand to gain a few pounds, Mohandas Gandhi knew how to maintain a healthy digestive system and eliminate any potential ulcers caused by the fight for freedom: He drank aloe vera.
So did Aristotle, Cleopatra and Alexander the Great. People have used aloe vera as a digestive aid for at least 4,000 years. Today, an increasing number of people are rediscovering the plant's many benefits. According to San Francisco-based SPINS, an information and service provider for the natural products industry, sales of aloe vera for "constipation health concerns" rose from $11.5 million in 2004 to nearly $14.3 million for the 52 weeks ending Oct. 8, 2005—a 24 percent increase.
And constipation is only one of a long list of maladies that aloe vera purportedly helps. It's also effective in fighting irritable bowel syndrome, ulcers, acid reflux and Crohn's disease. In addition, aloe vera has been shown to increase absorption of vitamins and other supplements.
Aloe vera is one of more than 200 kinds of aloe, which are all in the lily family, as are garlic and onions. "Vera" means "true," and relatively recently, scientific studies have been proving true a growing number of anecdotal claims regarding the plant's impressive variety of digestion-related benefits.
"If you had a room full of herbalists and asked them what one plant they would take if they were marooned on a desert island, most of them would say 'aloe vera,'" says Walt Jones, president of the International Aloe Science Council, a nonprofit industry organization based in Irving, Texas.
Not just for sunburn
The original commercial use of aloe vera stemmed from the extraction of aloin, a substance that was used for many years as a laxative ingredient. Aloin came to be synonymous with aloe vera, which caused some confusion when the inner gel, or fillet, of the aloe plant began to be marketed. Starting in the 1950s, aloe gained respect as a base for nutritional drinks and other supplements. Today it is available as an ingredient in many functional food items and in gel capsules, juices and liquid and powder concentrates.
The inner gel fillet is what is left after the outer rind of the aloe leaf is removed; whole leaf aloe gel is made from the entire leaf. Though both are used for the same purposes, researchers usually use the more highly concentrated fillet for study.
There are more than 200 biologically active ingredients in aloe, including polysaccharides and simple sugars, minerals, nutrients, vitamins, enzymes and amino acids. The polysaccharides work to direct the other materials in a sort of "aloe orchestra" that works synergistically to improve digestive health. There are no governmental standards for aloe. However, the International Aloe Science Council certifies the authenticity of aloe products from around the world.
The digestive wonder plant
While more people are familiar with the laxative properties of aloe vera, the plant helps the digestive system in several other ways.
A study by Dr. Alan R. Gaby, published in the April 2004 issue of Alimentary Pharmacology and Therapeutics, confirmed that aloe vera gel relieves the symptoms of ulcerative colitis, a type of irritable bowel syndrome. Forty-seven percent of the people taking aloe in the study reported an improvement in symptoms, compared with only 14 percent of those taking a placebo gel.
Irritable bowel syndrome is the disease most commonly diagnosed by gastroenterologists. Between 10 percent and 20 percent of the population suffers from it, according to the International Foundation for Functional Gastroenterological Disorders. When taken daily, aloe vera works within the intestinal tract to help break down impacted food residues that can cause this condition, and it thoroughly cleanses the bowel, according to the Aloe Vera Information Centre in East Sussex, England.
Another study in 1991 by Dr. Ivan Danhof, the "father of aloe," found that when aloe vera was administered to animals prior to stomach ulcer-inducing stress, there was an 80 percent decrease in the number of ulcers that formed. When the aloe vera was given after ulcers were formed, the ulcers healed three times as quickly as those in the animals that did not receive aloe.
"It's a wonderful healer for wounds both inside and outside the body," says Jones of the IASC.
"The aloe reduces the amount of acid secreted by the stomach to manageable levels," says Neil Levin, clinical nutritionist at NOW Foods. "Among other things, it also protects the lining of the stomach and helps stimulate the growth of new cells. Very few plants have such a wide range of use."
In addition to acting independently to aid digestion, aloe vera works in concert with other nutrients to improve internal health. Aloe vera appears to increase absorption of vitamins E and C, according to a study published in Phytomedicine (November 2005). No other substance has been found to do this, according to the study's authors. This phenomenon has captured the interest of athletes seeking to enhance performance by swallowing their daily supplement with aloe juice.
Because of this effect on absorption, aloe vera promises to be an up-and-coming ingredient in energy bars and drinks and other functional foods geared toward athletes, says Gene Hale, executive director of the IASC. In fact, an increasing number of studies proving the benefits of aloe could mean a very successful future for new aloe products, he says. "The science is backing up the claims in a range of areas." This year, at the organization's 24th annual summit, scientists presented 13 papers discussing the powers of aloe vera.
So far, aloe vera use has not been found to have any adverse side effects. Taking too much of an aloe product that contains a high concentration of aloin, however, produces the results expected when consuming too much of any laxative.
Improved monitoring of the quality and amount of aloe make it easier to consume exactly the amount desired. Today's aloe fans have it easy. After all, Alexander the Great didn't have the convenience of single-serving bottles of aloe vera juice with no-spill lids to take into battle. And Aristotle couldn't buy concentrate by the gallon.
Shara Rutberg is a freelance writer based in Boulder, Colo.
Natural Foods Merchandiser volume XXVII/number 2/p. 24, 26