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I've always tended to regard aloe vera as the poor relation of super plants. Sure, it might have a few soothing qualities and go for seven years without rain water, but I assumed it was far from being a botanical hero in the way that, say, goji berries are supposed to be. Then I came across evidence that aloe vera stimulates collagen production.
According to Dr. Danhof of North Texas Research Laboratories, aloe speeds up skin cell reproduction by as much as eight times and penetrates the epidermis four times faster than water. All of this is due to the polysaccharides in aloe. So I decided to find out more about this perhaps-not-so-humble succulent.
My first stop was Wikipedia. The entry on aloe vera is pretty downbeat and says that any evidence that it does any good at all is contradicted by other data sets. Hmm. Perhaps I had been right in the first place.
The National Center for Complementary & Alternative Medicine is a bit iffy on the subject of aloe vera as well. Its website reports that early studies show that topical aloe gel may help heal burns and abrasions. One study, however, showed that aloe gel inhibits healing of deep surgical wounds. Most damningly, it says: "There is not enough scientific evidence to support aloe vera for any of its other use."
On the other hand, one doctor thinks it could be an absolute cure-all. Dr. Hedendal says: "In clinical studies of whole-leaf Aloe vera’s internal and external uses during the past six months, I have personally witnessed mitigations or complete resolutions of the following: abrasions, acne, allergies, burns". His list is way too long to replicate here but the thing that makes Dr. H a believer is that aloe vera has mucopolysaccharides, which are long-chain sugars found in large amounts in the plant. Mucopolysaccharides (MPS) play a role in human and animal health, and we stop manufacturing them in our bodies by the time we reach puberty.
And there is plenty of research that looks reasonably convincing. Researchers at Tokyo Women's Medical College in Japan have shown that certain lectins (a type of protein) in aloe gel may stimulate the immune system to increase production of killer cells, or naturally occurring lymphocytes that kill bacteria and tumor cells. Studies in Japan and the Netherlands suggest that constituents in aloe gel can enhance the workings of the immune system by containing the killer cells' lethal chemicals, preventing them from damaging healthy, functional cells. And a review of the medical literature by a group at the University of Texas in Galveston concluded that aloe gel clearly promotes wound healing and prevents progressive skin damage caused by burns and frostbite. It works by penetrating injured tissue, relieving pain, reducing inflammation, and dilating capillaries to increase blood flow to the injury.
While there may not be much data, the properties of aloe vera do seem promising. There are, for example, 18 amino acids in this succulent and it has all the main vitamins, except D. I decided to take the plunge and buy a some pure aloe vera gel. This is what it contains: more than seventy-five compounds, including polysaccharides (complex carbohydrates), steroids, organic acids, enzymes, antibiotic agents, amino acids, and minerals.