In ancient Egypt, Aloe vera was known as the "plant of immortality," and it's easy to see why. In addition to its well known use as a first aid ointment for minor burns, cuts and scrapes, aloe is also useful for a variety of other medicinal and nutritive uses, both external and internal.
Aloe vera is native to Africa and parts of the Middle East, and has a history as a herbal remedy in those regions stretching back thousands of years. In the 18th and 19th century, it was one of the most commonly prescribed remedies even by Western doctors. It remains one of the most popular and widely used remedies to this day.
Healing and hydrating
The gel derived from aloe vera leaves is a remarkable healing substance. It is approximately 95 percent water, and the other 5 percent has high levels of anti-inflammatory, antioxidant and antimicrobial enzymes. This accounts for much of its usefulness in treating minor skin injuries, including burns; that extends to sunburns, as well. In fact, aloe's ability to hydrate and seal the skin makes it a particularly effective sunburn remedy.
Aloe's healing and hydrating qualities also make it a great substitute for shaving creams or gels – it both nourishes the skin and helps heal it from tiny cuts or abrasions caused by shaving. For this use, aloe can also be mixed with almond or eucalyptus oil.
Aloe's external uses aren't limited to first aid. It can also be used as a makeup remover – just a small dollop of gel can be placed on a cotton ball and used to cleanse the skin. Aloe-soaked cotton balls can also be refrigerated and then used as compresses for puffy eyes.
The plant's healing and antimicrobial characteristics also work on the inside of your mouth, healing mouth ulcers (canker sores), removing plaque and eliminating or preventing bad breath.
Internal use even more potent
But unlike many herbal remedies, aloe vera gel can also be used as a superfood. It contains a variety of minerals – including calcium, chromium, copper, iron, magnesium, manganese, potassium, selenium and zinc – that provide essential nutrients and help boost metabolic function. In contains 20 of the 22 essential amino acids, and the vitamins A, C, E, choline, folic acid, B1, B2, B3 and B6. It even contains B12, a vitamin that typically is only found in animal foods (and that therefore can be hard for people on vegan diets to get enough of). Aloe also seems to contain compounds that boost the body's absorption and use of vitamin B12.
In fact, aloe vera gel contains more than 200 biologically active constituents, including vitamins, minerals, amino acids, polysaccharides and enzymes. The enzymes include amylase and lipase, which help digest sugar and fat, and bradykinase, an anti-inflammatory. Aloe vera also contains salicylic acid, the active ingredient that makes willow bark a painkiller, anti-inflammatory and antimicrobial (and from which aspirin is derived).
Taken internally, aloe can help fight infection, boost the immune system, aid digestion, remove toxic material from the digestive organs, and relieve inflammation in the joints and gut.
Aloe vera gel can be purchased at most health food stores. You can also make it yourself from the fresh leaves of the plant, which is sold in many grocery stores and can be grown potted or in a garden. Simply juice either the whole leaves or the inner filet of the leaves. For external first aid, the leaves can also simply be sliced open and laid on the cut, scrape or burn to be treated.
As aloe vera gel has a slightly bitter taste, some people prefer to mix it into smoothies or other beverages.
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