Safety and specifics of aloe use

July 31, 2008|By Donna M. Owens | Donna M. Owens,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Beyond its topical use, the outer part of the aloe leaf (the green part, or rind, of the leaf) produces a juice or dried substance called latex, which contains compounds that make for a natural laxative.

Products made with various components of aloe used to be regulated by the Food and Drug Administration as oral over-the-counter laxatives. In 2002, however, the FDA required these products be removed from the market or reformulated because of insufficient safety information from manufacturers.

In addition, aloe is taken orally for medical conditions including diabetes, asthma, epilepsy and osteoarthritis. However, many experts caution that there is not enough scientific evidence to support all of aloe vera's uses.

"People believe all kinds of things about aloe, some of which have not been validated," says Dr. Adriane Fugh-Berman, an associate professor of complementary and alternative medicine in the Department of Physiology and Biophysics at Georgetown University. "The way most people use aloe for minor burns, cuts and abrasions is harmless. But there are some unethical companies that are pushing these products for everything."

In 2001, a Maryland businessman and a Virginia doctor were sentenced to prison for administering intravenous aloe vera injections to patients, falsely claiming they could treat diseases such as AIDS and cancer. Under the Federal Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act, it is illegal to market a drug for the treatment of specific illnesses unless it is approved by the FDA.

Fugh-Berman, a nationally recognized expert who has written textbooks on alternative medicine, says the public must use caution when interpreting medical information from the Internet and elsewhere because much of the information is "unreliable." Meanwhile, studies vary. For instance, she says, some studies have shown that topical aloe gel may help heal shallow burns and abrasions. Another study, however, showed that aloe gel inhibits healing of deep surgical wounds.

Generally, experts say topical use of aloe vera is not associated with significant side effects. Abdominal cramps and diarrhea have been reported with oral use of aloe vera if the gel is contaminated with the green rind of the leaf (the rind, not the gel, can cause these effects); and diarrhea, caused by its laxative effect, can decrease the absorption of many drugs. If people use aloe or any other plant or packaged product used medicinally, Fugh-Berman says, they should consult their health care providers and divulge the full scope of any traditional or alternative practices.

"There's no such thing as a miracle plant," she says, "but for burns and scrapes, topical aloe works well."

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