Unlocking Aloe Vera's Healing Secrets

ByABC News
July 16, 2002, 1:22 PM

July 18 -- For thousands of years, humans have turned to a cactus-like plant that has mysterious abilities to heal wounds.

But aloe vera, a succulent that is actually a member of the lily family, has often been shunned by the scientific community because no one could figure out how this native of northern Africa could work its miracles.

Now, scientists are inching closer to understanding why the cooling liquid from the fat leaf of an aloe vera plant can make the hurt go away.

It doesn't take a pharmaceutical company to make it work. The plant does it all by itself, which is why the ancient Egyptians turned to it more than 3,500 years ago, and the ancient Greeks and others used it to heal wounds and even clear up constipation.

Gooey and Nutritious

The picture is still a bit murky, because every researcher who tackles the problem seems to come up with a different answer. Some say the gooey gel from inside the leaf reduces inflammation, thus helping the healing process, and there is substantial evidence that's at least part of the equation.

Others say it's because of the rich mixture of vitamins and minerals contained in the plant, which is actually about 96 percent water. Still others say aloe acts as a moisturizer, and wounds need moisture to heal.

"If you read the aloe literature there's a whole diversity of different biological activity that individual investigators have seen," says immunologist Ian Tizard of Texas A&M in College Station. "So you could make the case that every investigator has a favorite pathway."

No one doubts these days that it works, although it's not the cure-all that some people claim. But why it works is still under debate.

"We're trying to sweat out what the mechanisms are," Tizard says.

In his own research, Tizard has found something quite different about the aloe vera, and it sets it apart from all other plants. Plant cell walls are mainly cellulose, but they also have a complex carbohydrate called a "pectin" that forms a jelly when combined with acid and sugar. Pectin from citrus products is widely used in the food industry.