Tips for Growing and Harvesting Aloe Vera

Aloe vera — of which there are about 450 species 1 — is a succulent plant that thrives in tropical areas of the world and is well-known for its soothing qualities, especially for skin conditions such as burns, rashes, cuts and scrapes, but also for more serious skin conditions such as psoriasis. In one study, 2 aloe vera gel had an overall antipsoriatic activity of nearly 82 percent. Aloe vera has spiky, variegated leaves, made up of:

  • The outer rind — The tough, protective layer
  • Aloin — A yellowish bitter-tasting sap between the rind and the inner gel that helps protect the plant from animals. The aloin has laxative properties and should not be ingested on a regular basis as it may cause serious health complications. 3 This portion of the leaf may also exacerbate intestinal health problems such as Crohn's disease and ulcerative colitis
  • Pulp or parenchyma tissue — The fleshy inner portion of the leaf, which includes cell walls and mucilage, 4 a clear, viscous liquid within the cells

The Healing and Nutritional Benefits of Aloe Vera

Aloe vera contains about 75 potentially active compounds, including lignin, saponins, salicylic acids and 12 anthraquinones (phenolic compounds traditionally known as laxatives).

It also provides campesterol, β-sisosterol and lupeol, and the hormones auxins and gibberellins that help in wound healing and have anti-inflammatory action. 5 The pulp contains most of the healing compounds, including: 6 , 7

  • Polysaccharides 8 such as mannose, which is great for gut health and has immune-boosting benefits
  • Essential amino acids your body needs but cannot manufacture
  • Polyphenol antioxidants
  • Sterols, which are valuable fatty acids, including campesterol, B-sitosterol, linoleic, linolenic, myristic, caprylic, oleic, palmitic and stearic acids
  • Vitamins and minerals, including vitamins A, C and E, choline, folic acid and B1, B2, B12 and B3 (niacin), selenium, zinc, calcium, iron, copper, manganese, potassium, magnesium and chromium

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Perhaps most importantly, its wound healing abilities stem from the gel's disinfectant, antimicrobial, antiviral, antifungal, antibiotic and antibacterial properties. As an adaptogen, 9 aloe vera gel may also help your body adapt to stress.

Growing Aloe Vera Is Super Easy

While you can purchase aloe vera gel at most health food stores and pharmacies, if you grow your own, you'll always have fresh aloe on hand when cuts, scrapes or even psoriasis flare-ups occur.

The plant is easy to grow and care for, and thrives outdoors in grow zones 9 through 11. Indoors, it can be grown year-round in all areas, provided it gets enough sunlight. For medicinal use, be sure to select an aloe species with thick, "meaty" leaves. A good choice, and one of the most popular, is Aloe Barbadensis Miller. 10 Many varieties are very thin and long, making them more difficult to use. Here are some quick basics for growing aloe vera:

Ideal soil conditions — Aloe vera prefers dry, sandy soil. If planting in a pot, cactus potting mix is a good choice. If planting in the ground, adding a thick layer of wood chips will help improve the soil quality over time by increasing the soil microbiology, which will provide needed nutrients to the plant. Aloe vera typically does not require fertilizer.

Sunlight — The plant needs plenty of sun. If using a planter, rotate the pot now and then to promote even, upright growth, since the plant will grow toward the sun. Droopy leaves, or leaves that lie flat on the ground, are an indication that it needs more sunlight.

Planter specs — If using a planter, select a medium or large pot with good drainage.

Spacing — Each plant will multiply, so leave several inches of space between the aloe vera buds if planting more than one. Once pups begin to grow, you can gently dig them up and replant elsewhere, or in another pot.

Water requirements — Water cautiously. Soil should be kept dry to damp, not soaked, as excessive wetness will promote fungal growth. If the leaves feel cool, plump and moist, the plant is getting sufficient amounts of water.

Should the leaves start to turn dry and brittle, or if they're growing in thin and curled, the plant needs more water. Just allow the soil to dry completely between waterings.

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Simple Harvesting Tips for Aloe Vera

Once your plant matures, begin harvesting the outermost, most mature leaves first. Using a sharp knife, cut the leaf as close to the base as possible, being mindful not to cut the roots. Remove the spines by cutting along each side.

  • For topical use — Simply cut a 2-inch piece off, then slice it down the middle, revealing the gel, and apply it directly to your skin. Aside from soothing burns, including sunburn, or cuts and scrapes, it also works great as an aftershave for men. For sunburn, fresh aloe gel is the most effective remedy I know of, beside prevention
  • For internal use — If you're going to ingest it, you can use a potato peeler to peel off the outer rind, then scrape off the gel and place it in a small glass container. I like mixing mine with some lime juice. Simply blend together with a handheld blender for a delicious immune-boosting aloe shot.

Using Aloe Vera for Psoriasis and Other Skin Problems

Part of the discomfort from psoriasis is that skin can crack , which, pain-wise, could be described as rivaling a dozen paper cuts all in one place. A 2015 review 11 of several studies found aloe vera can benefit this painful skin condition, and others as well. Among them:

  • Wound healing — Properties related to a compound called glucomannan help accelerate wound healing and skin cell growth.
  • Skin hydration — Keeping skin irritations moist and hydrated always feels better, and aloe vera gel does that. One study 12 showed it to be effective even when applying it only once. However, continuous use tends to lessen its hydrating effects.
  • Reduce inflammation — A 2008 study 13 showed aloe vera gel was more effective than a placebo in treating skin conditions, including UV-induced erythema or skin reddening due to the dilation of blood vessels.
  • Collagen production — Studies show aloe vera helps your skin stay firm and elastic by promoting the production of collagen.

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Aloe Vera Precautions and Contraindications

While fresh aloe vera is very safe, you should not use it internally or externally if you're allergic. If you're unsure, perform a patch test on a small area and wait to make sure no signs of allergic reactions occur. As noted by Healthline: 14

"If you experience an allergic reaction to aloe vera gel, discontinue use immediately and watch the area to make sure that the hives or inflammation subsides. Certain people might be at more risk for an allergic reaction to aloe vera than others. This includes people who are allergic to plants in the Liliaceae family (garlic, onions and tulips)."

Possible side effects of aloe vera include the following: 15 , 16

While rare, burning or itching of skin may occur when applied topically

Taken internally, it may lower your blood glucose level, so avoid combining aloe vera with glucose-lowering medication. Diabetics should take care to monitor their blood glucose if taking aloe vera internally

Stomach pain and cramps may occur if taken at high doses

Long-term use at high doses may also cause diarrhea , kidney problems, low potassium, muscle weakness and heart disturbances

People taking medication such as Digoxin for abnormal heart rhythms should not use aloe internally due to the possibility of aloe causing low potassium

While rare, liver problems have occurred, so people with liver issues should not use aloe vera internally

Due to its ability to trigger uterine contractions, aloe vera gel should not be taken internally if you are pregnant and/or breastfeeding

Avoid oral aloe if you're preparing for surgery, as it may lower your body's blood clotting ability, as does certain types of anesthesia

Topically, aloe vera gel may boost absorption of steroid creams such as hydrocortisone