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Aloe

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This page has information about the use of aloe in people with cancer. There is information about

 

What aloe is

The aloe plant is one of the lily family. Available scientific evidence does not support claims that aloe can treat any type of cancer. In fact, used as a cancer treatment, aloe may cause severe side effects. It is originally from West Africa but is now a common household plant in many countries. The most well known species of aloe is aloe vera. It's leaves are fleshy and cactus like. They contain a thin clear gel that people often use to soothe minor skin problems, such as

  • Sunburn
  • Cuts
  • Superficial burns

Because of its softening properties, aloe vera gel is an ingredient of many skin and beauty products, such as cleansers, moisturisers and soaps. The gel can also be made into juice to drink.

An extract taken from inside the outer lining of the leaves is called aloe latex. It can be dried into brownish granules. These contain a substance which can help to treat constipation.

Some people claim that aloe vera can balance the immune system or even treat and cure cancer. Studies have been carried out into this and some laboratory studies and early studies on animals seem to show that extracts from aloe may be helpful in boosting the immune system to attack cancer cells. But there is no evidence that aloe can treat cancer in humans.

 

Why people use aloe

Aloe vera is mostly used for skin conditions. There is some evidence to support its use for minor skin problems and burns. Some people with cancer use aloe vera to help heal and soothe burns caused by their radiotherapy treatment. Although research evidence does not currently show that aloe vera can help with burns caused by radiotherapy treatment many patients say that it helps to heal and soothe the skin. Many specialist nurses, radiotherapy doctors and radiographers also recommend its use.

In many countries, including the UK, aloe products are available as dietary supplements. Some are sold as treatment for constipation. Germany's regulatory agency for herbs (Commission E) has approved aloe for treating constipation.  If you are interested in trying aloe, or any other alternative therapy, talk to your doctor first. 

More rarely, people use aloe as an injection, capsule or drink to try and treat their cancer and we discuss this below. We recommend that you don’t replace your conventional cancer treatment with any type of alternative cancer therapy such as aloe vera.

 

Using aloe

Aloe vera squeezed directly from the leaves of the plant can be put straight onto your skin to help heal minor cuts, scrapes and burns. Some people have an aloe vera plant in their home to use in this way. You can also buy it in health food shops and chemists as a gel or cream.

You can get other aloe products such as aloe latex and aloe juice as a liquid or capsules from health food shops or chemists, to help treat constipation. They can work well for some people but you should never take more than the recommended dose. Always let your doctor know about any complementary therapies or supplements that you use. There is information about constipation and its treatment in our coping physically section.

A product called T-UP is made of concentrated aloe. Some people promote T-UP as an alternative cancer therapy that you can either drink or inject directly into a tumour or bloodstream. T-UP injections have caused death in several patients with cancer. They are illegal in the USA and are not available in the UK.

 

Research into aloe in cancer

This section has information on research into using aloe for

Aloe contains many different chemicals and compounds. 

Treating and controlling the side effects of cancer treatment

Several trials have looked at using aloe vera gel directly on the skin to help prevent and lessen skin reactions from radiotherapy. A 2005 review of 7 trials found that they were of poor quality and did not show that aloe gel was better than standard treatments. They said that there is currently no evidence from clinical trials to suggest that topical aloe vera can prevent or minimise skin reactions due to radiotherapy. But we need better designed trials. You can read the review of studies of aloe for skin reactions on the Centre for Reviews and Dissemination website.

In 2011 researchers carried out a review of studies that have used aloe vera gel to prevent mouth soreness (mucositis) in people having treatment for cancer. They found there was no evidence to suggest that aloe vera works. But many patients say that they have found aloe  helpful. You can read the review of studies of aloe for sore mouth on the Cochrane Library website. We need further research to find out whether aloe vera can help.

Aloe vera can help to soften skin around wounds and prevent dryness as they heal. Some early research seems to suggest that it may help wounds to heal. But always check with your doctor before using it.

Treating, preventing and curing cancer

Early laboratory studies suggest that some of the chemicals found in aloe may help to boost the immune system. But the safety of these chemicals has not been tested in humans and we don't know whether they may work. There is currently no evidence that aloe products can help to prevent or treat cancer in humans.

One study showed that an aloe extract called aloe emodin can block the growth of head and neck cancer cells in test tubes. Emodin can also stop liver cancer cells growing in test tubes. 

Acemannan is a substance taken from the aloe vera leaf and it can stimulate mouse immune cells to make cancer killing chemicals (cytokines). One test tube study has shown that aloeride (a starch compound found in aloe juice) can stimulate the immune system to produce cancer killing chemicals. 

Another compound made from aloe vera, di 2-ethyl hexyl phthalate (DEHP), has been found to stop the development of leukaemia cells in test tubes. 

Early studies of aloe substances in laboratory animals seem to suggest that some of the chemicals found in aloe may have helpful effects on the immune system and can shrink some cancers. Two studies were published in 2010 looking into the effects of aloe on skin cancer in mice. In one study aloe products applied to the skin and taken by mouth reduced the number of skin cancers. But in the other study, certain aloe products increased the number of skin cancers (especially in female mice) caused by ultraviolet light.

One study in Italy of 240 patients reported in 2009. It tested aloe vera alongside chemotherapy for people with lung cancer, bowel cancer, or stomach cancer that had spread. Half the patients took aloe arborescens as a liquid 3 times a day during standard chemotherapy treatment. In this study the cancer was controlled or shrank for a time in 67% of patients who had the combined aloe and chemotherapy treatment and in 50% of patients who had chemotherapy alone. In this study the researchers said that patients taking the aloe vera had a better quality of life and that they had fewer chemotherapy side effects such as numb fingers and fatigue. 

The researchers also said that there were no ill effects from the aloe vera. More patients who had the aloe vera survived for 3 years than patients who just had chemotherapy. Although this research seems positive the researchers said that there are some concerns about the study. The researchers knew which patients were receiving aloe vera and they may have influenced the results. The study also involved patients who were quite ill with metastatic cancer. It is not clear how well aloe vera would work in patients with earlier stage cancer. The researchers recommend further research to confirm or disprove these findings.

A US company produced an aloe vera product called T-UP that you can drink or inject into your bloodstream. It is promoted by some people as an alternative cancer cure. This product hasn’t been proven in clinical trials to help treat or cure cancer and in the USA it is illegal to inject aloe vera. Using it in this way can cause very serious side effects and some people have died from it. The injection is not available in the UK or USA but is used by clinics in some other countries.

 

Side effects of aloe

Using aloe vera on the skin to help treat and soothe minor skin burns and cuts is generally very safe and can work well.

Taking aloe vera as a liquid or capsules that are swallowed can cause side effects for some people. These are usually mild but for some people may cause more of a problem. They may include

  • Diarrhoea
  • Feeling and being sick
  • A skin rash
  • Stomach pain

There are a few reports of serious problems in a few people, such as liver inflammation (hepatitis), blood clotting problems and 1 report of low blood potassium levels in a woman having treatment for breast cancer. Aloe products can be powerful laxatives and there are some reports of serious upset to the usual balance of body chemicals after severe diarrhoea. These side effects are more likely to occur if you take very high doses. Aloe vera may interact with other drugs or herbs so always talk to your doctor before you begin taking it.

There is also some evidence that aloe may affect the thyroid gland. We need more research to confirm this. Symptoms of thyroid problems include unexplained tiredness, generally feeling uncomfortable and feeling the cold more.

Aloe vera injections can cause some very serious side effects. One type of aloe injection called T-UP has caused death in several people when used as a cancer treatment. We recommend that you do not take aloe vera as an injection.

 

The cost of aloe products

The price varies depending on

  • The form you buy it in (cream, gel, liquid)
  • The dosage
  • The amount you buy
  • Where you buy it (health food shops, chemist or online)

Many aloe vera products are available to buy in health food shops, chemists and over the internet. Generally the products aren’t very expensive. But if you buy online the prices can vary. 

The amount of aloe vera in each product can vary too. Some may not contain the amount stated on the label. 

 

Things to consider

Of course, people make their own decisions about using complementary and alternative cancer therapies. We recommend that you don't use alternative or complementary therapies instead of conventional treatment. If you have cancer, using methods such as aloe vera instead of conventional medical treatment can be very harmful to your health.

Always check with your doctor before you start using any type of complementary or alternative treatment. That way, they will always have the full picture about your care and treatment. It is also very important to find out all you can about the therapy before deciding to use it. Look in our complementary therapy section for information about why you should tell your doctor if you are using any type of therapy.

Our message is

  • Be careful
  • Be wary of any claims that aloe vera can treat or cure your cancer
  • Check and compare prices if you are buying aloe vera products
  • Make sure you look into the information available
  • Talk to your cancer doctor before you buy it

In Europe it is important to buy only products that are registered under the Traditional Herbal Remedies (THR) scheme. Remedies that are registered under the scheme have a THR mark and symbol on the packaging. THR products have been tested for quality and safety.

 

Useful organisations

Our section about complementary and alternative therapies is a useful place to start for general information about complementary and alternative therapies in cancer care. Some of the complementary therapy organisations can offer more information about using aloe vera.

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Updated: 30 January 2013