The aloe vera plant, also referred to as aloe africana, elephant’s gall, plant of immortality and aloe gel, can be used as herbal medicine. The plant grows long leaves filled with a jelly-like substance. The leaves contain two substances, called gel and latex. Manufacturers use the gel, the latex or the whole leaf to make aloe products. People use aloe on the skin to treat conditions such as minor burns, psoriasis and osteoarthritis. Although taking aloe vera gel internally may not cause harm, taking oral aloe latex may be harmful.
Historically, people took aloe vera orally in order to produce a bowel movement when suffering from constipation because of the plant's laxative effect. Today, proponents attempt to treat conditions such as diabetes, osteoarthritis, epilepsy and asthma by taking the aloe orally, according to the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved using aloe vera as a natural food flavoring. Taking aloe vera juice may help reduce inflammation in the intestines for people suffering from ulcerative colitis.
Although using aloe vera gel topically does not normally cause harmful side effects, taking the herbal supplement orally may cause serious harm, causing symptoms such as bloody diarrhea and abdominal cramping. The increased movement in the intestines may also cause a decrease in the absorption of medications, thereby reducing the effectiveness of other drugs. Additional adverse reactions from aloe vera include loss of vision, muscle weakness, vomiting and swelling in the throat.
Taking aloe vera orally may cause serious damage to your internal organs. One report of acute hepatitis with liver damage occurred following the ingestion of aloe vera. Ingesting large amounts of aloe, such as 1 gram per day, for long periods may cause kidney infections, bleeding in the stomach and kidney failure. Studies in laboratory rats shows a development of colon tumors after ingesting whole leaf extract in drinking water, but did not study the effects of ingesting aloe vera gel specifically, according to the National Toxicology Program.
Aloe vera was available over-the-counter as a laxative, but the FDA pulled the products off the shelf because of potential safety issues pertaining to the side effects. Pregnant or breastfeeding women should avoid taking aloe vera orally. The herbal supplement may cause premature birth or a miscarriage. Studies do not exist establishing the safety or effectiveness of using oral aloe in children and the National Institutes of Health does not recommend using the product internally for children. People with inflammatory bowel disease or an intestinal obstruction should avoid taking aloe vera orally.