All About Aloe: Anthraquinones and Aloin!
In the previous blog post, we talked about polysaccharides, particularly focussing on acemannan. In this post, we will be talking about anthraquinones, particularly focussing on aloin! Once again, it might be quite boring, but it is important and will help to put some of the other blog posts in this series into context.
In chemistry terms, anthraquinones are just molecules that have a particular shape. If they bond to a simple unit of sugar they are known as anthraquinone glycosides. Note that we are referring here to sugar in the true chemical sense and not to the sweet white powder sucrose. Anthraquinones occur naturally in various plants, including rhubarb root, senna leaves and fruit, cascara bark, and aloe vera. In aloe vera, they occur in a thin layer known as the latex layer that is found between the green outer skin and the soft inner gel.
Anthraquinones have a wide range of uses in both industry and medicine. They are naturally yellow in colour, so they occur in many dyes. Within medicine, they have anti-inflammatory, antibacterial and laxative properties. Evidently this last property means that excessive or unnecessary use of anthraquinones might cause diarrhoea and abdominal discomfort, as well as nausea and vomiting! However, long term use of anthraquinones can cause constipation as the bowel becomes dependent on them, and there are concerns that they might be carcinogenic.
The main anthraquinone present in aloe vera is called aloin. There are others, also found in the latex layer, but aloin is the most prevalent. Aloe emodin is another quite well-known one, closely related to aloin in molecular structure and with the same biological properties.
Aloin is irritating to the gastrointestinal tract and as such, it can cause diarrhoea and abdominal pain. Prolonged diarrhoea can lead to electrolyte imbalance. Aloin might also cause uterine contractions, which could induce miscarriage in pregnant women, so aloe products containing aloin are not recommended during pregnancy. In animal studies, aloin has been linked to colon cancer and disruption to blood health. If you regularly consume aloe vera products, it is therefore important to buy only brands that remove anthraquinones.
Fortunately there are standard procedures for removing anthraquinones, including aloin, from aloe vera. Some brands are not transparent about this and create the impression that only they can thoroughly remove anthraquinones from their aloe products. This is not the case.
The first way by which anthraquinones can be removed from aloe vera is by using physical methods. Remember that anthraquinones are found in the middle layer of aloe leaves, between the green rind and the inner gel. Leaves might be hand filleted, which involves inserting a knife between the layers to separate the latex layer from the inner gel layer, also known as the fillet. It is in the inner fillet that most polysaccharides are found. Hand filleting, although more accurate, is very labour intensive, so there are machines that can be employed to perform the same task. After separation, fillets are washed to remove any anthraquinone residue.
The second method by which anthraquinones might be removed is via filtration. Here, whole leaves are cut up and ground into slurry, which might be treated with enzymes to obtain a less viscous product. This aloe slurry is then passed through a series of filters which remove rind particles, anthraquinones (including aloin), sand and other particles. The filtration process continues until at least 99.9% of aloin has been eliminated. The two methods might be partially combined – for example, hand filleted material might also subsequently be filtered.
The important thing to realise is that many commercial aloe vera processors can and do remove anthraquinones from their products. This means that any aloe you buy for oral use is likely to be almost entirely free from aloin, aloe emodin, and other anthraquinones. You should always check – it is still possible to obtain aloe with anthraquinone laxatives still present – but aloe vera products without aloin are nowhere near as rare as some companies would have you believe.
You will notice that I have not used the phrase ‘free from aloin’. Technically, it is almost impossible to remove every last bit of aloin from aloe vera. The International Aloe Science Council sets a limit of not more than 10 parts per million of aloin for all IASC certified aloe vera leaf juice products intended for oral consumption. This means products with higher aloin content are not eligible for IASC certification.
Does this mean that all aloe vera products are equal in quality if they have had the anthraquinones removed? Well, no. As discussed in the previous post, acemannan content is also a factor in choosing a quality product. Some processing methods can destroy nutrients, including acemannan, and unfortunately the only way to know the acemannan content of a product is to have it laboratory tested, which is quite expensive. Speaking of money, high-quality, pure aloe vera powder is fairly costly, so it is possible to buy cheaper aloe vera powders that are mixed with maltodextrin as a bulking agent. This can also be revealed with lab testing, but of course it is not feasible for most people to get their aloe vera tested before they start using it!
Other factors that determine the quality of oral aloe vera products include the quantity and concentration of aloe powder used, along with other ingredients that might be present. I will discuss these in another post, so as not to stray too far from the topic in hand! For now I will just say that while all good oral aloe vera products suitable for long term use should have had the anthraquinones removed, not all products with the anthraquinones removed are good quality.
Each of the aloe vera products in the Tiny Pioneer range have had anthraquinones, including aloin, removed. This means they are gentle on the stomach, are suitable for long term use and will not produce laxative effects. Although some bloating and bowel changes might be noticed for the first week or so of use, this is due to the anti-fungal activity of aloe vera, which can slightly affect the gut microbiome. If you are concerned about this, you can simply start at a low daily intake and build up to the full serving size gradually. If you are moving to products in the Tiny Pioneer range from another high-potency aloe vera brand, this will probably not apply to you as you are obviously used to consuming aloe vera!
Aloe vera can actually be very helpful for people with bowel complaints, provided they choose a product that has had the aloin removed. This study shows that oral aloe vera taken for four weeks produced a clinical response more often than placebo and reduced histological disease activity in ulcerative colitis patients. The powder used in Simply Aloe Powder, Aloe Mallow Powder and Blend No. 3 has been tested on a small sample of people with Crohn’s disease and all noticed improvements in symptoms. I actually formulated our powder products with Crohn’s, colitis and inflammatory bowel disease patients as much in mind as interstitial cystitis and bladder pain patients. If any of you buy the powder products to use with a bowel disorder, I’d really love to hear from you after a few weeks!
Long-time readers will know that I had severe IBS for years and I was quite worried when I first tried high-potency aloe vera capsules in case they gave me diarrhoea. As outlined above, I did get a little tummy ache and bloating for about a few days, but it was nothing dramatic and I was certainly able to function as normal throughout. I did not experience any bowel urgency or loose stools and so I am able to confirm from first-hand experience that the removal of anthraquinones really does ensure that aloe vera is gentle on the stomach!
Wishing you the best of health,
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