Love the contradiction: (1) Aloe Vera
[The blog has lain dormant for several months; it’s too complicated to explain why. Now we’re back.]
This article is in two parts, the first of which appears to have no connection with writing. Bear with me; when you get to Part (2), you’ll see the connection.
I was lucky enough to escape part of the British winter in Lanzarote, where – apart from cavorting in the ocean and marvelling at the inspirational volcanic scenery – I discovered aloe vera products. Though I have been aware of them for decades, and have been present at more than one hard-sell presentation, I have always followed my instinctive distrust of anything touted as a “wonder product” and shied away. This time, curiosity got the better of me. I bought a jar of aloe vera skin cream in a supermarket.
It’s difficult to describe my reaction after I first applied the cream. I’m going to sound like one of those presenters I so distrusted. The light-green cream is soft, smells good, looks good, and makes your skin feel good in seconds. I was an instant convert.
Being something of an obsessive, I wanted to find out all I could about this plant. I spent an hour on the internet, and it was a tumultuous ride. Within ten minutes, I had found one article that claimed aloe vera can cause cancer, and another that claimed it can cure it. Huh? Time to scratch one’s head and google on.
I found diagrams of the plant and looked at cross sections. There’s a hard outer layer, aloe rind; then aloe latex, which contains aloin – a sap-like, yellow layer attached to the inside of the rind; and then a sticky, colourless gel beneath. Some aloe products use the whole leaf, though most use only the gel.
It turns out that aloin can be harmful. It can cause stomach upsets and diarrhoea. If you ingest it in large quantities, you increase the risk of developing cancer of the large intestine. (Source: Toxicological Sciences; sorry, I couldn’t find which issue.)
Aloe gel contains zero aloin and thus carries no cancer risk. It has myriad active compounds, including amino acids, vitamins, minerals, enzyes, polysaccharides, and many more. There are numerous reports of its soothing and healing properties for anything from bee stings and sunburn to eczema and psoriasis. (Some manufacturers’ claims are, however, truly outrageous and wouldn’t get past trades description law in the UK.)
Unsurprisingly, no article could offer proof that it can cure cancer. However, prevention and treatment are a different matter. Aloe vera gel, when processed, can be taken internally (e.g. in smoothies) as well as externally. If aloe vera is used in conjunction with other health-promoting foods (tomatoes, broccoli, garlic, etc.) and as part of a healthy lifestyle, it can be argued that it helps to prevent cancer. It is also widely used to alleviate the side effects of radiotherapy.
What conclusions can we draw? Firstly, that the initial contradiction – that aloe vera can both cause and cure cancer – is, with near-certainty, doubly false: it does neither. Secondly, that the plant can have both positive and negative effects – and the positives outweigh the negatives. Thirdly, that you need to dig below the surface to find the truth.
These experiences reopened for me the topic of contradictions in storytelling, partly in connection with plot but more in connection with character, and that is what I will deal with in Part Two tomorrow.
(Footnote: For a small tub, you can pay anything from 3 euros to 27 euros. Cheaper versions contain ingredients such as glycerin, shea butter, and sweet almond oil. They also contain chemicals with ominous-sounding names like phenoxyethanol and ethyhexyl stearate. I opted for the cheaper versions and have so far experienced no side effects.)