The World Health Organization defines health as being “… more than simply the absence of illness. It is the active state of physical, emotional, mental and social well-being.” This is a wonderfully clear description of holistic medicine, starting as it does from the assumption that health is a positive and active state, and that it is an inherent characteristic of whole and integrated human beings. From a holistic standpoint, a person is not a patient with a disease but a whole being. This wholeness necessitates appreciating the mental, emotional, spiritual, social and environmental aspects of our lives, as well as the physical. Nowhere is this more relevant than with the health care of children.
With its focus on prevention, holistic approaches to health are helpful in many of the common illnesses of childhood. If conditions are brought under control during childhood they can often be avoided entirely in adult life. Examples include conditions such as asthma and eczema, both of which can start at a very early age and become an ongoing theme throughout the persons life. If treated successfully with herbs there is rarely a continuation of the disease into adulthood.
The WHO definition highlights the importance of all that is embraced by the expression ‘tender loving care’. The nurturing, supportive embrace of loving parents or caring adults in general cannot be replaced by herbs. Children respond to love, respect and caring in wonderful ways. So do adults, if we give ourselves the chance!
It is important to find the right balance between the appropriate use of drugs and herbs. There are times when anti-biotics or surgery can be life saving. Similarly there are times when using the powerful tools of modern medicine is excessive and the desired results can be achieved herbally. It is a mistake to talk of Herbalism as alternative medicine. Is it an alternative to Acupuncture or Osteopathy? Of course not, they complement each other, creating a complex of relationships where the whole is much more than the sum of the parts. The challenge is to find the appropriate relationship.
The potential herbal contributions to pediatric medicine is receiving much attention in Europe. A recent clinical trial conducted at the Great Ormond Street Hospital for Sick Children in London examined herbs and the treatment of atopic eczema.1 This common skin problem can sometimes be extensive, distressing and unresponsive to orthodox techniques. Dermatologists at the hospital began see that some of their patients who went to a local herbalist where achieving dramatic results. Being good scientists they did not reject or ignore this, but followed it up by designing a clinical trial in conjunction with the herbalist. In a controlled double-blind study they prodiced dramatic reductions in both the extent and severity of eczema. The results were better than would have been expected using steroids, and were achieved with no toxicity to the liver or kidney.
Children have special needs and nature abounds in special plants that address these needs. The herbalist will always select remedies that have a tonic action as the core of herbal prescriptions for children. The healing capacity of children can be quite incredible and often all that is needed is a gentle herbal helping hand, rather than the stronger effects necessitate for adults. An crucial issue must be taken into account for children – TASTE. If they don’t like the medicine they won’t take it, and medicinal plants only work if they are actually taken! Juggling esthetics and medicinal effects is often challenging, but thankfully there are now products available that have been formulated by skilled and knowledgeable pediatric herbalists.
In this article it is only possible to skim the possibilities, briefly looking at coughs and colds, common and minor digestive problems, ‘hyperactivity’ and eczema If the readers interest is aroused there are a number of excellent books about herbs for children worth reading, of which I would highly recommend Natural Child Care by Maribeth Riggs. 2 It is a cornucopia of safe, reliable and effective formulations specifically for children, both in terms of the herbs and their taste!
The green world abounds with gentle but effective plants that can help children’s respiratory problems. Important examples are Coltsfoot, Mullein, Hyssop, Horehound, Wild Cherry Bark and Garlic. Herbal remedies can ease the discomfort of virus infections such as colds and the ‘flu, treat the unpleasant symptoms, speed recovery and help prevent recurring infections. Aches and pains are common but can be relieved easily. Perhaps the best herb is Boneset, especially if there is a fever. A hot infusion drunk often will make life bearable in even the worse cases of ‘flu. The bitter taste of Boneset is one of its therapeutic qualities, but not one children relish! Elder flower, Linden and Peppermint tea have a similar effect, not as strong, but they taste a lot better. For children that have a tendency to frequent colds, the body is hinting that the immune system needs help. Anti-microbial herbs such as Echinacea or Garlic and the tonics Cleavers or Nettles help prevent infections by increasing the vitality of immune system response. These may be combined in capsules, or as tinctures. Garlic in food or as the oil in a capsule would be most beneficial.
Herbs can effectively treatment coughs, but as they are important diagnostic signal s from the body they must be interpreted and the appropriate treatment selected and not be suppressed. Any long-standing or intransigent coughing should receive professional attention. Home treatment is safe and effective for minor coughs of short duration or associated with mild infections, but if in doubt seek skilled advice. Expectorant remedies help get rid of phlegm in the lungs, but also soothe irritation and reduce the cough reflex. Coltsfoot is safe and effective for children. Use as an infusion at least 3 times a day whilst the symptoms remain. If the there is a dry irritating cough use Marshmallow leaves or Liquorice to soothe the inflamed membranes. Consider Mullein if a stronger remedy is needed.
Many herbs are appropriate for treating digestive problems in Children, especially herbs rich in volatile oils. These oils relax cramping muscles, reduce inflammation and relax the nervous system. They will ease pain and discomfort due to flatulence and colic. Chamomile, Lemon Balm, Dill, Fennel, Peppermint and Aniseed all work well and taste pleasant.
For constipation it is often inappropriate to use laxatives with children unless absolutely necessary, as it usually responds to dietary changes, such as increasing the amount of water drunk; eating fruits and vegetables with peels such as figs, raisins, pears, apricots, beans, celery, cucumber, lettuce, apples; eat whole grain cereals or making bran muffins and decrease constipating foods like dairy products, white rice, white flour. If needed use Psyllium seed preparations in children over two years of age, or for stronger but still safe effects use a decoction of Dandelion root or Yellow Dock.
For diarrhea a number of astringent remedies are suitable for children. The most useful is Meadowsweet (Filipendula ulmaria) , as it protects and soothes the lining of the digestive tract, reducing excess acidity and easing nausea. In diarrhoea it also has a calming effect, helping the child feel good. The presence of aspirin-like chemicals explains Meadowsweet’s action in reducing fever and relieving ‘growing pains’.
Children are under as much stress in our culture as their parents are. There is much herbs can do but they will not replace the necessary re-assessment of life-style and diet, or replace compassion and tender loving care. Strong relaxing remedies such as Valerian or Hops should not be used with children under ordinary circumstances, but there are still many effective and safe ones to choose from. Especially appropriate are Chamomile, Linden, Lavender, St. John’s Wort, Skullcap, Red Clover and Californian Poppy.
Maribeth Riggs has a well formulated suggestion for an herbal bath indicated in over excitability, anxiousness or mild insomnia.
- 1 qt. water
- 1 oz. dried Lavender buds
- 1 oz. dried Chamomile flowers
Steep the herbs in the freshly boiled water, covering the pot, for 20 minutes then strain. Add this to the bath which should be the normal temperature. Make sure the room is warm before the bath. Soak in the bath for at least 10 minutes. Gently pour the water over the belly and legs and just let them play and splash. Use this bath as often as necessary to reassure and calm an upset, colicky child.
Hyperactivity in children is a thorny issue that raises many questions. There is no doubt that hyperactivity occurs and can often be related to dietary factors. This having been said there is an unfortunate tendency for children to be labeled ‘hyperactive’ simply because a teacher or parent does not have the attention for a very active, perceptive, inquisitive or creative child. The Merck manual points out, quite rightly, that “claims that a child is hyperactive often reflect the tolerance level of the annoyed person.” Since when has not fitting into the normal mold been a disease? Rather than sedating our children so they can deal with their world, why not change the nature of schooling so it is more challenging and exciting?
Where the child is experiencing a problem there may be some help that can be provided herbally, provided that psychological factors are being addressed, and that dietary irritants are avoided. There is strong evidence that chemicals, such as heavy metal pollutants and artificial colorings or flavors, play a role. Herbs to consider in supporting a broad treatment plan might be Linden and Chamomile for the nervous system, Red Clover and Milk Thistle for the liver and de-toxification. Something else that can help is treating stress and exhaustion in the parents!
Skin problems are very common in children and will often respond quickly to herbal treatments. Wherever possible is best to avoid the steroid based approach of orthodox medicine as the long term effects of these drugs is undesirable. As shown in the London study, good results can be achieved herbal thus avoiding the need to consider such potent medications. Childhood eczema is best treated internally, using alterative remedies such as Cleavers, Nettles and Red Clover. These alteratives will be aided by combining them with a relaxing herbs such as Chamomile or Linden Flowers. A combination would be equal parts Cleavers, Nettles and Chamomile as an infusion. Add 1 teaspoonful of the combination to a cup of hot water and steep for 5-10 minutes. Drink 3 times a day.
In the treatment of childhood disease, promotion of wellness and the prevention of future problems in adult life, herbal medicine has much to offer.
1 M.P. Sheehan and D.J. Atherton. A controlled trial of traditional Chinese medicinal plants in widespread non-exudative atopic eczema. British Journal of Dermatology (1992); 126: 179-184
2 Natural Child Care by Maribeth Riggs, Harmony Books, 1989