Herbal treatment is useful for both acute and chronic conditions. It is also valuable in maintaining health and preventing illness. Many of the herbal preparations recommended in this book will help boost the immune response and help arm your child against recurrent infections.
Common Herbs and Herbal Preparations
Herbs are available in a variety of forms, including fresh, dried, in tablets or capsules, or bottled in liquid form. You can buy them individually or in mixtures formulated for specific conditions. Whatever type of product you choose, the quality of an herbal preparation-be it in capsule, tablet, tea, tincture, bath, compress, poultice, or ointment form-is only as good as the quality of the raw herb from which it was made.
Generally, herbs fall into two categories: wild-grown and farm-grown. A wild-grown herb is one that grows naturally, without human intervention. As a result of natural selection, plants tend to be found in places with conditions that optimize their growth. For example, horsetail grows best in moist, swampy areas, while arnica thrives at high altitudes in alpine meadows. The process of gathering herbs from their natural habitats is called wildcrafting.
The disadvantage of wild-grown herbs is that there is no guarantee the plants haven't been exposed to chemicals and pesticides. Herbs harvested from a meadow, for example, may have been exposed to chemical drift from a crop-dusted farm nearby. Exhaust fumes from passing traffic may have settled invisibly on plants growing near a country road. Water-loving plants, like horsetail, may be rooted in the bank of a polluted stream.
Because of the possibility of contamination, unless you are very sure of the source of wildcrafted herbs, organic herbs grown commercially may be a better choice. Organic farm-grown herbs are becoming increasingly available, as more and more herb farms are being established. With careful management, organic herb farms can provide a steady supply of quality herbs to the consumer.
To produce top-quality products, herb farmers require a great deal of specialized knowledge. For maximum potency, it is important that particular herbs be harvested at the optimum moment. For example, echinacea is gathered in the spring, winter, and fall, but not in summer, when the plant's energies are concentrated on growth and flowering.
Responsible farmers use compost and organic matter to fertilize and replenish the health of the soil. For obvious reasons, we favor the use of certified organically grown herbs, produced without the use of synthetic fertilizers or chemical pesticides. As of this writing, not all states have agencies inspecting and certifying organic growers, so to be sure you are getting pure, pesticide-free herbs grown without chemical contamination, check the label for the words "certified organic" before you make a purchase. The name of the certifying agency should be specified on the label. Two reliable organizations that certify organic products are the Organic Growers and Buyers Association and California Certified Organic Farmers. Organic products grown in the states of Washington and Texas should be certified organic by the Department of Agriculture of the relevant state. As of this writing, federal legislation on requirements for labeling a product "organic" has been passed, but is not yet being fully implemented. Once it is, it should be easier to be sure that you are buying a genuine organic product. Hopefully this will take place in the next few years.
The herbal treatments recommended here include teas, baths, compresses, poultices, oils, and ointments. In some instances, you will be starting from scratch and preparing herbal treatments for your child (See Preparing Herbal Treatments). Some of the most commonly used herbal treatments and their applications are reviewed in the following table.
Administering Herbal Treatment
Herbs and prepared herbal compounds are available in different forms, each of which has its own particular characteristics. Your health food store will have individual herbs as well as complex herbal formulations, including raw herbs, tinctures, extracts, capsules, tablets, lozenges, and ointments. Here's a look at what's available.
If the label says tincture, the preparation contains alcohol. In a tincture, alcohol is employed to extract and concentrate the active properties of the herb. Alcohol is also a very effective natural preservative. Because a tincture is easily assimilated by the body, it is a very effective way to administer herbal compounds. Tinctures are concentrated and cost-effective. However, the full taste of the herb comes through very strongly in a tincture. Children-and adults, too-may find the taste of some herbs unpleasant. Goldenseal, for example, is bitter-tasting.
Another concern when using tinctures is the presence of the alcohol. If you wish to lessen the amount of alcohol in a tincture before giving it to your child, mix the appropriate dose with one-quarter cup of very hot water. After about five minutes, most of the taste of the alcohol will have evaporated away, and the mixture should be cool enough to drink.
Extracts can be made with alcohol, like tinctures, or the essence of the herb can be leached out with water. When purchasing a liquid extract of an herb, the only way to be certain of the extraction process (alcohol or water) is to read the label. Extracts offer essentially the same advantages and disadvantages that tinctures do. They are the most concentrated form of herbal treatment and therefore the most cost-effective. They are easy to administer, but have a strong herbal taste.
Capsules and Tablets
Capsules and tablets contain a ground or powdered form of raw herb. In general, there seems to be little difference between the two in terms of clinical results. Because finely milled herbs degrade quickly, it is important that herbs be freshly ground and then promptly encapsulated or tabeleted, within twenty-four hours of being powdered. When making your selection, read the label to make sure fresh herbs have been used in the product. With the exception of certain herbal concentrates in capsule form, both capsules and tablets tend to be much less strong and potent than tinctures and extracts.
There are many delicious blends of herbal teas on the shelves of your health food store; they need no introduction here. You'll find loose herbs ready for steeping, herbal formulations aimed at specific conditions, and convenient pre-bagged teas. Some are just for sipping; some are medicinal. When your child is ill, a comforting cup of herbal tea (medicinal or not) is a wonderful way to give additional liquids.
Herbal-based, nutrient-rich, naturally sweetened lozenges are readily available in most health food shops. You'll find cold-fighting formulas, natural cough suppressants, some with decongestant properties. Many are boosted with natural vitamin C. Choose lozenges made without refined sugar.
Ointments, Salves, and Rubs
From calendula ointment (for broken skin and wounds) to goldenseal (for infections, rashes, and skin irritations) to aloe vera gel (to cool and speed the healing of minor burns, including sunburn) to heat-producing herbs (for muscle aches and strains), there's a wealth of topical herbal-based products on the market. Your selection will depend on the condition you are treating.
The Treatment and Care entries in Part Two of this book offer recommendations for herbal treatments for childhood conditions.
When administering herbal treatment, you can follow the same basic suggestions that you would for administering conventional medications. If the taste of an herb is too strong, dilute the appropriate dosage in a little juice or water. Tableted herbs or capsules can be mixed with a spoonful of cream-style cereal or applesauce, or dissolved in sweet fruit juice. For older children, herbal teas can tee sweetened with honey (a child under eighteen months old should never be allowed to take honey because there is a risk of infant botulism, which can be fatal). For an infant, the herbal tea can be mixed with mother's milk or formula and put into a bottle, an eyedropper, or empty syringe (without the needle), and gently squirted inside the child's mouth. A nursing mother can also take an adult dose of an herbal remedy, and the effect will be transmitted by her breast milk. For instructions on how to make and use different types of herbal preparations, see Preparing Herbal Treatments. Age-appropriate dosage guidelines for herbal treatments may be found in the beginning of Part Two.
When treating your child with herbal remedies, use your judgment and common sense. The herbal treatments recommended in this book are gentle and have been especially selected for use on children. It is still possible, however, for any herb to cause adverse reactions in some children. If your child develops a rash, a stomachache, a headache, or any other new symptom after treatment with an herbal remedy, discontinue using the herb and consult with your health care provider.
Adverse reactions are unusual if herbal remedies are used in recommended doses. Problems are more likely to occur if an herb is overused-if the dosage is too high or if the herb is given continuously for too long. Chamomile, for example, may cause a child to develop an allergy to ragweed if given on a daily basis for too long; the prolonged use of licorice can lead to high blood pressure. This is why, even if an herb is beneficial for a chronic condition, it is not usually recommended that an herbal remedy be given on an ongoing basis, but rather that it be used for set periods of time, or alternated with another remedy or remedies. When using herbal treatment-as with most other aspects of a healthy life-moderation is the key. If you have any question about the use of a particular herb, consult with a qualified herbalist or health care professional.
Herbal medicine has a long history, and a time-tested, valuable place in the treatment of many common health problems. Because they act gently, herbs are particularly suitable for treating children. When using herbs to treat an illness, often you not only help to alleviate symptoms, but also to address an underlying problem and strengthen the overall functioning of a particular organ or system. Herbs are readily available-they can even be grown in your own back yard. To be sure you are getting the best and purest product possible, however, we recommend that you use certified organically grown herbs. The more you use herbs, the more comfortable you will become with this gentle, effective form of health care.