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.