Natural plant medicines for children

This article, by Dr Sandra Clair (PhD) first appeared in the New Zealand Herald. You can see the article online here

Plant medicine is a safe and effective therapy for children that is well tolerated with minimal side effects.

Many pharmaceutical drugs are not researched or approved for children. Plant medicine forms a valuable natural treatment option and are increasingly investigated as a safe alternative to many conventional drugs which are not researched or approved for children. That they work seems to be beyond any doubt: In a 2010 survey of German parents by Humer et al, 96.3 per cent of parents who have used herbal medicines for their children would do it again.

Infections of the respiratory and gastrointestinal tract are the most common illnesses in early childhood. Natural treatments with high-quality medicinal herbs such as medicinal teas are traditionally the first choice in the treatment for children. Plant-based medicine has proven useful to generations of doctors, midwives and families and is increasingly supported by scientific trials. It is thus becoming more readily accepted in mainstream medicine as a natural option for the safe and effective treatment of children.

Medsafe NZ made an important ruling in 2013 that pharmaceutical cough medication was not to be given to children under 6 years of age. This was due to lack of evidence of efficacy, safety and that the risk-benefit profile was unfavourable, with documented harm to children. This followed similar other rulings in the US, Canada, UK and Australia. However, children still suffer from coughs and colds so a valid alternative is sought.

Ideally, a natural cough remedy for children provides a comprehensive, broad-spectrum formula that treats all types of coughs (wet or dry), from catarrh and bronchitis to asthma. It can also help remove the phlegm that can be an unpleasant trigger of coughs and protects the respiratory tract from further infections. The traditional combination of marshmallow root, mullein, plantain, thyme and liquorice has shown great results for all members of the family, including newborns. The above medicinal plants are endorsed by a German Commission E Monograph of the German Ministry of Health which evaluated the safety and effectiveness of medicinal plants and gave regulatory approval upon rigorous unbiased scientific investigation.

For an anti-viral formula to protect against influenza, (as well as the lessening its severity and duration), the medicinal herbs echinacea, angelica root, olive leaf, and sage, have also been endorsed by Commission E Monographs. This formula is best given to the child once a day throughout winter for improving the child's own defence mechanisms. Should an infection have gone past a child's defences, then an increase of the same formula up to five times per day may reduce severity and duration of the infection.

For very young children (under 3 months of age), tea remedies as well as tea baths (made with a strong infusion of medicinal herbs extracted in hot water) are often the preferred choice of treatment. However, echinacea, elderflower, liquorice, and thyme distributed in a vegetable glycerine base have shown to be beneficial in clinical settings in helping with immunity concerns from newborn.

In 2006, the American Academy of Paediatrics estimated 16 per cent to 26 per cent of all infants experience colic. There is no consensus as to the definite cause of this gastrointestinal disorder, but plant medicine has shown overall positive results in the treatment of this distressing complaint. In 2005 Savino et al. a randomised double-blind placebo-controlled trial of a standardised extract of chamomile, fennel and lemon balm was investigated in the treatment of breastfed colicky infants. It was found that 85.4 per cent of the treatment group improved within one week of treatment with a significant crying time reduction from an average of 201.2 minutes of crying a day at baseline to 76.9 minutes. No side effects were reported.