Are Herbal Remedies
Good for Kids?
By Nanci Hellmich
In great-grandma's day, kids got gingersnaps for their stomach aches and chamomile tea for colic and teething. Now, after years of being replaced by sophisticated medications, the "natural remedies" for children are back.
And not everyone thinks this return to the good old days is good at all.
Several supplement companies across the country are working feverishly to design herbal supplements for children. Some firms companies already have products on the market; others are in the works. Among them:
Gaia Herbs in Brevard, N.C., will introduce 20 kids' supplements on July 21, including liquid echinacea products and a tummy tonic made with lemon balm, chamomile flowers, spearmint leaf, catnip herb and fennel seed. (Most 1-ounce products will sell for $9.29.)
Herbs for Kids in Bozeman, Mont., one of the leaders in this area, has made supplements for children for seven years. It has 25 now and in September will release a St. John's wort blend to improve mood.
Nature's Answer in Hauppauge , N.Y., has had a line for kids for two years.
"Products for kids will become a hot category," says Grace Lyn Rich, director of marketing for Nature's Herbs a division of Twin Laboratories, in American Fork, Utah. "We see that as an area to be looked at seriously."
Some botanical experts say kids respond well to herbs, which can be safer and more natural than synthetic medications, and they point out that many botanicals have been used for children in other countries for centuries. Herbal supplements appeal to some parents who are disillusioned with modern medicine and who worry about giving their children medications.
But critics, including physicians and some of the nation's top herbal experts, aren't convinced. They say there isn't enough research to warrant giving herbal products to children. They worry that there's no good way to determine appropriate dosages and fear that some parents will treat children with herbs rather than take them in for medical care.
In fact, much of the debate about herbs for children centers on the research, or lack of it. "My general rule is no herbs for kids," says Varro Tyler, a botanical expert and author of The Honest Herbal (Pharmaceutical Products Press, $17.95). "I'm opposed to the use of herbs for children simply because they have not been tested in the proper dosage to determine their activity in children."
David Schardt, associate nutritionist for the Center for Science in the Public Interest, a Washington, D.C.-based consumer group, says, in general, herbs are pretty mild products that have mild or modest effects. "But we are dealing in an unknown area. The little good research that's done on herbs is done in adults. We don't know what the effects of these supplements are on children, and there are reasons to be concerned. Children are growing and building new tissue constantly at a faster rate, and that makes them more vulnerable," he says.
Marc Micozzi, executive director of the College of Physicians of Philadelphia and author of the first medical school textbook on complementary medicine, says research on botanicals for children has lagged behind in this country, and many doctors and parents "are not willing to experiment with children.''
Herbal supplements are loosely regulated by the Food and Drug Administration. Drugs must have safety and efficacy proven before going on the market, but dietary supplements can be sold with no government screening, and some have little scientific evidence to support their effectiveness.
Some experts say research and years of documented use on kids taking herbs do exist.
Mark Blumenthal, founder of the American Botanical Council, an educational organization, says that for centuries many cultures have mixed different herbs together for specific treatments for children. He says weak chamomile tea and weak catnip tea have been given to babies with colic and children with upset stomachs. Echinacea has been used for chronic ear infections. In Germany, there is a book on the use of herbs for children, he says.
Unlike adult supplements, which often are sold as pills or powders, the children's herbal products are alcohol-free liquid extracts, which are easier for kids to take than pills. Some are based in sweet-tasting glycerine. Steve Guettermann, general manager of Herbs for Kids, says most herbs used in the company's products (usually four or five for one formula) are already in your home in spice or tea cabinets - thyme, sage, peppermint, chamomile, catnip, lemongrass. "There aren't any mystery herbs in our products," he says. "These herbs are used to gently get the child back on his feet."
His company is making a St. John's wort-chamomile-lemon balm formula that might help improve children's mood. St. John's wort has been used in adults for the treatment of mild to moderate depression. "The information we've looked at so far suggests it is acceptable for kids," he says.
Mary Bove has used herbs to treat children in her practice as a naturopathic physician in Brattleboro, Vt. She designed the formulas for Gaia Herbs' new children's line; many products include four to six herbs.
Mixing herbs together in formulas is fine as long as the botanicals are chemically compatible, say Bove, author of The Encyclopedia of Natural Healing for Children & Infants (Keats, $14.95). Dosages specified on the bottles are based on her experiences in her practice and knowledge gleaned from resources in England and other countries.
Children respond well to some herbal medicines, agrees Donald Brown, a doctor of naturopathic medicine in Seattle and author of Herbal Prescriptions for Better Health (Prima Publishing, $16). For several years he has recommended herbs for kids. "I had phenomenal success with using echinacea, especially with kids with recurring ear infections to help reduce the need for recurrent antibiotics."
Michael Murray, a naturopathic physician and co-author of the Encyclopedia of Natural Medicine (Prima Publishing, $24.95), uses some herbal products on his own children, ages 1 and 4. If they have a cold, he gives them extra vitamin C and echinacea, which he says shortens the duration and severity of colds. "My approach with herbal medicine is to keep it very simple and avoid multiple-component formulas with kids."
Murray says some herbs such as fennel, licorice, peppermint, echinacea, ginger and chamomile have a long history of worldwide use in children. "In the proper dosage they aren't going to cause any problems."
Some parents have been pleased with the herbal supplements they've tried with their children. Nina Wegrzyn-Van Zant, an Oklahoma City mother of two boys, ages 8 years and 7 months, says she has used some Herbs for Kids products, including cough suppressants, upset-stomach tonics and echinacea extracts.
She always takes her kids to the doctor if she thinks they have something serious that needs an antibiotic. But in general, she says, "I like the idea of using herbs because they are so much less harsh than medicine preparations. I've always liked a more conservative approach."
The herbal business is booming. Overall, sales of dietary supplements, which besides herbal products include vitamins, minerals and amino acids, were an estimated $11.8 billion last year and are growing at a rate of 8% to 10% annually, says Grant Ferrierm, editor of Nutrition Business Journal. in San Diego.
It isn't likely that the market for kids is going to go away any time soon, and experts say parents need to be informed about herbs if they choose to use them.
Tyler and others think there needs to be more research on these products' safety and effectiveness. "None of these combinations of herbs, particularly the complex combinations, have been properly tested on anyone," Tyler says. He also thinks there should be testing of glycerine-based tinctures.
Brown agrees there should be more testing, and he would like to see more "standardization of pediatric dosages."
Until more research and testing are done, however, parents must rely on the companies whose products they use, and the companies aren't required to check for toxicity, safety or effectiveness.
Murray says that when it comes to using herbal products for kids, "you either trust the company or you don't."
By Nanci Hellmich, USA TODAY

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