Welcome to my newest series…Herbs and Children! These past few months I have been learning so much about herbs and how to treat a variety of illnesses, infections, skin conditions, emotions, and other issues in children. While I am far from an expert, I do feel as though I have a lot of great information to share with you that can then use to do your own further research. Each month, I will share a couple of “conditions” and the specific herbs that are considered typically safe and generally effective to use on and in your children to address these conditions.
To kick off this series, I am providing a brief overview of using herbal remedies on children – laying a foundation if you will. I think there are some very important points to outline before we dive into specific herbal remedies. So let’s get to it shall we?
Staying healthy involves so much more than good hygiene and proper nourishment of the body through real, whole foods. There are all kinds of things at play inside the body. Gut health, liver and kidney function, adrenal function, and thyroid health are just a few areas where your child’s health may be negatively impacted if things aren’t fully operational. In addition to body systems and organs, emotional and mental health can play a huge role on physical health. Sleep (or lack thereof) plays a critical role too.
Children can take most herbs as a natural supplement to help boost the various body systems, organ function, and to address specific ailments, emotions, and other conditions.
Safety and common sense are the first things to keep in mind when using herbs to treat children and babies. Children’s developing bodies are more sensitive making them more apt to experience unintended side effects of herbs. Even when using herbs that have a proven safety record, be careful when first giving a new herb, just as you would any new food, to test for allergies and general tolerance.
In future posts in this series, I will refrain from giving specific dosages for the herbs I discuss. I am doing this to protect both myself and to ensure that you properly research the herbs presented, their safety (although I will certainly not recommend any herb that is potentially harmful to a child), and the correct dosage. However, most herbs are given to children based upon their age and weight. Weight typically trumps age as it varies widely.
The general guidelines when giving children herbs are:
- Under 2; consult with a trusted medical practitioner
- Ages 2-5; ¼ of the adult dose
- Ages 5-10; ½ of the adult dose
- Ages 11-15; ¾ of the adult dose
- Ages 15 and up; the full adult dose
For those of us seeking a more natural approach to treating our children and supporting their health, herbs make a lot more sense than synthetic drugs. Herbs contain healing elements in the amount that nature intended. Unless it is a GMO tainted herb, there is the perfect balance of healing catalysts in the herb which work together synergistically. Herbs work WITH the body to provide a complete healing process. Synthetic drugs, which most often contain a single active ingredient, focus on an isolated issue or segment of the body and often times require other drugs or supplements to fully address bodily issues.
Herbs have a natural balance to them. They work throughout the entire system intuitively doing their works. Synthetic drugs often times do more harm than good. Have you ever read the side effect list? If a drug designed to heal has the potential to cause that many additional health problems, I won’t touch it with a ten-foot pole!
Drugs also mask the root cause of illnesses and ailments. They cover up the symptoms so that we may instantaneously feel good. But this does not do anything to promote long term healing. Herbs on the other hand are designed to treat the underlying issues and while they may provide relief from symptoms, they are not simply masking symptoms. They are doing the hard work for cleansing and purifying.
Herbs also typically do not build up in the system (which is why you get side effects from synthetic drugs). The gentle, natural nature of herbs allows the body to use what it needs and eliminate the rest. Yes, you can certainly take too much of a particular herb or the wrong herb but since all herbs are rich in vitamins and minerals, you typically are not going to experience the ongoing, unpleasant side affects you would from synthetic drugs.
As all parents know, children can be a bit finicky about taking supplements. While I think most herbs have at least a moderately pleasant or tolerable taste, not all children have my palate. Therefore, it can be tricky figuring out how to get a particular herbal supplement down the hatch!
Luckily herbs are available and used in many forms. You will probably have to test the waters to see which form works best for your child (both in terms of palatability but also in terms of strength). Below are the various herbal forms along with a few tidbits about each.
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Capsules and tablets provide an easy way to take herbs, especially those that are less than pleasant tasting. If your child is old enough, this might be the best option of getting him or her to consume some of the strong tasting herbs.
Most herbs in tablet or capsule form are ground months prior to appearing on store shelves. They lose many of their active ingredients both when they are ground and while they are in storage. Herbal tablets also contain fillers, binders and other materials necessary to compress ground herbs into tablet form. Tablets must also be dissolved by the body’s digestive system before the herbs can be assimilated. Herbal capsules tend to be better than tablets because they do not contain the extra manufacturing materials and they dissolve easily in the stomach.
If the body is not digesting and assimilating well, the potential therapeutic benefits of herbs in tablet and capsule form diminishes because the digestive system must break the active constituents free from the fiber and cellulose. Herbs in capsule and tablet form also lose potency as they are exposed to oxygen (capsules oxidize more rapidly than tablets). So although they might be convenient, they are not always going to be the best form in which to consume herbs. Depending on the reason your child is consuming a particular herb, you may need to adjust the dosage to account for that.
Liquid herbal extracts are available in alcohol-containing extracts, alcohol-free extracts and liquid herbal softgels. It is very important to pay attention to how different brands of extracts are formulated as they are not all equal.
The most potent and effective extracts (whether they are in an alcohol or alcohol-free base) should all start as alcohol containing extracts to ensure potency. Heat should not be used in their manufacturing processes, as heat is detrimental to the potency of liquid herbal extracts. All extracts should be produced in such a way to ensure that the herbs contain their full spectrum of active constituents.
Extracts are very concentrated and are easily rubbed directly into the skin making them a great choice for muscle and ligament pain or inflammation. Extracts are great to have on hand for the too-common childhood bumps and bruises.
When taking internally, extracts are also very easily assimilated in the digestive process.
Tinctures are basically herbal extracts. They are either an alcohol or glycerin based extract of the herb, usually packaged in a glass dropper bottle. Tinctures are convenient because they are highly concentrated so you take only a small dose and they store well for long periods of time. They are also a great way to hide the flavor of strong herbs.
Glycerin based tinctures are an easy way to give herbs to children. The glycerin provides a sweet taste and the liquid is much easier for a child to swallow than capsules. Also, the small dose of a tincture (just a few drops for a child) will cause less disagreement than trying to get a child to drink a whole cup of strong tea.
Tinctures are used to heal chronic or acute illnesses, and are typically taken in small doses 2-3 times daily until illness or condition has resolved. They can be made with a single herb or a blend of herbs making them quite versatile.
Tonics are similar to tinctures in that they are basically herbal extracts. However, they are prepared using apple cider vinegar and not alcohol or glycerin. Tonics are used to promote good health and wellbeing and are used regularly. Like tincture, tonics can be made with a single herb or a blend of herbs making them quite versatile.
Syrups and Elixirs
Herbal syrups and elixirs are simple to make and tasty to consume. They are a great choice for young children.
Syrups and elixirs are made from a traditional tincture base. They can also be prepared by adding 2 ounces of dried herbs to a quart of water then gently boiling it down to about a pint. Honey or glycerin can be added for flavor. Licorice or fruit flavors are also commonly added in for palatability.
Syrups are best used during an illness, like a cough or sore throat. Elixirs are great as preventives, like boosting and supporting immune systems or easing chronic illness symptoms.
Tea is technically called an herbal infusion and is the oldest common form of herbal remedy and a soothing way to take herbs. An herbal infusion is made simply by placing a small amount of the herb in a cup, filling the cup with boiling water and letting it steep. Unlike black tea, which gets unpleasantly bitter if allowed to steep more than just a few minutes, herb teas increase in potency with extended steeping time and are best left to steep for at least 10 minutes.
Tea can be very appealing to children and during illness is extremely soothing. It is also easily flavored to make it palatable. Teas are also quite potent, making them a great choice.
Herbal baths or soaks are a great way to provide relaxation or healing to the whole body. An herbal bath is easy to prepare. Simply add a large handful of herbs to a square of fabric (cheesecloth, muslin, cotton, even a washcloth). Carefully pull up and tie the edges, essentially making a giant tea bag. Add to a hot bath and soak for at least 20 minutes. Children love a good soak in the tub and this is a great way to get some herbal medicine into their bodies!
Ointments are great to use on the skin when the active principals of herbs are needed for extended periods or to accelerate healing. An ointment typically has antiseptic or healing properties. It’s usual base is petroleum jelly, beeswax, or lanolin to which the herbal infusion is added. Either form is not water soluble, however some ointments are composed of ingredients which are water soluble.
Ointments have a soft consistency, making them very easy to apply. They can be slower to absorb however.
Salves work in a similar manner to ointments only the consistency is different. Salves are harder than ointments depending on the carrier oil used when making it. The benefit to salves over ointments is that they tend to be a bit stronger as the herbs are simmered longer. (I have an eBook out all about salve making with tons of recipes. Check out Salve Made Simple!)
A compress is typically used on children when the herbs are too strong to take internally. A compress used correctly allows the herbs to be absorbed in small amounts.
Typically, compresses are used to provoke the circulation of the blood or lymph in the body and may be applied either warm or hot. When applied cold they soothe pain and reduce swelling. They are also used for superficial afflictions that may include aches, colds, flu, pains and swellings.
To make an herbal compress, one or two heaping tablespoons of an herb or herbal combination are brought to boil in 1 cup of water. A 100% cotton pad or sterile gauze is important since it is a natural material and is dipped in the strained liquid. The excess liquid is drained and the cotton pad is then placed on the affected area while it is still warm. It is best covered with a piece of woolen material to trap the heat. For small children, bandaging it in place may be appropriate. When the compress cools, it is time to change the pad. Compresses are commonly used in cases of contusions, effusions, injury, and irritations.
A poultice is a hot, moist mass of oil between two pieces of muslin or gauze containing fresh or ground powdered herbs, which is applied to the skin to relieve congestion or pain. It stimulates the absorption of inflammatory toxins produced by the body and to act as a counter-irritant. Antiseptic should be used before applying poultices. If you do not add oil to the poultice you must oil the skin before applying.
The poultice should be a minimum of ¼ to ½ inch thick. It may be held in place with either tape or an elastic bandage and left on for at least three hours. Poultices can also be left on the body overnight for deep cleansing. Most poultices are applied warm and should not be reheated and then reapplied as toxins have already been absorbed into the poultice pack. When one poultice cools, another may be applied at that time.
Many herbs have a natural drawing power on infections, toxins and foreign bodies embedded in the skin tissue. Therefore, a poultice is a great way to relieve abscesses, blood poisoning, bites and eruptions, boils, decrease tissue swelling (inflammation) and tension, deodorize and disinfect pollutants, soften crusted lesions, encourage the muscles to relax, stimulate healthy skin, and to promote the purging of toxins and healing of the affected area.
Children certainly will not be a fan of this method but sometimes it really is the best option. A herbal bolus (suppository) is a herbal formula that is solid at room temperature but melts at body temperature because they are made with pure butters like cocoa butter, shea butter, and even coconut oil.
Boluses are used as herbal hemorrhoid remedies most often and yes, children can suffer from these. The herbal bolus melts and lets the powerful herbs completely coat the entire area for excellent results. These herbal formulas will quickly combat these ailments with no trips to the doctor.
There are also herbal boluses that can be used to aid in eliminating constipation. While not designed for long term use, they can get things moving by simply stimulating the colon quickly.
The shelf life of herbal preparations varies. This is a rough guideline to consider:
- Tablets/Capsules; 1-12 months
- Extracts; 5 years if alcohol free and 7 years is alcohol based
- Tinctures; depends on the herbs used but typically they have an indefinite shelf life
- Tonics; depends on the herbs used but typically they have an indefinite shelf life
- Syrups/Elixirs; 12-24 months if stored in cool, dark place or in a dark container
- Ointments; up to 12 months if stored in cool, dark place or in a dark container
- Salves; up to 12 months if stored in cool, dark place or in a dark container
- Suppository; 3-6 months if stored in cool, dark place
- Whole Dried Herbs; 2-12 months
- Powdered Herbs; 1-6 months
- Tea bags; 1-6 months
Where to buy
Most health food stores and online health stores will carry a wide array of herbal supplements. It is best to source these to determine their quality. Don’t just walk in and grab the first tincture on the shelf. Ask questions, consult the internet, and select the herbal preparation that you feel is the highest quality.
Why can you find the herbs to make these preparations? While there are a lot of options, the ONLY online source I use and trust is Mountain Rose Herbs. I refuse to purchase herbs and herbal preparations anywhere else. Their quality is unmatched and they are a company with ethics that I can stand behind!
I hope this series opener was informative and helps you start looking at the possibility of including more herbal preparations in your natural medicine cabinet. See you next month where I dive headfirst into a few of the most common childhood illnesses.