Alternative Care For Kids
When it's time to see the doctor, what are your nontraditional options?

By Phyllis Edgerly Ring

When Julia Russell's 5-year-old son began holding his ear and crying, she debated what to do. "My own naturopathic doctor often helps children with ear infections, but I was unsure if I should consult a pediatrician for my son instead. It's a tough call when your child is the one who's hurting."

Russell is one of many parents who have considered alternative and complementary medicine for their young ones. In fact, a recent telephone study conducted by University of Arizona researchers revealed that nearly a third of the 1,501 adults surveyed had sought alternative health care for their children. This increased interest isn't surprising, considering the use of complementary medicine is growing overall. In 1993, the New England Journal of Medicine reported that one-third of Americans had used alternative health care, and by 1998, the Journal of the American Medical Association reported that the number had risen to more than 83 million Americans, an estimated 40 percent to 50 percent increase in just five years.

Children have a natural vitality that responds quickly to natural healing therapies, particularly herbs and plants. Despite the new interest, some moms and dads still wonder whether alternative medicine is right for their children. After all, how do you know which treatments are safe and effective for small, developing bodies? And do certain childhood ailments require immediate traditional medical attention? Which illnesses can be treated more effectively with alternative medicine? To guide parents toward safe natural treatment options, Mark Stengler, ND, of La Jolla, California, subcommittee member of the Yale University Complementary Medicine Outcomes Research Project, and his wife, Angela Stengler, ND, co-authored Your Vital Child (Rodale, 2001). Mark Stengler believes that parents can feel confident when they choose alternative practitioners who are licensed in their field of practice and, equally important, have experience treating children.

First, it helps to know how naturopathic doctors (NDs) differ from medical doctors (MDs). MDs and NDs receive similar training in the basic sciences. But MDs-in-training spend a significant portion of the last two years of medical school working in hospitals with critically ill patients, while naturopathic students work in clinics with outpatients only, specializing in natural treatment methods. "[Naturopathic medical students] also study hundreds more hours in courses that have disappeared from [conventional] medical schools, such as nutrition, botanical medicine, and many other therapies," explains Judith Boice, ND, LAc, of Montrose, Colorado. "[Naturopathic medical students] are knowledgeable about both natural and medical treatment, including pharmacology, and are well-equipped to diagnose and treat, even to collaborate with conventional doctors."

Children specifically can benefit greatly from alternative treatments, say NDs. "Children have a natural vitality that responds quickly to natural healing therapies, particularly herbs and plants," says Boice. "Botanicals have the added advantage of minimal or no side effects, plus they strengthen and rebuild the body's systems rather than attack illness directly. Natural remedies not only stimulate healing, but they help children's bodies resist future illness, too."

When You Must See The MD
Both Boice and Stengler emphasize that some symptoms indicate the need for immediate treatment by a medical doctor. For children 6 months and older, red flags include a fever of 103 degrees or higher or one that continues for more than two days; pain that doesn't go away; any head injuries; nonstop vomiting; or "a child that just doesn't look quite right," says Stengler.

Severe drooling and the child's inability to breathe easily indicate acute epiglottitis, a serious infection near the back of the pharynx, which needs immediate medical treatment, Boice adds. Other medical emergencies include excessive bleeding of any type, internal or external; right-side lower-abdominal pain, fever, nausea, and vomiting, signs associated with appendicitis; or a high fever accompanied by an arching back, which is indicative of meningitis. If your child exhibits any of these symptoms, head straight to a medical doctor or an emergency room.

Natural Alternatives
Many less-urgent childhood ailments respond well to natural treatment, according to Boice and Stengler. The following are the conditions they encounter most frequently in their naturopathic practices. The remedies they prescribe, albeit familiar a century ago, are all supported by science and demonstrate that the body is truly designed to heal itself.

Ear infection. Estimated to affect 75 percent of children by the age of 3, otitis media, or ear infection, results from a painful buildup of secretions in the middle ear. Although antibiotics are the conventional medical treatment, a recent study conducted by Seattle researcher Jennifer Jacobs, MD, showed that homeopathic and other natural remedies can bring faster relief. Jacobs' study of 75 children who had experienced middle-ear infection, pain, or fever for no more than 36 hours showed homeopathic treatment decreased symptoms within the first 24 hours of treatment (Pediatric Infectious Disease Journal, 2001, vol. 20, no. 2). "Plus, such natural treatments help avoid the bacterial resistance and destruction of intestinal flora associated with antibiotics," says Boice, "which we now know seriously limit a child's future ability to fight infection."

At least one study reinforces Boice's claim that homeopathic treatment serves a child's health better in the long term. German researchers studied 131 children suffering from ear infections and administered homeopathic remedies to 103 subjects and antibiotics to the other 28. Not only did the homeopathic group experience pain relief a day sooner, but a year later, 70.7 percent of that group had no recurrences, and the remaining 29.3 percent had a maximum of three relapses. The antibiotics group, on the other hand, was only 56.5 percent relapse-free, and the other 43.5 percent had a maximum of six recurrences (International Journal of Clinical Pharmacology and Therapeutics, 1997, vol. 35, no. 7).

To treat an ear infection, Stengler prescribes vitamin C at a dose of 100 mg times the child's age in years, two times daily, for immune support, along with ten drops of echinacea (Echinacea purpurea) tincture four times daily at the first sign of infection and until infection has subsided. Echinacea may be even more valuable than previously believed: A study at the University of Arizona's Steele Memorial Children's Research Center in Tucson, with a grant from the National Institutes of Health National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine, is now investigating echinacea's effectiveness at preventing ear infections as well as treating them.

Stengler also administers herbal ear drops containing mullein (Verbascum thapsus) to reduce swelling and discomfort and garlic (Allium sativum), which helps reduce mucus secretion. The usual dose, following examination by the practitioner to ensure that the eardrum is not perforated, is two warm drops applied to the affected ear three times a day. Stengler also prescribes an over-the-counter homeopathic earache formula to stimulate the child's immune system to fight the infection. It's important to note that Stengler and Boice both recommend parents administer such natural treatments under the guidance of a trained practitioner.

Boice's treatment of ear infections aims to "optimize children's immune function by ensuring adequate rest, supportive diet, and lifestyle adjustments. And—very important—no smoking around the child," she says. "Also, avoid sugar and mucus-forming dairy products, which studies link to ear infections."

In the rare instances in which a practitioner discovers pus behind a child's eardrum or an abscess on the temporal bone, antibiotic use is a must, says Boice. Also, drainage from the ear that shows a positive bacterial culture usually necessitates a short course of antibiotics. In all such cases, she says, it is important to follow up with probiotics, products that help restore the "good" bacteria the intestinal tract loses during antibiotic treatment.

Eczema, asthma, and other allergies. Often, says Boice, relationships exist among eczema, asthma, and other allergies, as evidenced when treatment of eczema, whether conventional or alternative, suppresses the skin symptoms, pushes the inflammation deeper into the body, and triggers asthma. When asthma improves, the eczema often reappears. Suppressing the eczema again often causes a worsening of asthma symptoms. A major part of Boice's treatment plan involves identifying and avoiding the food sensitivities that stimulate allergies in the first place, she says.

For eczema, Stengler advises foods rich in essential fatty acids, such as salmon and other cold-water fish, flaxseed oil, nuts, and seeds, to help heal skin and reduce inflammation. "Red meat, dairy products, and spicy foods increase inflammation," he says. "A vitamin-C dose of 50 mg times the child's age in years twice daily promotes skin healing, as does 10 mg of zinc daily for children 2 years and older." Baths and topical creams that include oatmeal also help reduce itching, he says.

Eliminating dairy, sugar, and artificial preservatives gives the child's immune system a rest from fighting allergens so it can gain strength and ward off illness instead. Stengler's healing diet for asthma is one that supports the immune system; it is rich in fruits, vegetables, whole grains, lean poultry, and fresh fish. It is also free of mucus-producing dairy products, sugar, and such food additives as artificial sweeteners and preservatives, all of which can cause allergic reactions that trigger asthma, he says. Eliminating such foods also gives the child's immune system a rest from fighting potential allergens so it can gain strength and ward off illness instead, says Boice.

Other asthma preventives include a children's multivitamin to boost the immune system and a twice-daily dose of vitamin C equal to the child's age in years times 50 mg to provide support against allergies, Stengler adds. He also administers 3 mg of the bioflavonoid quercetin per pound of body weight twice daily as a natural anti-inflammatory agent, as well as 500 mg of calcium and 250 mg of magnesium to help relax bronchial tubes. Additionally, he advocates 1 gram of fish oil per 50 pounds of body weight daily, a dose that has an anti-inflammatory effect (British Journal of Nutrition, 2002, vol. 87, no. 1 Suppl).

Finally, for parents of asthma sufferers, experts recommend making your home as allergen-free as possible. "Use an air filter in the bedroom and other parts of the home," says Stengler. "Wash bedding twice a week to reduce dust, and cover the child's mattress and pillows with plastic covers to protect against dust mites."

Stomachache and other digestive upsets. Stomachaches are to children what headaches are to adults—an indication of imbalance somewhere in the body, says Boice. Although it can be difficult to isolate a physiological cause, the malady is one of the most common reasons children stay home from school. Immature development of the child's digestive system often underlies the problem, and emotional elements can play a part, too, she says.

"Some children eat too fast, chew improperly, or experience upset because of food allergy or intolerance," says Boice. "That's why it's important to know when to introduce certain foods, if at all. Encourage early those that are easy to digest and iron-rich, plus fiber-rich foods that support digestion by helping to develop the right flora in the gut."

When a stomachache, nausea, or diarrhea does develop, Stengler recommends a dose every two hours of 4 ounces of fresh gingerroot (Zingiber officinale) tea, 15 drops of gingerroot tincture, or one gingerroot capsule if the child is old enough to swallow it, until acute digestive upset subsides. Parents can administer this treatment safely without contacting their practitioner first, Stengler says, and side effects, other than occasional heartburn, are rare.

The Steele Memorial Children's Research Center is also testing alternative therapies such as relaxation techniques, guided imagery, and chamomile (Chamaemelum nobile) tea for controlling recurrent abdominal pain.

Colds and upper respiratory infections. When your child catches a cold, her immune system is signaling its need for support, says Boice. "A cold is a healing reaction, not so much something to treat," she says. "The body is trying to regain balance after being adversely affected by physical or emotional stressors."

When your child catches a cold, it's a sign of an immune system in need of support. Stengler recommends giving children with colds or upper respiratory infections plenty of fluids because dehydrated tissues are more susceptible to invasion by bacteria and viruses. Homemade soups are an especially good remedy, and doses of vitamin C and echinacea can help boost the immune system. Your child should "rest, keep warm, and, as with many ailments, avoid sugars," says Boice. "As little as a gram of sugar can reduce immune function for up to 24 hours."

American Association of Naturopathic Physicians; 866.538.2267,
National Center for Homeopathy; 703.548.7790,
Center for Holistic Pediatric Education and Research;
National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine;
Steele Memorial Children's Research Center; Next time your child gets a cold, try this at-home remedy, described in Boice's book The Pocket Guide to Naturopathic Medicine (The Crossing Press, 1996). Known as the "wet socks" treatment, it stimulates the immune system and helps relieve symptoms of upper respiratory conditions. Soak your child's feet in hot water (as hot as he can comfortably stand) up to the ankles for five to eight minutes until pink; keep the rest of the child's body covered and warm. Dry the feet thoroughly and put on 100 percent cotton socks that have been soaked in very cold water and wrung out. Pull dry wool socks on over the wet socks and put your child directly to bed, keeping his feet covered throughout the night. The remedy draws blood away from the head to warm the feet, relieving pressure in the head, usually causing symptoms to disappear, says Boice. "This often also boosts the immune system and helps children move through illness faster."

Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). Children who exhibit behavior that is inattentive, impulsive, excessively irritable, or overly talkative are often categorized as having attention deficit disorder (ADD) or attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). At least 5 percent of U.S. schoolchildren now use Ritalin, the drug most widely prescribed for this diagnosis—doctors write up an estimated 20 million prescriptions annually. In its report on worldwide Ritalin use, the International Narcotics Control Board in Vienna, Austria, suggests that such extensive prescribing could pose long-term risks for teenage addiction. A new study, however, suggests that children who are prescribed Ritalin are not at an increased risk for drug addiction or experimentation in adulthood (Pediatrics, 2003, vol. 111, no. 1).

Many underlying factors contribute to hyperactivity, and diet is one of the most common, naturopaths say. If your child has been diagnosed with ADHD, Stengler recommends avoiding food additives and identifying and treating food sensitivities. "Common [food sensitivities] are milk, sugar, chocolate, citrus fruit, peanuts, and wheat, [all of] which can alter brain chemistry adversely," he says. "Keep blood sugar levels balanced by eating smaller, more-frequent meals throughout the day." Stengler also advocates "brain-healthy" foods rich in omega-3 fatty acids, which appear to reduce ADHD by improving attention and behavior (American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 2000, vol. 71, no. 1 Suppl). Supplements prescribed by a qualified practitioner can also help improve memory and focus.

Phyllis Edgerly Ring, of Exeter, New Hampshire, grew up in the United States and Europe, where she learned about holistic healing at a young age.