At Community Pharmacy, we field a lot of questions from parents about using herbs and other alternative modalities to support a child’s healing during common childhood ailments. Often the questions hinge on the safety of using herbs in the small, developing bodies of young children.
According to herbalist and educator Rosemary Gladstar, children’s bodies respond well to the healing power of herbs. Herbs can offer tremendous support and benefit for children’s health, whether used alone or in conjunction with allopathic medicine. When herbs are administered wisely, says Gladstar, they do not disturb the delicate balance of small bodies and can be safely used for many childhood illnesses.
Most directions for using the various forms of herbal medicine (tinctures, teas, capsules, etc.) use adult doses, but there are numerous formulas for calculating age-appropriate child dosages. For children who fall within the normal growth curve, Young’s Rule is widely used by herbalists to determine a child’s dose. To use Young’s Rule, add 12 to the child’s age and divide the child’s age by this total. For example, to calculate the dose for a six-year-old child:
6 (child’s age) +12 = 18; then
6 (child’s age) ÷ 18 (total from above) = 1/3
From this we can see that a six-year-old child should receive 1/3 of the adult dose.
Clark’s rule calculates dose by weight: to get the approximate fraction of the adult dose to give a child, divide the child’s weight (in pounds) by 150. So, if your child weighs 50 pounds, give 50/150 or 1/3 of the adult dose. If the adult dose is 30 drops taken three times daily, the Childs dose will be 10 drops taken three times daily. Mary Bove, a naturopathic physician, says that by age 12, most children can take an adult dose.
The list of useful herbs for children’s health is extensive. For brevity’s sake, I’ve included some that are not only extremely easy to use, but have the added benefits of being delicious and nutritious. I’ve also included recipes simple enough to involve young children in their preparation — let them add the astragalus root to a pot of stew before you put it in the oven, help you tend a patch of lemon balm in the garden, or press cooked elderberries through a strainer and retrieve the juice for making syrup.
Astragalus (Astragalus membranaceous) is an antibacterial and antiviral Chinese herb that is deeply supportive of the immune system. Use astragalus to help prevent colds and flus. The pleasant-tasting root contains the plant’s strongest medicine and can be added to soups and stews or brewed as tea. Don’t be alarmed by it’s tongue-blade appearance! An easy and delicious way to take advantage of this immune-boosting root is to add it to a pot of slowly simmering homemade soup, removing it after the soup is done cooking. Astragalus is also quite tasty when decocted alone or as a companion to other immune-enhancing herbs.
Black Elderberry (Sambucus nigra) The berries of the black elderberry are deep blue-black due to highly nutritious anthocyanin, which helps stimulate immunity to pathogens. Elderberries go even further by preventing viruses from entering healthy cells and replicating. Therefore, they are best used frequently at the onset of cold or flu virus.
Elderberries naturally lend themselves to making fruity, tasty syrup. Kids love the purple color, and parents love that there are no artificial colorings or preservatives. Add 1/2 cup dried or 1 cup fresh elderberries to a pan with 3 cups water and bring to a boil. Lower the heat and simmer, covered, for 30-45 minutes. Smash the berries and strain through a fine mesh sieve. Add 1 cup honey (or to taste) to the juice. Bottle and store in the refrigerator for 2-3 months. Use only black elderberries, as red elderberries are toxic. Please note that Center for Disease Control and Prevention advises against giving raw honey to children under the age of one, and some sources recommend waiting until a child is at least two. Raw honey can contain botulism spores that, while harmless in older children and adults, can cause fatal diarrhea in the immature digestive tract. You may substitute food grade vegetable glycerin for honey.
Calendula (Calendula officinalis) An ancient plant, calendula has been used for centuries as a dye for clothing coloring for food, and balm for burns, cuts and abrasions. Calendula’s brilliant orange and yellow petals beckon children like colorful crayons, making the plant a perfect introduction to the world of herbal healers.
Calendula is often a main ingredient in herbal salves. It appears to speed wound healing by proving the production of collagen and increasing blood flow to the area. Making a salve at home is easy and fun. Combine 1 1/2 oz. dried or 3 oz fresh calendula petals with 1 cup olive oil and simmer over very low heat for 20 minutes. In another pan (use a double boiler, or a glass measuring cup set over a small pan of water), slowly melt 1/2 oz beeswax; pour it into the mixture of calendula and oil, and stir well. Add 1/8 tsp. vitamin E oil, which acts as a preservative. To test salve for consistency, refrigerate a small amount for 3-5 minutes. If it comes out too soft, add more beeswax; if it’s too hard, add more olive oil. When salve has reached the desired consistency, pour it into a jar and cover.
Chamomile (Anthemis nobilis or Matricaria chamomilla) Chamomile’s smiling flower faces are as sweet as its fragrance. It’s amazing that this beautiful little plant contains so much beneficial medicine! Chamomile is good for easing an upset tummy, soothing inflamed skin and taming irritable tempers. In A Kid’s Herb Book, Lesley Tierra recommends this recipe for Tummy Ache Tea to ease indigestion and aid in eliminating gas: Pour 1 cup boiling water over 2 teaspoons dried chamomile, 1 teaspoon dried lemon balm and 1/4 teaspoon ginger. Cover and let sit for 15 minutes. Strain, sweeten to taste and dispense in 1/4-1/2 cup doses.
Lemon Balm (Melissa officinalis) A member of the mint family, lemon balm is calming, antiviral and easy to cultivate. Its Latin species name, officinalis, tells us that lemon balm was “officially” used by medieval monks and nuns who often acted as doctors. Typically, lemon balm is used to induce a sense of serenity, but you can also find it in topical remedies for cold sores due to its antiviral properties. Lemon balm tea safely soothes an irritable, restless mood and is best prepared as an infusion because of its lemony and fragrant volatile oils. Use a large handful of fresh or 1 teaspoon dried lemon balm per cup of tea. Boil water, pour it over the herb cover and let mixture sit for 15 minutes. Strain and enjoy!
Written by Carole Blemker, R.N., R.D.
Edited by Amy Baker and Jennifer Helmer