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The Informed Parent

Alternative Medicine: Herbal Remedies

by Shanna R. Cox, M.D., F.A.A.P.
Published on Nov. 17, 2003

On any given day it seems that one can pick up the newspaper or latest magazine and find that some common food substance or additive is being implicated as a possible carcinogen. While some of these claims have been validated by substantial research and clinical study, others are merely the topic of the day, opinions subject to change upon further scrutiny. Secondary to the difficulty in defining these problems, many people have turned to “natural” remedies in hopes of purifying their diets and lifestyles. Currently in the medical profession there are mixed views on the utility and efficacy of these products. With the many cultures that are incorporated together in our cities we are faced with the task of attempting to discover and understand what therapies our patients are turning to, in order to achieve relief. Similarly, parents must be aware of the contents of the products they may use to “naturally” treat their children, or use for themselves, that may be accessible to hands and mouths of active little ones.

Between the local GNC store, the Internet, and word-of-mouth there is a lot of general information available about herbal supplements. One important fact to note is that while these products are easily accessible they are not regulated in the same manor that other foods and drugs are. Specifically, the Food and Drug Administration does not evaluate the product quality and content of herbal preparations. Therefore, there exists a wide variability product-to-product, making it difficult to know not only how much, but what you are actually getting. Because these products have not been required to undergo the clinical trials of prescribed drugs, the recommended dosages and effects also are more speculated than proven. Certainly this does not mean that there is not value to herbal remedies. But it does mean that caution and investigation should precede the use of these products.

Herbal remedies do fall under a classification system that closely mirrors that of prescribed drugs, in that it is composed of classes I-IV. Therefore, this system should be utilized for guidance. Class I herbs are generally felt to be safe while Class II herbs are laden with restrictions and generally are not to be used in pregnancy or in lactating mothers. Most importantly, the effects of herbal remedies have not been evaluated at pediatric dosages and have not been studied in children. Consequently, any use of a herbal remedy in a young child should be discussed with a physician prior to use.

Chamomile is a Class I herb, and generally is believed to have anti-inflammatory and calming properties. While adults have used this herb to relieve stress it is also marketed to relieve colic and teething pain in infants. However, chamomile has been associated with allergic reactions in people sensitive to ragweed. It should not be used in pregnant or breastfeeding mothers, and may impair cognitive skills. This is pretty serious cautionary advice for a product commonly known as a tea.

Kava Kava is an herb that is known by some as “Nature’s Xanax”, in reference to a well-known anti-anxiety drug. It is a Class II herb and is an ingredient in a popular teething product recently brought to my attention by a parent. It also has been referred to as an agent to help alleviate the symptoms of Attention Deficit Disorder. It is a popular remedy, particularly in the South Pacific, where it is native. Liver toxicity and interaction with one of the body‘s most important neurotransmitters, dopamine, are just a couple of the effects that have been attributed to Kava Kava.

Ephedra or Ma Huang is also know as herbal ecstasy and most recently has received press for its use in rapid weight loss regimens. Historically, ephedra has been a popular Chinese remedy for alleviation of asthma symptoms. However, ephedra works as a sympathomimetic, meaning as a stimulant of the central nervous system. It has been shown to cause arrhythmias, seizures and high blood pressure. It is classified as a Class IIb herb.

Gingko Biloba has been touted as a memory enhancer, and also an “oxygen enhancer”. It is one of Europe’s most widely used herbal remedies and has been enlivened by recent testaments to the benefits of antioxidant use. Significantly, gingko biloba has been associated with inhibition of platelet aggregation, thereby causing bleeding and stroke in some cases.

These are just a few of the better known and frequently used herbal remedies employed in alternative medicine. While derived from roots, leaves and stems of naturally occurring plants, these products are far from benign. They should be used with caution by all, but particularly when considered for therapeutic use in infants and children.

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