Childrens Herbs - Herbal Immune Support for Children

Herbal Immune Support for Children

By Robin Klein

There are risks and benefits involved in both vaccinating and opting not to. parents should know that whichever option they choose, herbal medicine can play a supporting role by strengthening their child's immune system. Herbs can also help strengthen and support a child in preparation for vaccination. Just remember that using herbs safely and effectively can best be assured with an herbally trained clinician such as a naturopath or an acupuncturist.

Immune health is not just about being able to overcome a pathogenic infection; it is also about maintaining natural responses. To understand how herbs can support a child's immune system, it is helpful to know how the body maintains a healthy response during exposure to a pathogen.

The secretory immune system consists of tissues and organs that secrete protective fluids such as tears, saliva and mucus.1 Generally found on the outer layers of the body, these tissues include the skin and the linings of orifices but also include the digestive and respiratory tracts. These tissues form the first major line of defense against childhood diseases.

The systemic immune system involves the internal tissues such as the lymph node and fluid networks as well as blood and blood vessels.2 The secretory immune response occurs locally and externally (via body secretions), and the systemic immune response occurs internally (in the bloodstream and tissues).2 The immune system is intricately connected to the endocrine and central nervous systems, which communicate through common molecular messengers such as hormones, prostaglandins and immune cells.3

Healing Herbs

Herbs are particularly good at positively affecting the endocrine and central nervous systems. They easily stimulate secretions from mucosal tissues and gently calm and support the central nervous system. Thus, herbs are excellent in protecting and supporting a child during acute childhood illnesses.

There are many herbs gentle enough for children, but do encourage customers to administer herbal medicine to their children under the supervision of a health care professional. Herbs are multisystemic--that is, they affect more than one part of the body at a time--but only their primary uses will be considered here.

Respiratory and oral passages are lined with secretory cells that help wash away pathogens and inhibit their entrance into the epithelial cell lining. This is particularly helpful because many pathogens are airborne.

An excellent secretory stimulant for children is thyme (Thymus vulgaris). It is an antibacterial and expectorant widely recommended by German pediatricians for whooping cough and bronchitis.4 Elder flowers (Sambucus nigra) and yarrow (Achillea millefolium) are diaphoretic--they increase perspiration and help excrete pathogens.4,5 Herbs with diaphoretic, demulcent (soothes), bitter (stimulates digestion) and laxative (induces defecation) properties variously encourage appropriate expectoration, nutrient absorption or waste elimination.

Demulcents such as marshmallow root (Althaea officinalis), malva leaves (Malva neglecta, M. silvestris) and mullein leaves (Verbascum thapsus) soothe inflamed tissues.4

Bitter-tasting herbs stimulate digestive fluids in the salivary glands, stomach and gall bladder, which then stimulate peristalsis and defecation. Keeping digestion strong and bowels moving is important in daily health but particularly so during an infection.

Many calming herbs are bitter, too. It is perhaps no coincidence that the digestive tract is intimately connected to the nervous system. Therefore, herbs such as lemon balm (Melissa officinalis) or hops (Humulus lupulus) will not only help relax a child but will also help keep the gastrointestinal tract well toned.4

Other herbs that help strengthen the secretory tissues are elecampane (Inula helenium), sweet violet (Viola odorata), ginger (Zingiber officinale), garlic (Allium sativum), licorice (Glycyrrhiza glabra) and plantain (plantago major).6

Herbs that affect the deeper parts of the immune system are called adaptogens, immune modulators, adrenal tonics, alteratives, anti-inflammatories and lymph tonics. For example, echinacea (Echinacea angustifolia, E. purpurea) is well known for its beneficial effects on immune cells,7,8 while astragalus (Astragalus membranaceus) has been shown to stimulate phagocytes and possibly enhance interferon response.9,10 In Germany, the immunostimulant boneset (Eupatorium perfoliatum) is commonly prescribed for children.4

Many mushrooms have been shown to enhance killer-cell activity and increase production of interleukins. Reishi (Ganoderma lucidum), maitake (Grifola frondosa) and shiitake (Lentinus edodes) are the most readily available.11

Teas are the best delivery method for most of these herbs because fluids most directly reach eliminative organs and contribute to dilution and excretion of pathogens while also keeping the child hydrated. It is important that the tea tastes good because it is obviously useless if the child won't drink it. Adding some vegetable glycerin or licorice makes an herbal medicine sweeter and more palatable. It is also important to remember that the efficacy of herbs depends greatly on a healthy diet, appropriate sleep, exercise and an emotionally balanced environment.

preparing For Vaccination

The parental decision to vaccinate can be difficult. Following are some basic guidelines that may lessen the possibility of severe reactions to a vaccine.

* Delay vaccination until age 2, when the immune system has had time to develop and is more mature.

* Divide shots and allow sufficient time for recovery between vaccinations. Children do not normally get numerous viruses or bacterial infections all at once, so it seems prudent to give these vaccines separately. This allows the immune system to focus on each assault and not become overwhelmed.

* pay attention to the days prior to and following the administration of the vaccine. Reschedule a vaccine if the immune system is suppressed by conditions such as fear, diarrhea, constipation, upset stomach, influenza, a cold, poor sleep, exhaustion, inadequate water intake, or an allergic response. The immune system can also be suppressed by substances such as aspirin, steroids,12,13 sugar and junk foods.14,15

* Keep the child calm. A relaxing walk in the park or some lemon balm15,16 and catnip (Nepeta cataria)16,17 tea just before going to the doctor's office can be helpful. Herbal teas containing marshmallow,18 red clover (Trifolium pratense)18 and chamomile (Matricaria chamomilla)18 are soothing and anti-inflammatory.

Choosing to vaccinate a child is a personal decision. Whatever parents decide, they can help protect their child by practicing a healthy lifestyle including eating quality food, getting plenty of fresh air and water, exercising, taking soothing herbs and expressing lots of love.

Robyn Klein, professional member of the American Herbalists Guild, teaches classes at the Sweetgrass School of Herbalism in Bozeman, Mont., and is the editor of Robyn's Recommended Reading, a quarterly publication that reviews herbal and health literature.


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  13. Wilson BA, et al. Nurses drug guide. Norwalk (CT): Appleton & Lange; 1995. p 648.
  14. Baba T, et al. Suppression of cell-mediated immune reactions by monosaccharides. J Immunol 1979 Mar;122:838-41.
  15. Bove M. Herbal pediatrics: building and maintaining childhood immunity. Medicines from the Earth: official proceedings. 1998 May 30--Jun 1. p 2.
  16. Schilcher H. phytotherapy in paediatrics: handbook for physicians and pharmacists. Stuttgart (Germany): Medpharm Scientific publishers; 1997.
  17. Hobbs C. Stress and natural healing. Loveland (CO): Interweave press; 1997. p 83-4.
  18. Romm AJ. Natural healing for babies and children. Freedom (CA): Crossing; 1996.
  19. Bradley pR, editor. British herbal compendium. Volume 1. Bournemouth (Dorset, UK): British Herbal Medicine Association; 1992.
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