Children’s Health

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The no nocebo!

Most people have heard of the 'placebo' effect, whereby the benefit of a treatment comes from the power of the belief that it will be helpful, but not many know about the equally potent 'nocebo' effect, whereby the person has a negative expectation, or at least a strong degree of doubt, about the value of their treatment.

In many parts of the world; e.g. Asia, Africa, India, Eastern Europe, Southern America, herbal medicine is still part of the mainstream and remains deeply rooted in people's traditions; they grow up with it and expect it to help.

In New Zealand in general, and certainly in conservative Christchurch, the opposite is the case; Western pharmaceutical-based medicine is everywhere and it is almost entirely tax-funded so, at least in appearance, it seems to be largely free to the population. In this culture herbal medicine is well beyond the fringes of the mainstream system and it can be seen that many people have needed to be very badly and chronically sick and not responding to conventional treatments before they venture into what seems to them to be a very 'alternative' medicine.

I am personally fortunate from having been in practice for long enough that virtually everyone who comes to see me has been referred by people they know so I have very little 'nocebo' to deal with but in the early years of my practice it was a lot harder indeed.

The exception to this was always my very young patients. They didn't have any notion that they were in an office that was not part of the New Zealand mainstream medical establishment and what I saw time and again would be how those little children would get better from things in mere days that would typically take weeks or even months for grown-ups to get through. I believe that a big part of this was from them having no nocebo; no culturally conditioned doubts and expectations to get around. There was nothing to stop the medicine from simply working.


The healing power of nature

The absence of a nocebo is one part., along with positive vs. negative expectations there is another at least equally potent factor that serves to speed or slow down the healing process; it is what is known as the vis medicatrix naturae, which loosely translates to ‘the healing power of nature’.

This power, or force, is not something to underestimate. The vis medicatrix naturae is a gift from life. We don’t have to do anything to earn it, it’s already ours. It is the self-correcting, self-healing intelligence that all living creatures are born with and it is a lot more to do with the energy of the body than the nature of the mind.

Little children heal quickly because they do not get in the way of the healing by forcing themselves to keep going. If they are ill enough then they just somehow know how to stop, lie still and sleep.

Their self-healing is taking up all their energy, for as long as it needs to, and they don’t get in the way of it like an older person who can weigh up all the things they think they 'should' be doing and so greatly limit their ability to rest, which is often the best medicine...

Immune Problems

The two biggest subjects, allergies and infections, that come up in my work with young children more than anything else have the same basic root, namely the immune system.

Babies are not born with an immune system of their own, which is an extraordinary fact when you think about it and it goes a long way to demonstrate just how remarkably vulnerable our children are when they are little. A breast-fed baby borrows its mother’s immune system to get at least some help during their first exposures to bugs in their early months and formula-fed babies have to catch up extra quickly.

All babies are born with the capability to start making white blood cells but this is not an easy task to learn. In fact, it takes many years to really get the hang of it.


In modern life, we have a remarkably new phenomenon called ‘cleanliness’. At no time in human history have we ever been anywhere near as clean as we are now. Most scientists who work in this area share some agreement that our much more sanitised living is a prime reason why the number of allergies has exploded in modern times.

Just like a baby has to grow teeth, our immune systems have to evolve to grow a ferocious army of formidable fighters with names like ‘Natural killer T cells’. White blood cells can be very nasty to you if you get on their bad side; some of them literally reach arms out of their walls to swallow in bits of foreign matter or microbes and then set about dissolving them in a cauldron of enzymes. Others just practice chemical warfare by squirting out poisonous substances on things that don’t pass the grade as being ‘self’ i.e. safe.

So what do you think might happen when this powerful, ‘wanting-to-work‘ army has nothing to do? What happens if there aren’t anywhere near as many bugs, germs, parasites, worms etc. around for it to fight because our homes, cars, clothes, hands, even our pets, are all so clean?

This explanation for the rise in allergies is called the ‘hygiene hypotheses’. It would appear that what happens is that common foods and airborne particles start standing in for the ‘foreign invaders’. The problem is that once our immune systems start attacking something they will keep having a go at it every time they see it.

A rapidly increasing number of children now get allergies and there are a host of health problems that can come along as a result; eczema and asthma being the main two, eczema is discussed in detail here and asthma here. Food plays a very important part in all of this, both food allergies as well as food intolerances, read more about that here



Sometimes, instead of becoming a misdirected army; the developing immune system simply struggles to deal with infections. Especially when the child starts a new school or pre-school when there is a greatly increased exposure to new bugs in the form of other little children!

Some children get repeated infections in their ears, noses, throats and even lungs and by the time we meet them in the clinic they have taken repeated courses of antibiotics with very poor results.

In working with such children, one gets to see how just how much legitimate help the herbal immune tonics can give. They almost always seem to rapidly break the cycle of sickness and most children start to thrive soon into their treatment, so long as they take it!

If recurrent infections are the main problem that is affecting your child then read the article on colds and flu's here as well as the general article on healthy immunity here

Echinacea angustifolia

Failure to thrive

Another problem that can be helped by herbs is where children have very little appetite and are not thriving, or growing well. This has been a common problem in history as well and anyone can understand how much this would have worried any parent.

What to do about failure to thrive speaks directly to by far the biggest potential obstacle in treating children with any kind of problem; i.e. simply taking the medicine.

The herbs that work to stimulate appetite and growth are famously bitter to take and that can seem like an insurmountable obstacle to some parents. I often tell parents when they want to bring in their children that I have an excellent success rate in treating children so long as they take their medicine!

We put flavouring extracts, such as licorice root, peppermint or aniseed into the tonics, but the bitter herbs that stimulate appetite will still linger under the surface and the only way to get used to it is to start doing it!

When a child who is not thriving starts to take a small and regular dose of a bitter tonic they rather wonderfully and predictably start to eat more. One of the best of all herbs to help with this is Gentian root, read more about it and how to use it here

Gentiana lutea (Gentian)


Childhood cancer

Is there anything else that could be worse in this world than childhood cancer? I truly hope you are not reading this because you have to. First of all please do whatever it takes to find a good herbalist in this hardest of times - I have some suggestions about how you might go about that process written up here

Then, as soon as possible, start giving them some of the greatest health allies in our hour of need; the tonics. I have seen time and again how these incredible herbs make a world of difference to supporting the whole person in general and their immune systems in particular. For example, some of the ones I use the most and rate the highest include Reishi mushrooms, Echinacea, Astragalus, Withania, Panax Ginseng and Licorice root. I do have quite a lot more to say from my experiences from working with people with cancer so if you do need to hear those thoughts then look here.

Stomach aches

If your child has chronic stomach aches then you have probably been to your GP and been told they cannot find any obvious reason. Nevertheless, you may well have been given a prescription all the same. Please think very hard about the wisdom of giving children a drug like losec, omeprazole (or any kind of medication that reduces stomach acid). It may well alleviate the discomfort, especially at first, but at what cost?

Why do we make something as dangerous sounding as ‘acid’ in our stomachs in the first place? Is it some kind of evolutionary mistake that modern medicine is fortunately able to help correct? People, and children, need to make this intensely powerful stuff because that is what it takes to break down proteins into small enough bits that your blood can absorb, and use.

Proteins are incredibly important, we use them for everything. Every cell in your body needs proteins to be there in the first place. You need them to rebuild yourself every day from the wear and tear of being alive. If you are a child you need them even more; to grow!

Messing with what it takes to get the building blocks of your body is a really dangerous long-term strategy. I am not anti-drug philosophically, believe it or not, but I am anti antacids. I think that they can do deep and invisible harm and that they are especially dangerous because we don’t instinctively connect the injuries and failure to thrive that happen months later with the drug that fixed the stomach problems back then and that are still being taken today.

Many children get stomach aches but there is always a reason. It can be a physical reason such as liver congestion, constipation or food intolerances, or it can also be how your child is telling you that they are stressed. As mentioned earlier, Digestive herbs are a huge part of every herbalist’s daily work and have been used for thousands of years to help such things. If this is a chronic problem then read further in the article on children's stomach aches found here

Taking Difficult Medicines

Children respond wonderfully well to herbs but they have to be able to take them first! If a child gets used to taking herbal teas and tinctures from a young age then it can almost always be seen that they have no trouble taking them in later life, simply because they already got used to them.

However, for the child who has never really experienced the strange and sometimes strong tastes of herbs, this can be the single greatest challenge in the treatment program.

We encourage the parents of our young patients to have as much open communication as possible because, even from a very young age, a child can understand the importance of taking a medicine when they don't feel well. The beginning is always the hardest part but, once they have taken the medicine a few times, it nearly always gets very much easier. Some dilution with water is all it normally takes and, because we almost always add a pleasant tasting herb such as Elderberry, Licorice or Peppermint to a tincture formula, the taste can be adapted to relatively quickly.

However, for the child who struggles mightily with taking herbal medicine, and for those who don't seem to be able to quickly get used to the strange tastes, we recommend they get a concentrated Blackcurrant cordial (in New Zealand, Barkers is a good brand to use) and then use a little of this to help get the medicine in.

For those tough cases for whom none of the above or nothing else seems to work, we are grateful to the efforts and experiments of a woman called Brooke Moore who, at my request, has kindly provided detailed instructions on how to make herbal medicines palatable to the fussiest of childen in the form of herbal gummies and herbal chocolates. Her recipe and instructions can be found here

Please understand that I cannot personally advise you without seeing you in my clinic.
This living 'book' is my labour of love so, wherever you are, I wish you peace & good health!



© 2011 R.J.Whelan Ltd