My kids have grown up with herbs, and my
knowledge of herbs has grown just from having children, but for
most people, using herbs is a new experience. We don’t mind
experimenting with herbs and dietary supplements on ourselves, but
when it comes to our children, we want to be sure that the
treatments will work and, more importantly, that they are
absolutely safe. Just because an herb is “natural” doesn’t mean
that it’s safe, and just because it’s safe for adults doesn’t mean
that it’s safe for children. Little if any research has been devoted to the use of
herbs by children.
Children have rapidly changing bodies, with different metabolic
rates, needs, and body chemistry from those of adults. My
twelve-year-old son, Colin, is currently on a Shaquille O’Neal
growth chart. He’s bigger than all his friends, has a huge bone
structure, and grew 3 inches in height from March to July! For Colin, herbs are a fact of life, not a novelty, yet little
if any research has been devoted to the use of herbs by children.
Undoubtedly, many parents regularly give herbs to their children
without scientific data attesting to their efficacy or safety.
What works? What’s safe? What do you need to know to get
started? Let’s take a look.
For the past fifty years, U.S. physicians have almost
universally relied on antibiotics in treating many childhood
illnesses. If you want to use herbs to treat your child, talk to a
physician or other health-care provider. If the physician is not
yet open to using herbs, you may want to show him/her the excellent
new book Phytotherapy in Pediatrics: A Handbook for Physicians and
Pharmacists, by Heinz Schilcher. Schilcher, a physician and expert
on plant medicines, is a former member of Germany’s Commission E,
the federal regulatory body that developed the monographs that are
the basis of herb regulation in that country. The book uses medical
terminology, but it’s an excellent introduction to the
subject. Peppermint tea tastes great and soothes an upset
stomach. It can also help bring down a fever.
Here are Schilcher’s rules for treating children with herbs.
They apply equally to adults.
• Establish the cause of the illness.
• Choose a proven remedy for a specific ailment rather than an
herb with a general effect, such as ginseng.
• Take only one medication at a time.
• Use the lowest effective dose.
• Tailor treatment to current symptoms. If a child’s cold has
nearly run its course but the child now has a pesky cough, don’t
bother with echinacea but treat the cough. Different kinds of
coughs need different treatments. If you can’t tell which kind your
child has, call your doctor.
In any event, medicating your children is for the short term
only. If symptoms persist or worsen, if you can’t tell what’s
wrong, if there’s dizziness or pain that doesn’t go away, or if
something doesn’t look right, seek medical advice.
With these guidelines in mind, here are a few herbs that I have
found useful with my children.
Echinacea for sniffles
Echinacea, which helps the body fend off infections, can help
with minor earaches, sore throats, and other cold symptoms. At the
first sniffle or whimper of “Dad, I don’t feel good,” I give Colin
or Abbey, age nine, some echinacea at half the adult dosage for as
long as a week. Usually, symptoms don’t persist that long, but if
they do, I call our doctor for advice.
Echinacea comes in capsules, teas, tinctures, glycerites, and
lozenges, among other forms. Capsules may be hard to swallow. A tea
can be used if the child will drink it; sweeten it with honey.
Glycerites, herbal extracts made with glycerin, are sweet and go
down easily. Some are formulated for children. My children prefer
the lozenges because they love sugar. If you’re trying to cut down
on children’s sugar intake, these lozenges are not a good
Many tinctures have a harsh taste, and all contain at least 50
percent alcohol. I prefer to give my children the expressed juice
of fresh flowering Echinacea purpurea. It contains 22 percent
alcohol to prevent spoilage but has been used safely for decades by
millions of people and is the form used in most clinical trials of
echinacea. I dilute it in a little water or orange juice with a
taste of honey.
Mint for tummy aches
When my children have an upset stomach, they know they can go to
the pantry, find a box of peppermint tea bags, and make tea with
water heated in the microwave. They feel proud to be able to
perform this simple task without adult help. Peppermint tea tastes great and soothes an upset stomach. It can
also help bring down a fever. Menthol is the main flavor component
and active ingredient in the essential oil of peppermint
Don’t use menthol by itself. If applied to the nostrils of
infants to relieve nasal congestion, it can cause lung collapse.
Unless used in a vaporizer or diffuser, essential oils in general
are too strong and potentially toxic to use in treating children.
Store them in a locked cabinet out of children’s reach.
If you want to make fresh mint tea from plants in the garden, be
sure you have peppermint (Mentha ¥piperita), not the related but
toxic pennyroyal (M. pulegium). Recently, physicians in one
hospital reported two cases of multiple organ failure, one fatal,
in infants given pennyroyal tea by their mothers.
Chamomile for sleep
In The Tale of Peter Rabbit, by Beatrix Potter, Mrs. Rabbit
gives her undisciplined son chamomile tea. Like a cup of warm milk,
chamomile has gained a reputation as a soothing, quieting nighttime
beverage that gently calms the digestion and helps a child drift
off to sleep. I don’t believe that a single clinical study supports
this use, but then there is the collective experience of millions
of people (and rabbits) over the centuries. A teaspoonful of dried chamomile flowers in a tea bag or ball,
steeped for 5 to 10 minutes in boiling water and cooled until only
pleasantly warm, makes an apple-flavored tea that children like.
Rarely, people have allergic reactions to chamomile; if your child
is allergic to ragweed pollen, be aware that chamomile flower tea
contains pollen and that chamomile belongs to the same family as
In Europe, chamomile is also used to treat diaper rash and
babies’ dry, sensitive skin. Steep 2 tablespoons of dried chamomile
flowers in a tea bag or ball in the bathwater or dab cooled weak
tea on the affected area with a cotton ball. Chamomile salves, some
formulated for children, are also available. Here we have touched on a few gentle, useful herbs with few or
negligible adverse effects that could be magnified in a small
child. However, herbs are best used to complement other regimes. If
your child has a cold, echinacea may help, but don’t forget the
basics—plenty of rest and lots of fluids!
Schilcher, H. Phytotherapy in Pediatrics: Handbook for
Physicians and Pharmacists. Stuttgart, Germany: Medpharm
Scientific, 1997 (available from the American Botanical Council,
Witch Hazel’s Secrets
As a child, I was fascinated by the old
apothecary jar labeled “Witch Hazel” that sat in my grandmother’s
bathroom. When I asked her if it was a secret potion for
grandmothers, she explained that it was simply a toiletry. Several
years later, one New England autumn day while walking through
Grandma’s woods near the pond, I came upon a small shrub decorated
with tight clusters of fragrant, spidery yellow flowers. “Witch
hazel,” she said when I showed her the branch I had broken off, and
so I learned that the clear liquid in the old bottle came from a
In Colonial America, the shrub’s flexible forked branches were a
favorite “witching stick” of dowsers, who used it to search out
hidden waters or precious metals. (This has nothing to do with
witches but comes from the old English word for a tree with pliable
branches, “wych”.) In England, dowsers used the branches of wych
elms (Ulmus glabra) as their divining rods. Those who immigrated to
America must have fancied the native witch hazel as a logical
European settlers learned of witch hazel’s benefits from
Native Americans. Early writers noted its use to treat eye
inflammations, hemorrhoids, bites, stings, skin sores, dysentery,
and other conditions for which a plant rich in tannins might bring
The genus Hamamelis contains about five species of shrubs or
small trees native to North America and eastern Asia. The generic
name, a combination of Greek roots meaning “apple” and “together”,
refers to a different plant with a pearlike fruit, probably a kind
of medlar. Common witch hazel (H. virginiana), the shrub I found
blooming in Grandma’s woods, grows on north-facing slopes and along
fencerows, country roads, and stream banks from Nova Scotia west to
Ontario and south to Texas and Florida. It may grow 20 to 30 feet
tall and up to 25 feet across. The bark is smooth and gray or
The leaves are alternate, strongly veined, and variable in size
and shape on the same plant. An average leaf is roughly oblong, 3
inches long by 2 inches wide. Medium or dark green in summer, the
leaves turn yellow in autumn and often have fallen by the time the
The fruit, which takes a year to mature, is a woody capsule
containing two shiny, hard black seeds that taste like pistachios.
Native Americans living in the South knew and savored them. When
ripe, the capsules explode, catapulting the seeds up to 10 yards
away. If you bring in a bouquet of flowering witch hazel branches,
be aware that the warmth of the house may well set off last year’s
Vernal witch hazel (H. vernalis), found in the wild along creek
beds in the Ozark plateau, opens its fragrant, delicate, yellow to
red blossoms in early spring, and the fruits mature in autumn of
the same year. It is a smaller shrub than H. virginiana.
Witch hazels make handsome ornamental shrubs. Most commonly
grown nowadays are the larger-flowered, spring-blooming cultivars
of H. ¥intermedia, developed by crossing Japanese (H. japonica) and
Chinese (H. mollis) witch hazels.
A multitude of uses
Native Americans found many uses for witch hazel. The Osage used
the bark to treat skin ulcers, sores, and tumors. The Potawatomi
placed the twigs on hot rocks in sweat lodges and bathed in the
steam to soothe sore muscles. The Menomini rubbed a decoction of
boiled twigs on their legs and back to keep muscles limber while
the Mohegan used their decoction of leaves and twigs on cuts,
bruises, and insect bites.
The Iroquois drank witch hazel tea to treat dysentery, colds,
and coughs, and to purify the blood.
European settlers learned of witch hazel’s benefits from Native
Americans. Early writers noted its use to treat eye inflammations,
hemorrhoids, bites, stings, skin sores, dysentery, and other
conditions for which a plant rich in tannins might bring relief.
The same bark or leaf tea might be swallowed to check internal
bleeding or injected into the rectum to allay the pain and itching
of hemorrhoids. A fresh leaf or bark poultice or a cotton ball
dipped in witch hazel water soothed chigger, tick, and mosquito
bites, as well as poison ivy rash.
During the 1840s, Theron T. Pond of Utica, New York, learned
from an Oneida medicine man of the esteem that his people held for
witch hazel as a treatment for burns, boils, and wounds. In 1848,
the two began marketing witch hazel extract under the name Golden
Treasure. Eventually, a manufacturing plant was established in
Connecticut, and after Pond’s death, the preparation was renamed
Witch hazel today
The E. E. Dickinson Company, T. N. Dickinson Company, and
American Distilling and Manufacturing Company, all based in
Connecticut, produce most of the witch hazel extract sold in the
United States. In northwestern Connecticut, landowners contract
with the distillers to harvest the witch hazels in their woods.
Branches are cut to the ground in autumn (the shrubs resprout and
may be harvested again in a few years), chipped, and shipped to the
factories, where they are steam-distilled for 36 hours. After the
distillate has been reheated, condensed, and filtered, 14 percent
alcohol is added as a preservative. By contrast, the witch hazel
water commonly used in Europe is a nondistilled water-alcohol
extract of the twigs and leaves.
Witch hazel is an ingredient of a wide range of deodorants,
aftershave lotions, cloth wipes, soaps, ointments, and creams.
How does it work?
The active compounds of witch hazel include flavonoids and
tannins and other components that may be responsible for its
astringency and its ability to stop bleeding. The tannins, much
more prevalent in the bark than in the leaf extract, include
hamamelitannin and a number of proanthocyanidins. In commercially
distilled witch hazel products, much of the tannin content is left
behind during distillation.
A recent study revealed a fact about witch hazel that was not
previously known. It showed that a fraction of witch hazel extract
rich in proanthocyanidins strongly inhibited the growth of herpes
simplex virus type 1 as well as reducing inflammation. A fraction
high in hamamelitannin was less effective on both counts. Another
study ascertained that some proanthocyanidin fractions quell
inflammation by inhibiting chemical inflammatory mediators and the
formation of platelet-activation factor.
A Japanese study of plant compounds that protect skin cells from
damage by harmful forms of oxygen, such as those released in
tissues during inflammation found that witch hazel, was an
effective antioxidant. Further research is needed on its potential
use in antiaging or antiwrinkling products.
Witch hazel is one of a very few American medicinal plants still
approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration as an ingredient
in nonprescription drugs. It may be used as an astringent to
relieve pain and protect the skin and in pads, ointments, or
suppositories for the symptomatic relief of hemorrhoids. In
Germany, the bark and leaf are also approved for treatment of mild
diarrhea, inflammation of the gums and oral mucous membranes, and
Few clinical studies on witch hazel have been conducted, but for
nearly 200 years, Americans have kept this “secret potion” on hand
for its astringent, tonic, and mild pain-relieving qualities.
Grandma was right.
Cooner, S. New England Natives: A Celebrations of Trees and
People. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press,
Erdelmeier, C.A.J., et al. “Antiviral and Antiphlogistic
Activities of Hamamelis virginiana Bark”. Planta Medica 1996,
Foster, S. Herbs for Your Health. Loveland, Colorado: Interweave
——. “The Wily Witch Hazel”. The Herb Companion December/January
Korting, H. C., et al. “Comparative Efficacy of Hamamelis
Distillate and Hydrocortisone”. European Journal of Clinical
Pharmacology 1995, 48(6):461–465.
Lloyd, J. U., and J. T. Lloyd. “History of Hamamelis (Witch
Hazel) Extract and Distillate”. Journal of the American
Pharmaceutical Association 1935, 24(3):220–224.
Masaki, H., T. Atsumi, and H. Sakurai. “Protective Activity of
Hamamelitannin on Cell Damage of Murine Skin Fibroblasts Induced by
UVB Radiation”. Journal of Dermatological Science 1995,
Tyler, V. E. Herbs of Choice: The Therapeutic Use of
Phytomedicinals. Binghamton, New York: Pharmaceutical Products
Vennat, B., et al. “Tannins from Hamamelis virginiana:
Identification of Proanthocyanidins and Hamamelitannin
Quantification in Leaf, Bark, and Stem Extracts”. Planta Medica
Swedes Test Echinacea
The most common illness in the world is the common cold. A
survey in the United Kingdom, for example, showed that 73 percent
of the population had had at least one cold in the previous twelve
months, with 25 percent reporting three to six. Increasingly, cold
sufferers are turning to the herb echinacea, taking it to either
prevent or reduce cold symptoms. A best-seller in U.S. health-food
stores, echinacea works by stimulating the immune system to better
defend the body against infection. In Europe, where echinacea products have been sold for more than
sixty years, the most common form of echinacea is the juice
expressed from fresh flowering plants of Echinacea purpurea
preserved with 22 percent alcohol. Although this is also the
best-studied form of echinacea, few clinical trials of its
effectiveness have been carried out. One widely publicized German
study on E. purpurea juice published in 1992 showed that when taken
at the onset of symptoms, the preparation reduced the severity and
duration of colds.
A 1996–1997 double-blind Swedish study investigated the benefits
of taking echinacea juice at the first sign of cold symptoms. The
120 participants, all furniture factory workers with histories of
recurrent upper respiratory tract infections, reported to the
company physician at the onset of a cold and were randomly given
either echinacea or a placebo. The dosage was twenty drops in a
half glass of water every two hours for the first day, then three
times a day for the next nine days. The fifty-six men and four women in the treatment group improved
within four days, whereas the fifty-two men and eight women who
received the placebo took an average of eight days to improve.
Daily treatment with echinacea at the first sign of a cold also
lessened the severity of symptoms. No adverse effects from taking
echinacea were reported.(1)
Cranberry in Capsules
Studies of the effectiveness of cranberry in treating urinary
tract infections have previously used commercial cranberry juice.
Now a clinical study at Weber State University in Ogden, Utah, has
tested encapsulated cranberry juice concentrate on nineteen
sexually active women between eighteen and forty-five years of age
with a history of recurrent urinary tract infections.
In the randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled crossover
study, the women received either 400 mg twice daily of cranberry or
a placebo for three months, then switched to the other alternative
for three months longer. Only ten women completed the study; nine
became pregnant and dropped out.
Of twenty-one urinary tract infections reported during the
course of the study, fifteen were experienced by women receiving
the placebo and six by women taking the cranberry capsules. Most of
the infections were attributed to the bacterium Escherichia coli,
the most common cause of such infections.
A larger trial is planned. Because encapsulated cranberry juice
concentrate does not contain the sugar or sugar substitute normally
added to cranberry juice, women may find it an attractive
alternative to the large quantities of cranberry juice prescribed
in the current treatment regimen.(2)
Horehound (Marrubium vulgare) is a bitter-tasting herb
traditionally used as a digestive stimulant and to break up phlegm,
relieve coughs, and soothe sore throats. Its use as a cough
suppressant has been recorded for at least 400 years.
In Brazil, where horehound is a widely used folk remedy for
gastrointestinal disorders and inflammation, researchers studying
its role in relieving pain reported that a water-alcohol extract
of horehound significantly reduced smooth-muscle spasms in mice and
was as effective as aspirin in relieving pain.
Further studies are under way to determine whether pain relief
is associated with a reduction in inflammation, as this study
suggested, and which compound or compounds are responsible for the
pain-relieving and anti-inflammatory responses. (3)
(1) Hoheisel, O., et al. “Echinagard Treatment Shortens the
Course of the Common Cold: A Double-Blind, Placebo-Controlled
Clinical Trial”. European Journal of Clinical Research 1997,
(2) Walker, E. B., et al. “Cranberry Concentrate: UTI
Prophylaxis” (letter to the editor). Journal of Family Practice
(3) de Souza, M. M., et al. “Analgesic Profile of Hydroalcoholic
Extract Obtained from Marrubium vulgare”. Phytomedicine 1998,