For lots of moms and dads today, non-pharmaceutical approaches to illness are more appealing than ever. In a 2009 survey of 6,000 parents conducted by Opinion Research Corporation, 40 percent of them said that they were interested in natural remedies for their kids, compared with 23 percent in a similar 2008 survey. "Parents want treatments that are gentle and natural, yet still effective," says pediatrician Hilary McClafferty, M.D., adjunct clinical assistant professor of medicine at the University of North Carolina, in Chapel Hill.
Of course, you should always call your pediatrician if your child has a health problem that may require traditional medical care. But which are the best science-backed and expert-recommended natural remedies? We've done the research for you.
The Problem: Colic
The Natural Solution: Chamomile
How It Works "Chamomile relaxes intestinal spasms and promotes a calm mental state," says Kathi Kemper, M.D., author of The Holistic Pediatrician. In fact, some research suggests that the active chemicals in chamomile have the same effect on the brain as a mild sedative, but without the side effects. Steep tea for five minutes, cool it to room temperature, and then put 1 to 2 ounces in a bottle.
The Proof The plant is a centuries-old folk remedy for colic, and recent research backs up its effectiveness. In one Italian study of breastfed colicky babies, crying time was reduced in 85 percent of babies given a chamomile herbal tea.
Keep in Mind Very rarely, a baby 6 months or older may be sensitive to ragweed (a plant similar to chamomile) and might develop a rash after drinking chamomile tea. If you notice a rash, stop giving your baby the chamomile tea.
The Problem: High Blood Sugar
The Natural Solution: Cinnamon
How It Works Cinnamon may have an active compound that works directly on cells to allow sugar to get inside and therefore lower blood sugar, says Shane Ellison, an organic chemist and author of Over-the-Counter Natural Cures. But because research in this area is fairly new, scientists are still studying exactly how cinnamon works to lower blood sugar.
The Proof Research on adults shows that cinnamon can help reduce blood sugar when added to foods or drinks. In one study of people with type 2 diabetes, blood-sugar levels were significantly reduced when they consumed about half a teaspoon to 2-1/2 teaspoons of ground cinnamon per day.
Keep in Mind Extra cinnamon in your child's diet should complement -- not replace -- lifestyle changes. One idea: Add it and reduce the sugar in recipes, and sprinkle it on cereal.
The Problem: Reflux
The Natural Solution: Chewing Gum
How It Works "Chewing gum stimulates the flow of saliva, which neutralizes stomach acid and makes kids swallow more often," says Leo Heitlinger, M.D., chair of the American Academy of Pediatrics Section on Gastroenterology, Hepatology and Nutrition. This can help move food down the digestive tract, reducing the risk of reflux. While the condition is much more common in babies, it's estimated that many kids suffer from occasional heartburn. (Kids who are overweight have a higher risk of developing reflux than other children do.)
The Proof A British study found that chewing sugarless gum after a meal can reduce acid in the esophagus and reduce reflux. Gum is safe for children ages 4 and older.
Keep in Mind Chewing sugarless gum is good for the teeth; increased saliva flow helps wash away food particles and reduce plaque-producing acids.
The Problem: Sunburn
The Natural Solution: Aloe Vera
How It Works The compounds in aloe vera speed healing by bringing fresh, oxygenated blood to the tiny blood vessels that feed the skin, explains Duffy MacKay, a licensed naturopath and vice president of scientific and regulatory affairs for the Council for Responsible Nutrition, in Washington, D.C. This helps your child's body repair the sunburned skin more quickly. Aloe vera also acts as a moisturizer, and skin wounds of all kinds (including burns) need moisture to heal.
The Proof In a study published in Burns, aloe vera reduced healing time for first- and second-degree burns by almost nine days.
Keep in Mind The highest concentration is found in aloe-vera gel, sold in most drugstores. (Moisturizers with aloe vera contain much less.) You can also keep a plant in your home and break off a leaf, split it lengthwise, and squeeze out the gel.
The Problem: Upset Stomach
The Natural Solution: Ginger
How It Works "Ginger has an antispasmodic property that helps settle down the muscle contractions in the tummy that produce nausea," explains Dr. McClafferty. "It's a very good remedy for many sources of nausea and upset stomach."
The Proof In one study of adults with a history of motion sickness, those who took a 1,000mg capsule of ginger before experiencing conditions that mimic those of a moving car suffered significantly less nausea than normal. Although this was a study of adults, the results may likely also apply to kids, says Dr. McClafferty.
Keep in Mind Ginger ale only has a little bit of real ginger, so have your child sip ginger tea about 30 minutes before getting into the car: Add a teaspoon of shredded fresh ginger to 4 ounces of boiling water and let it steep for five minutes. Serve it to your child warm or iced, and sweeten it with honey.
The Problem: Nasal Allergies
The Natural Solution: Apples
How It Works Quercetin, a flavonoid found in apples, inhibits the body's release of histamines, allergic compounds that trigger increased mucus production, sneezing, and watery eyes. "Adding foods that contain quercetin to your child's diet may mean slightly less severe symptoms or symptoms that don't last as long," says Michael J. Welch, M.D., clinical professor at the University of California, San Diego School of Medicine.
The Proof In a study published in the Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology, quercetin (in supplement form) was more effective than a prescription antihistamine.
Keep in Mind Although quercetin is available as a supplement, most doctors recommend that kids stick with foods that have it (such as blueberries, raspberries, and onions), because they are loaded with many antioxidants and nutrients not found in supplements.
The Problem: Coughs
The Natural Solution: Honey
How It Works "Honey soothes irritated membranes by coating the throat, making swallowing less painful," says Dr. Kemper, director of the Center for Integrative Medicine at Wake Forest University Medical Center, in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. Honey also contains illness-fighting antioxidants and antimicrobials.
The Proof In a Penn State University study of more than 100 children ages 2 and older, a spoonful of honey given 30 minutes before bedtime calmed coughs better than over-the-counter cough syrup or no treatment at all. Parents also rated honey higher than cough syrups for lessening cough frequency and severity, as well as helping their little ones fall asleep.
Keep in Mind Honey shouldn't be given to babies younger than 1 because their immature immune system can't battle the bacteria found in some kinds.
The Problem: Diarrhea
The Natural Solution: Probiotics
How It Works Probiotics are healthy bacteria in yogurt, buttermilk, some soy foods and beverages, and supplements. They help stop antibiotic-associated diarrhea by replacing good bacteria that are killed by the drugs. "For infectious diarrhea, it's believed that the good bacteria in probiotics may crowd out the bad bacteria that live in the digestive system or kill off the bad bugs that cause an infection," says MacKay.
The Proof In a review of studies published in the Journal of Clinical Gastroenterology, probiotics were found to be beneficial for antibiotic-associated diarrhea as well as infectious diarrhea in kids.
Keep in Mind The probiotic species Lactobacillus reuteri, or L. reuteri, seems to be the most effective bacteria for diarrhea. "It's also one of the best researched of all the probiotics," says Dr. McClafferty. Look for it on yogurt labels.
The Worst Natural Remedies for Kids
BITTER MELON for preventing or treating type 2 diabetes: This plant may be toxic in children.
VALERIAN for sleep and anxiety problems: The herbal sedative is too strong for most children.
LICORICE for coughs and sore throats: Too much of this herb can cause heart irregularities
PEPPERMINT for nausea: If a child has reflux, peppermint oil in capsule or liquid form could make it worse
SENNA for constipation: This herb can cause diarrhea, dehydration, and heart problems in children.
KAVA for hyperactivity and sleep problems: It can cause liver failure.
Originally published in the January 2011 issue of Parents magazine.
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