YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections


On the alternative shelf

As more parents treat childhood ills with supplements and herbs, physicians are trying to set guidelines and clarify the products' risks and benefits.

April 03, 2006|Hilary E. MacGregor | Times Staff Writer

GUMMY VITES. Strawberry Flavored Fish Oil. Super Kids Salve. Gum-omile Oil. Children's Echinacea. Herbs for Kids.

Squeezed onto the shelves of your local drugstore, near the baby aspirin and children's Robitussin, is a steadily growing crowd of colorful supplements and herbs specifically for children. To many parents, these products are a safe first-defense against the aches and pains of childhood, ones that can be tried before drugs with their sometimes risky side effects.

"I trust Western medicine," said Westside resident Lauren Sands, while shopping at the Santa Monica Homeopathic Pharmacy recently for her 5-month-old son. "I just want to know if there is something gentler for a little boy."

Other parents use the products as a tried-and-true, less-expensive alternative to medication. Many of these parents are uninsured, but not all.

"When I ask them about herbs and supplements, more and more of my patients are saying, 'Yes, I am using these products with my kids," said Dr. Paula Gardiner, a clinical research fellow at Harvard Medical School. "And looking at the data about pediatricians and kids, more and more doctors are getting asked questions about herbs and supplements."

But doctors and health experts are only just now beginning to fully understand how many parents are turning to such products. As they do so, they're scrambling to quantify the products' use, their risks and their benefits.

Gardiner, for example, who has done extensive research on alternative therapies, is doing her best to mine existing data. She is crunching numbers from the 1999-2002 National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey -- which interviewed 11,000 people, including 5,000 kids -- and trying to figure out which supplements kids are using.

Other doctors are trying to come up with guidelines to help pediatricians talk to parents about herb use.

"What we are saying is, 'Ask the question,' " said Dr. Sunita Vohra, who sits on a committee of the Provisional Section on Complementary, Holistic and Integrative Pediatrics for the American Academy of Pediatrics, which is developing a set of guidelines for herb use in children. "Talk openly. Be nonjudgmental and supportive [of parents]. Then, as the evidence accumulates, providers will be more comfortable making actual recommendations."

A few researchers, such as naturopathic doctor Wendy Weber of Bastyr University in Seattle, are conducting desperately needed clinical trials on kids and herbs. Weber has been studying the effectiveness of echinacea in treating colds in children, the possibility of using a certain herb to treat attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, and examining the potential of St. John's wort to treat depression in children. So far, she says, the results have been mixed.

The need for more information is crucial. Most doctors are not trained in herb use, researchers are still uncertain of how herbs interact with conventional drugs, and studies on herbal use in children are scant.

"All their organs are still developing," said Dr. Kathi Kemper, head of holistic and integrative medicine at Wake Forest University School of Medicine. "Their brains are still developing. They have higher metabolisms. Their hearts beat faster. The effect in the growing developing system of a child may be different than in a grown person."

Children are also more susceptible to toxic substances, such as lead, that can affect their nervous systems, said Kemper, author of "The Holistic Pediatrician." And there is a fair risk of contamination in herbal products, she said, because herbs, unlike conventional drugs, are not tested before they reach the market.

Despite the risks, she and a growing number of physicians say, parents who want to use a more natural remedy can safely do so -- for some conditions. The key is to know the risks and the limitations of herbs, be on the alert for side effects, and let the child's doctor know of any supplements, because they might interact with medications.


Use may be widespread

Neither product manufacturers nor medical researchers have established the precise extent of complementary and alternative medicine use in children.

But companies such as Herb Pharm, which sells several herbal children's products, and Botanical Labs, which sells a line of 25 products for children, say they have seen steady growth over the past decade. And several recent studies suggest supplement use by children is indeed widespread -- and underreported.

A survey of 2,600 low-income parents and caregivers published in the February issue of the Journal of the American Dietetic Assn. found that nearly half of Latino children and nearly one-third of non-Latino children had been given medicinal herbs. The botanical treatments were most often used for common ailments such as diaper rash, colic, teething symptoms, stomachaches, coughs and colds. The majority of the children were younger than 5.

Los Angeles Times Articles