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Chinese Herbal Medicine for Common Childhood Ailments

by Rob Helmer(more info)

listed in herbal medicine, originally published in issue 132 - February 2007

As a practitioner of Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), one of my greatest achievements is providing relief for children suffering with illnesses. By using the TCM theories and treatments that have been established over the past 2,000 years, I regularly achieve this goal. With regard to children’s health, Chinese Medicine provides great insight into many health problems not addressed completely or satisfactorily by modern Western Medicine. For these reasons and many more, I decided to specialize in the treatment of children five years ago.

TCM has over two millennium of experience in providing solutions to children’s health problems. This form of Asian Medicine is the oldest and second largest medical system in the world today, and currently is used by 25% of the world’s population in over 90 different countries. TCM is a non-invasive healing modality that facilitates the body’s natural ability to heal itself by restoring harmony and balance to the entire individual. This time-tested professional medicine treats and assesses each person as a unique individual, therefore, treating the cause of the disease instead of just the symptoms.

Main TCM Treatment Methods

1.    Chinese Herbal Medicine;
2.    Tuina (massage);
3.    Dietary Therapy;
4.    Acupuncture;

Paediatrics is one of the oldest specialties of Chinese Medicine, and dates from the early first millennium. Since then, there has been continuous development in the successful diagnosis and treatment of children’s diseases.

Ten Children’s Health Problems that TCM Treats Effectively

1.    Asthma;
2.    Eczema;
3.    Adolescent Acne;
4.    Bed-wetting;
5.    Hyperactivity (ADHD);
6.    Colic;
7.    Obesity;
8.    Allergic rhinitis (i.e. hay fever);
9.    Ear infections;
10.  Common cold including bronchitis, sinusitis, tonsillitis, etc.

The diseases listed above are just some examples of how Chinese Medicine can offer substantial clinical benefits to patients who have been unresponsive to other forms of treatment. The TCM treatment of these diseases have no side-effects, and are often curative, not palliative, as they aim to eliminate the pathology of the disease instead of controlling or suppressing the symptoms. In most chronic diseases, modern medicine can at best, only offer temporary symptomatic relief using various medications. Unfortunately, modern treatments also offer possible side-effects, either repeated or long-term.

Don’t settle for that! Any long-term treatments must be:
•    Effective and provide relief of symptoms;
•    Safe, with few unwanted side effects;
•    Easy to use.

TCM fulfills the above criteria. Parents of children who are unwell are delighted when they see how quickly they benefit from this practical, logical and time-tested medicine. TCM is user-friendly, gentle and free from side-effects, making it an excellent option and a wise decision for your child. Below I discuss in more detail two of the most common conditions observed in children today: asthma and obesity.

Asthma

Asthma is a serious chronic lung disease affecting 21% of children between two and 15 years of age. It is the most common chronic disease of childhood. This disorder is typically episodic and remittent in nature. Asthma is characterized by the narrowing of the large and small airways due to a spasm of the smooth muscles of the bronchi, oedema, inflammation of the bronchial mucosa and production of tenacious mucus. Asthma can begin at any age, but most people with this condition develop it before the age of five.

Main Symptoms of Asthma

•    Shortness of breath;
•    Tightness in the chest;
•    Coughing;
•    Wheezing.

The frequency and severity of symptoms differs from person to person. There are four types of asthma: allergic, exercise-induced bronchospasm (EIB), reactive airway disease (i.e. asthma that only occurs during colds) and the miscellaneous types. Included in the miscellaneous group are heartburn or reflux asthma and stress-induced asthma. Children sometimes outgrow their asthma, and half of these children will see a lessening of their symptoms as they move into adolescence. Unfortunately, 50% of this group will see their asthma return, often when they are in their 30s and 40s.

Does Modern Medicine Treat Childhood Asthma Effectively?

Fifty-two percent of children currently receiving treatment from a modern medical doctor have poorly controlled asthma. Poorly controlled asthma leads to an increase in asthmatic symptoms during the day and night, absenteeism (i.e. school or social engagements), exacerbations (i.e. more frequent acute attacks), an increased need for ‘rescue’ medication and a lower tolerance for physical activity. Poorly controlled asthma is a burden to the child and their family, as well as healthcare systems, as these patients are more likely to require urgent care and hospitalization. Although statistics show that more than 50% of these children are suffering with poorly controlled asthma, 88% of parents continue to believe their child’s asthma is controlled ‘very well’. Moreover, 77% of general physicians and 90% of specialists surveyed also believe their asthma patients are optimally controlled even though statistics demonstrate otherwise. Ultimately, improperly treated asthma may lead to a lifetime of asthma.

Asthma and TCM

This time-tested professional medicine treats and assesses each child as an individual, therefore, treating the cause of the disease instead of just the symptoms. The current TCM approach to the treating asthma was first discussed in great detail by a famous TCM doctor named Zhu Dan-xi (approximately 600 years ago). Since this time, the treatment of this disease has been refined and improved upon by many generations of Chinese doctors. This approach includes using different treatment principles during an acute asthma attack, then when the child is in the remission stage or between attacks. The treatment during the acute phase is modified whether the patient presents with either Hot asthma or Cold asthma. As mentioned above, paediatrics is a distinct specialty within Traditional Chinese Medicine. The majority of parents seeking an effective treatment for their child’s asthma should see a TCM doctor who specializes in paediatrics. The most important modality utilized in the treatment of paediatric asthma is Chinese Herbal Medicine. Moxibustion, or the burning of dried herbs over acupuncture points, is also prescribed by some doctors. This treatment is administered during the ‘hottest’ and ‘coldest’ times of the year to prevent acute attacks and strengthen the immune system.

Chinese Herbal Medicine

Chinese Herbal Medicine is one of the most sophisticated herbal medicine systems in the world. Typically, combinations of ten to 15 ingredients are used in formulas correlated to an individual’s pattern of internal disharmony. The formulas are crafted together to act synergistically, and every ingredient is designed to accomplish a part of the overall process of restoring balance. Upon return visits, the herbal formula is adjusted or modified as the patient’s condition improves.

Chinese herbal medicine is effective for both the preventive and remedial treatment of illnesses. There are a number of formulas that have been used by Chinese doctors for two millennia to improve the general health of children. Preventive herbal formulas may be used to inhibit chronic or recurrent tonsillitis, ear infections, cough, asthma, etc. The dosage and type of formula is modified as the person’s illness changes.

There are a number of ways that Chinese herbal medicine can be dispensed for children. There are pills, powders, tincture and teas. Any liquid form of Chinese medicine may be conveniently and effectively administered via an eye dropper or syringe. When prescribed and dispensed by a qualified practitioner of TCM, Chinese Herbal Medicine is safe with no side-effects.

Traditionally, during an acute asthma attack the herbal formula Xiao Qing Long Tang (Lesser Blue-Green Dragon Decoction) was used in cases of cold asthma, and in cases of children with asthma of the ‘hot type’ Ding Chuan Tang (Arrest Wheezing Decoction) was often used. If wheezing is more prominent, then stir-fried Ma Huang (Herbal Ephedra) and Chan Tui (Periostracum Cicadae) are valuable additions to the formula. However, if coughing is the main symptom then Kuan Dong Hua (Flos Tussilaginis) and Xing Ren (Semen Armeniacae amarum) are more important.

In the remission stage, where building the immune system is the primary focus of the herbal formula, a modified version of Yu Ping Feng San (Jade Wind-screen Powder) is commonly used. Two of the most important Chinese herbs to build the immune system are Huang Qi (Radix Astraguli) and Ren Shen (Radix Ginseng). In paediatrics, the herb Tai Zi Shen (Radix Pseudostellariae) often replaces ginseng in clinical practice.

Diet and Asthma

TCM recognizes that children have unique physiological characteristics and cannot be considered as just ‘miniature’ adults. When treating asthma, one of the main differences of paediatric physiology to be considered is that a child’s digestion is immature, especially before the age of six when most asthma begins. This immaturity and weakness of the digestion (spleen) predisposes a child to experience an incomplete breakdown of food and the accumulation of phlegm. It is said in TCM, that ‘the spleen is the source of phlegm production’, and the ‘the lungs are the place where phlegm is stored’. Asthma is a good example of what occurs when phlegm is produced (by a weak digestion), and this pathological matter accumulates in the lungs. Clinically, ‘phlegm in the lungs’ obstructs the circulation of energy in the lungs, and can manifest as a stuffy and/or runny nose, sneezing, coughing and/or asthmatic wheezing. Phlegm is clearly a key component of all types and stages of paediatric asthma. Therefore, older TCM doctors, when teaching younger doctors, will often repeat the statement that ‘there is no asthma without phlegm’. In Chinese Herbal Medicine, TCM doctors often add medicinals that transform phlegm to herbal formulas, in both the acute stage and remission stage. Common ingredients used to treat asthma and accomplish this function are Ban Xia (Rhizoma Pinelliae) and Bei Mu (Bulbus Fritillariae Thunbergii).

A healthy diet can improve and prevent a relapse of asthma. Unfortunately, in society today, children often consume a diet that has a large amount of fatty and cold foods, which can cause phlegm. Moreover, foods such as dairy products and peanuts also increase phlegm and should be restricted. It is important to avoid any known food allergies the child may have, as well as foods and medications that will damage the digestion (spleen), such as excessive cold, raw foods, sugar and antibiotics.

Christina (ten years-old)

I have been ill a lot over the years because of my asthma. Often, I was sick with many sinus and viral infections that would make my asthma worse. When I was sick, it would cause me to miss a lot of school, sometimes 30 to 40 days a year. When my mother started taking me to a TCM paediatrician, he started me on an action plan to overcome my health problems. This specialist made me feel comfortable about taking Chinese herbs and also confident that there was hope for me to feel ‘normal’ and be like others and participate in sports. Although the herbs are not the best tasting, their success in helping me is worth it. I thank my TCM paediatrician for believing in me!

Obesity

Modern society is raising the most overweight, out-of-shape generation of children in history, and this problem is increasing every year. Childhood obesity in the modern world is an epidemic. One in ten is overweight, for a total of 155 million. Approximately 30-45 million of these children are classified as obese – accounting for two to three percent of the world’s children aged between five and 17. Also, 22 million children under five years of age are affected by obesity, according to previous global estimates based on WHO [World Health Organization] data. Whereas nutritional deficiency is the most prevalent problem in developing countries, over-nutrition or obesity is the number one nutritional disease of children, adolescents and adults in the West, including the UK and the United States (obesity affects 20% of American children).

In England, 700,000 British school children are obese, according to a current major study that warns of soaring rates of diabetes, liver failure and heart problems among the young. Researchers say that 160,000 children in England are displaying signs that they will develop heart disease, and 150,000 have high blood pressure and high cholesterol levels. The research also shows that there are signs of Type 2 (late onset) diabetes in 4,000 of these children. In addition, the research shows that about 58,000 British school children have impaired glucose tolerance, an early sign of increased risk of diabetes. The study calculates that 28% of boys and 36% of girls in the UK are now overweight or obese, and obese children in Europe will top 26 million within four years.

Traditional Chinese Medicine Perspective

In Traditional Chinese Medicine, the five causes of all illness and imbalance in the human body are improper diet, emotions, lifestyle, external environment and constitution (i.e. genetics). With regard to childhood obesity, the most relative factors that should be discussed are diet, lifestyle and genetics. Any explanation of the root causes of the current obesity epidemic must account for its sudden increase. Thus, genetic causes are unlikely to be significant. Because, while a predisposition to obesity can be inherited, the fact that obesity has increased so much in the last few decades appears to discount genetics as a the main cause. Also, the fact that each succeeding generation is heavier than the last indicates that changes in our diet and lifestyle are playing a key role. Common sense tells us that the recent increase in childhood obesity seems to be linked to the following factors:
•    Children being much less active today;
•    Fatty and sugary foods being more accessible;
•    Average food portions being larger;
•    Calories per mouthful having increased.

In TCM, the digestion comprises the spleen and stomach. Improper diet and lack of physical exercise can weaken and impair the digestion. When the digestion is weak, an individual will have difficulty effectively separating the food they consume into ‘clear’ (i.e. nutrients) and ‘turbid’ or waste (i.e. urine and stool) which may also lead to an accumulation of ‘turbid’ materials in the body. When this ‘turbid’ substance accumulates in the body, it is referred to in TCM as dampness and ultimately phlegm when congealed. It is a statement of fact within Chinese medicine that, “Fat people [have] lots of phlegm and dampness”. In fact, fat is nothing other than phlegm, dampness, and turbidity in Chinese medicine. It is also a statement of fact within Chinese medicine that, “The spleen is the root of phlegm engenderment.” In other words, when the digestion is weak this can impair the fluid metabolism of the body causing the retention of fluid in the body, known as phlegm-dampness in TCM, and fat in modern medicine.

Treatment

With regard to obesity, treatment usually consists of taking Chinese herbal medicine, combined with a prescribed diet based on the patient’s constitution. This treatment of obesity involves restoring harmony and balance to the body and, therefore, the herbal formulas are correlated to every patient’s unique pattern of disharmony. Since phlegm and excessive weight is a by-product of a weak digestion, the approach used to treat obesity in Chinese herbal medicine focuses on regulating and strengthening the digestion.

Research

This abstract is from the article The Treatment of Paediatric Simple Obesity with Wen Dan Tang (Warm the Gall Bladder Decoction) by Li Shu-xia, Jiangxi Review of Chinese Medicine. No. 4, 2003. Of the 30 cases of paediatric obesity enrolled in this study, all were between seven and 13 years-old. Each of these cases was classified as either mild, medium, or severe obesity. Patients who had mild obesity had a body weight 20% above normal, medium obesity meant being 30-50% above normal body weight, and severe obesity meant a body weight more than 50% above normal. All patients enrolled in this clinical trial were administered the Chinese herbal formula called Huang Lian Wen Dan Tang (Coptis Warm the Gall Bladder Decoction). This formula was modified based on the patient’s clinical presentation. Of the 30 children who were initially enrolled in this study, two would not take the Chinese Herbal Medicine. However, there was a reduction in the severity of the obesity in the remaining 28 children after two to three courses of treatment (i.e. 30-45 days). During treatment, the patients reduced their weight by three to six kilograms. The herbal formula was combined with physical exercise and a regulated diet. A follow-up visit showed the weight loss was maintained for six months.

Is Natural Medicine Safe for Children?

Most people using natural health products (NHP) believe these products are safe because they are natural, but Complementary and Alternative Medicine (CAM) is safe only when professionally prescribed. With regard to children’s health, parents should seek health care providers who have extensive post-graduate training in paediatrics. In addition, if children are receiving Herbal Medicine they should choose a Health Care Provider who has the ability to monitor their child’s liver function during treatment. At the Clinical Centre of Chinese Medicine in Hove, England, safety is a high priority, and every patient treated at the clinic has regular liver function tests performed on-site in order to monitor all treatments the individual is receiving. The liver test is simple to perform and the results are obtained almost immediately.

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About Rob Helmer

Rob Helmer D TCM is the Paediatric Specialist at The Clinical Centre of Chinese Medicine in Hove, East Sussex. Helmer believes there is a solution to every health problem, and is dedicated to providing relief for children suffering with illnesses (including asthma and obesity) through his clinical practice, research and translation of journal articles from Chinese into the English language. For more information about TCM and children, visit the clinic’s website at www.cccm.co.uk. Alternatively, you may contact the clinic at 01273 776499. The author may be contacted via rob@roberthelmer.ca

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