Alternative Medicine and Children – Part 4 – Herbs and Herbalism

So far in this series on alternative medicine and children, I have been concerned with the chemical aspects of herbal remedies. In this blog, I’d like to address herbalism, which is more like a religious approach to herbs and raises spiritual and pharmacological problems.

Rosemary Gladstar is an herbalist who has written a number of books on herbal remedies, one for their use in children. She claims herbal remedies are safe for children, stating, “Contrary to what you may have heard or read, my experience has been that almost any herb that is safe for an adult is safe for a child so long as the size and weight of the child are accounted for and the dosage is adjusted accordingly.”

Gladstar’s approach seems to be to simply to treat children as small adults.

She describes two “rules” for calculating doses for children based on their ages and the adult dose.

  1. One she calls Young’s Rule, which calculates that a four-year-old should be given one quarter the adult dose.
  2. The second she calls Cowling’s Rule, which calls for a four-year-old to be given one-sixth the adult dose.

Yet Gladstar’s own dosing recommendations call for a four-year-old to be given less than one- twentieth of the adult dose. Such inconsistency reveals how little is known about the correct doses of herbal remedies for children.

We have little information on the dosage and effectiveness of herbal remedies in adults; we have almost none for children.

Conventional medicine has learned through tragic experience that the approach of just reducing the adult dosage can be dangerous for children.

Reye’s syndrome, a condition that can cause permanent disability or death, is one example. Until the 1980s, hundreds of children in the United States got this disease every year. The culprit: aspirin.

A link was discovered between aspirin and Reye’s syndrome, leading to much publicity discouraging aspirin use for children seventeen years of age or younger. By the late 1990s, only two cases of Reye’s syndrome were being reported per year.

We now know that the developing body chemistry of children is very different from the body chemistry of adults.

This success story should serve as a precaution against giving children any medicine without knowing how safe it is — for children.

Gladstar, the herbalist, does not refer to any controlled scientific studies to support her decisions. On the contrary, her belief in herbalism leads her to “rely on years of experience and intuition.”

Her view of scientific research is summed up in the following statement:

“If a plant has been found safe and effective for a thousand years of human use, it may be wise to question the validity and applicability of the scientific tests now being used. There is generally some unidentified magic in the plant in the form of another chemical or an innate natural wisdom that allows the medicine, when taken as a whole, to function in a safe and beneficial manner.”

After examining a child, Gladstar says she will “pray and let the spirit of the herbs guide me. This, of course, is balanced with a thorough understanding of the herbs I am using, plus many years of experience.”

We would challenge her claim to have a balanced approach. Although she tips her hat to a scientific approach, her recommendations consistently come down on the side of her experience and the herbalist tradition.

Gladstar is directly comparing the validity of science with the validity of human experience before the scientific method was developed. We have serious concerns about her approach and believe it could lead to dangerous recommendations.

Gladstar’s approach also demonstrates why Christians need both spiritual and scientific discernment when investigating alternative therapies.

We elaborate more on herbalism in the Herbal Medicine and Folk Medicine entries of our book, Alternative Medicine: The options, the claims, the evidence, how to choose wisely, but it teaches that the healing power of herbs comes as much from spirits that reside throughout nature as it does from chemicals in the plants.

In contrast, herbal medicine refers to the “secular” approach to herbs: the idea that they work naturally through the chemicals they contain.

Taking children to an herbalist could expose them to teachings that contradict the Bible and may expose them to spiritual and physical harm if herbs are inappropriately used.

Here’s the entire series: