GUIDE: Complementary Health Approaches for Kids
With expert advice on their safety and effectiveness
Everywhere we look these days, dietary supplements, home remedies, or mind and body practices claim to be the next best thing to cure ailments and improve wellness. According to the 2017 National Health Interview Survey (NHIS), the number of adults and kids using at least some complementary health approach is on the rise. Between 2012 and 2017, the percentage of children practicing yoga more than doubled, and the rate of children practicing meditation increased from 0.6 percent to 5.4 percent.
From bone broths to yoga, here’s a look at a variety of complementary health approaches with expert advice on their safety and effectiveness.
Defining Complementary Health
More people are using complementary health approaches, but what are they, exactly?
“Complementary health approaches are using the body’s immune system and strengthening the body’s own resources to fight illness rather than (using) medication,” says Dr. Maria-Ana Temple of Integrative Health Carolinas. As a pediatrician trained in both conventional and functional medicine, she focuses on nutrition and lifestyle with an emphasis on prevention. “We begin with a complementary approach from birth.”
Integrative medicine uses the best of both worlds, explains Dr. Sheila Kilbane of Infinite Health. After finishing her medical residency, she grew frustrated as she repeatedly prescribed antacids for 3-month-old babies, steroids for eczema, or saw patients with recurrent bouts of colic, sinus infections, and constipation. “I knew I was just putting a Band-Aid on this stuff and I knew that I had to look deeper,” she says.
Patients started telling her things, too—like a breast-feeding mom who noticed her child’s eczema disappeared when she cut dairy from her diet. Once she saw how certain nutritional changes reduced or eliminated many chronic childhood ailments, Kilbane turned to friends who specialized in naturopathy to learn more about natural and nutritional therapies. “(I) started to understand that there were these triggers for inflammation and the answer wasn’t always to give a steroid,” says Kilbane, who later completed a fellowship under the guidance of Dr. Andrew Weil, widely known as the “Father of Integrative Medicine.”
While our bodies need a certain amount of inflammation to heal properly, an overabundance makes us more susceptible to illness. Food, environmental allergies, environmental toxins, infectious diseases, and stress can all trigger excess inflammation. “We’re never going to eliminate all these things,” Kilbane says. But improved nutrition paired with certain complementary health approaches can help improve our overall health.
Supplements for Immune Health
Good nutrition is a vital component of wellness, but experts say most Americans eat too much sugar, fast food, and highly processed food. Are dietary supplements the answer?
Widely available and purporting all sorts of health benefits, dietary supplements are not actually regulated by the FDA before going on the market. That means you’re taking the manufacturer’s word that the product is safe and effective. “Honestly, it’s like the wild, wild west out there,” Temple says. “(Supplements are) the first thing that people think of when they think of complementary medicine, and it’s really a very wrong way of thinking. You’re supposed to take supplements as you’re changing your nutrition and lifestyle.”
Ideally, all the nutrients our bodies need—like vitamins, minerals, probiotics, and prebiotics—should come from our diet, but “we as a society don’t know how to eat anymore,” Temple says. Probiotics, for example, play an important role in promoting gut health, but the supplements are expensive, and they’re naturally available in many vegetables. Temple recommends using supplements only as a temporary bridge to more permanent lifestyle changes. “You’re seeding your guts,” she says. “You’re putting good seeds in there and then you’re feeding them good plants so you don’t need to take probiotics for your lifetime.”
Parents should be aware that supplements can interfere with other medications or have unintended side effects. Overdosing on certain vitamins and minerals can also have life-threatening consequences. Kilbane advises reading labels carefully, noting that one of the most popular multivitamin gummies on the market contains red, blue, and yellow dyes; each of these ingredients is something extra your child’s body has to process. “(U)nless you know exactly what you’re doing, I’d almost rather you’re not giving them supplements,” she says. Kilbane treats them like medication, with specific recommendations for the brand, dosage, and a staggered order in which to take them. (You can download a list of her recommendations at sheilakilbane.com/supplementguide.)
Elderberry syrup can be safely used to treat seasonal allergies, according to Temple, who recommends buying a local brand that uses honey made from that season’s pollen. (Check out Charlotte-based Sweet Syrup at sweetssyrup.com.) Elderberry syrup has also been shown to be as effective as Tamiflu against the H1N1 influenza strain. As an antioxidant, it helps remove free radicals (the debris left by the thousands of viral particles that penetrate our cells each day), which can cause symptoms like fever, body aches, and cough. By boosting your body’s antioxidants, you’re better able to fight illness.
For children with asthma or susceptible to respiratory issues, Temple advises taking elderberry syrup throughout flu season. Everyone else should take it at the first sign of illness.
Bone Broth and Teas
The vitamins and minerals that come from bone broth are great for gut health and function, says Temple, who recommends it for children as young as four months. She also notes that some medical studies show bone broth can reduce the duration and severity of cold symptoms when you’re starting to get sick. “I love it when it’s made at home,” she says. “It’s the easiest thing: chicken bones, vegetables, spices in a crock pot, 24 hours. Done.”
While it’s a great adjunct for most people with healthy diets, Kilbane cautions that for certain kids, it can make histamine issues worse. If your child experiences increased bloating, belly cramping, and irritability, these may be signs that bone broth isn’t the best option at that time. Also, keep in mind that moderation is key.
Herbal teas can also be beneficial. Temple prescribes diluted versions for babies as young as 6 months. Here are some common recommendations:
* Peppermint for digestive health
* Ginger for digestive health and immune system
* Turmeric, a natural anti-inflammatory, for pain relief
* Chamomile to reduce cortisol levels and helps you sleep
Mindfulness and Yoga
Kilbane started practicing yoga in 2000 when she was in medical school. “It changed everything,” she says, noting that her concentration improved and her physical strength increased. But yoga’s emphasis on breathing (which goes hand in hand with mindfulness) is what benefits kids who suffer from anxiety, or have trouble focusing or falling asleep.
“It’s teaching them how to activate their parasympathetic nervous system,” Kilbane says. This reduces heart rate and improves digestion, which often leads to relaxation. The parasympathetic nervous system acts in opposition to the stress hormones our bodies produce, as the (“fight or flight”) nervous system responds to physical, mental, and environmental triggers. “The more stressed you are, the more likely you are to catch a cold and flu,” Temple adds, “(Yoga) tells the body: ‘Simmer down, Sister.’”
Chiropractic and Massage
According to Amanda Lutzow, D.C., a pediatric and prenatal chiropractic expert, chiropractic treatment should be a foundational part of healthcare. “I believe everybody should be under chiropractic care whether or not they have aches and pains… we really want to be proactive,” says Lutzow, who works alongside her husband at their family-run practice, Limitless Chiropractic in Ballantyne.
Chiropractic removes nerve pressure and allows the brain-body connection to be restored, enabling improved function of the central nervous system, the endocrine system, and the immune system. While she would never claim to treat a specific disease or condition, Lutzow says chiropractic can help reduce or eliminate symptoms associated with colic, digestive issues, migraines, ear infections, asthma, or allergies. It can even benefit kids with ADHD or on the autism spectrum. “Don’t wait until a symptom pops up,” she says, “... give them a fighting chance to grow up and be the healthiest version of themselves.”
Both Kilbane and Temple have seen chiropractic treatment help their patients, but say it’s important to go to a trusted provider who has pediatric training. As for massage, the benefits are also manifold. Lutzow says it complements chiropractic, helping patients hold their adjustments much longer and providing continued relief. Kilbane recommends it for parents and children to bond, even through a simple back rub before bedtime has the same effect. Like yoga, massage helps activate the parasympathetic system. But not every kid is comfortable with touch in this way. The key is knowing your child and what works for him or her.
The Bottom Line
With so many options, maintaining good health may seem like an overwhelming task. But it doesn’t need to be that way, says Temple, who offers this advice: Eat vegetables from the garden, go outside, get plenty of sleep, and hang around friends who are not toxic. “It actually is so simple but we have made it so complicated,” she says.
Liz Rothaus Bertrand is an award-winning writer who lives in Charlotte with her husband and two boys, ages 7 and 10. She grew up eating steaming bowls of her mom’s chicken soup, a.k.a., “The Jewish Penicillin.” Find out more at lizbertrand.com.
Let's Talk CBD
It’s all the rage, but is it safe for kids? As of December 2018, CBD (Cannabidiol), which comes from the hemp plant (not its cousin, marijuana) can be legally cultivated under federal law with certain restrictions. Laws regulating its sale and usage vary by state, however. According to the N.C. Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, CBD cannot legally be added to any food, and no products can claim to prevent, treat, or cure any disease.
“I do use it in my practice, but I use it judiciously and from a very trusted source,” Temple says. Just because it’s available virtually everywhere you go—from gas stations to grocery stores—doesn’t mean you should buy it there. Temple says people who otherwise eat natural, organic foods sometimes forget that pesticides may exist in products like CBD, if they’re not careful with sourcing.
CBD is commonly used for anxiety, ADHD, and insomnia. There is also data that says it alleviates pain and helps with opioid addiction, but to date, Temple says the only study demonstrating its effectiveness in children focused on those suffering from serious seizures.
According to Kilbane, side effects from CBD can include gastrointestinal distress, nausea, and sleepiness, but she hasn’t noted any of these in her patients who have taken CBD oil by mouth or in capsule form.