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Herbal Supplements Largely Untested in Kids

Study finds only a few show proven benefit

THURSDAY, March 17, 2005 (HealthDay News) -- As the primary users of herbal remedies, more women are giving botanical medicines to their children for various ailments.

But science has come up short on evidence that these popular herbal remedies actually work for kids.

Recognizing the need for more solid information, researchers at the University of Illinois decided to sift through 40 years of medical literature to determine what clinical proof exists for using alternative remedies such as chamomile, valerian, echinacea, garlic and evening primrose oil.

Their findings, which appear in the March issue of the Journal of Pediatrics, suggest that while some herbal remedies look promising for children, the jury is still out on many others. In fact, they excluded looking at chamomile, feverfew, ginger and gingko for lack of scientific research on their effectiveness. And among those herbal remedies they did include, there wasn't enough evidence to recommend the use of cranberry juice or supplements for urinary tract infections, garlic for cardiovascular problems, or echinacea for colds.

"Part of the reason for writing the review was to show that there are botanical products on the market that appear to be more active for conditions that are not well-controlled by prescription drugs. These botanicals we should be actively investigating," said study co-author Gail B. Mahady, a researcher at the Center for Botanical Dietary Supplements Research, located at the University of Illinois at Chicago.

There were herbal remedies that showed promise for treatment in children.

"Evening primrose oil appears to be safe and relatively effective for the treatment of atopic dermatitis," Mahady said. "Valerian may be effective for sleep disorders, and I think that some of the data for ADD (attention-deficit disorder) in children was at least promising."

Some studies also suggest that ivy leaf might help asthma and bronchitis symptoms in children. And one study showed that Andrographis paniculata, a Chinese and Ayurvedic remedy, reduced cold frequency by 70 percent in children taking it for at least two months.

"I think these findings will be very helpful for pediatricians who generally don't have enough information, and a big reason why is that it's not available," said Dr. Kathi J. Kemper, chairwoman for Holistic and Integrative Medicine at Wake Forest University School of Medicine.

One point Mahady stressed is that parents shouldn't base decisions about giving their children an herb because it works for Mom or Dad. "Children are not small adults, so it cannot be presumed that what works for adults will also work for children," she said.

For example, despite a number of clinical trials showing that echinacea reduces a cold's symptoms and duration in adults, Mahady's team came across a clinical trial with children that found the herb was ineffective. Parents should also be aware of potential safety issues regarding certain botanicals. For example, echinacea may cause reactions in children with allergies.

Mahady is most concerned that there's a growing trend of children being treated with herbal medicines, but parents aren't consulting their child's doctor. Only about half do, according to Kemper's research.

"Parents need to recognize that treatment of any disease with an herbal medicine is really drug therapy, not dietary supplementation," she warned. For children with a chronic disease or conditions requiring drug therapy, co-treatment with botanicals may cause drug interactions.

"If parents feel very strongly about herbal medicine or natural products, they should find a physician that is willing to work with them," Mahady said.

Unfortunately, many physicians aren't well-versed enough in botanical medicine to confidently advise patients, said Kemper. She conducted a survey of 750 pediatric specialists, and found less than 5 percent were knowledgeable about complementary and alternative therapies.

This latest study points to the need for more scientific research on herbal supplement use in children, Kemper added. "We have to realize that children aren't small adults or big rats, so it's a good idea to sort out these things, and to fund more of these studies," she said.

More information

For information about herbs or supplements, go to Wake Forest University Baptist Medical Center.

SOURCES: Gail B. Mahady, Ph.D., researcher, Center for Botanical Dietary Supplements Research, University of Illinois at Chicago; Kathi J. Kemper, chairwoman, Holistic and Integrative Medicine, Wake Forest University School of Medicine, Winston-Salem, N.C.; March 2005 Journal of Pediatrics
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