Herbs for Kids (cont.)

Booming Business

Judging from the bottles filling the shelves of health food stores and supermarkets, many parents think the way White does. Supplement manufacturers have recently tapped into a major new market with products such as "E-Kid-Nacea Plus," an echinacea supplement that promises to "support a healthy immune system"; "Calm Child," a combination of hawthorn berry, catnip leaf, and other herbs that "support a focused calmness"; and Herbs for Kids brand "St. John's Wort Blend," a product that "nourishes the nervous system and promotes a positive outlook."

The list goes on: herbal cough elixirs, cold remedies, fever reducers. Whether it's asthma or attention deficit disorder, practically every childhood malady now has a corresponding herbal remedy. Americans are expected to spend nearly $16 billion on herbals this year; clearly, much of that windfall will come from the pockets of concerned parents. But do herbs deliver?

Unfortunately, many parents end up paying for empty promises instead of reliable remedies, says Kathi Kemper, MD, director of the Center for Holistic Pediatric Education and Research at Children's Hospital in Boston and author of The Holistic Pediatrician.

As a pediatrician who practices therapeutic touch and sees some potential value in homeopathy -- two alternative therapies scorned by most traditional doctors -- Kemper could be expected to have an especially open mind about herbs.

But she has strong advice for parents considering the capsules, powders, and potions crowding store shelves: Save your money. Such products are unregulated and unproven, and they're unlikely to live up to their claims, she says. In fact, she says, some may even be harmful.

"I used to be much more pro-herb," Kemper says. "But I found they were not as potent [as manufacturers claim them to be] or as effective as [prescription] medications. I became aware that people were not getting what they were paying for."

Herbal Roulette

Without doubt, the plant world is a bountiful source of medicines and remedies. But a plant in a meadow or forest may bear little resemblance to one that's been stuffed into a capsule, Kemper says.

Such herbal products are only minimally regulated by the Food and Drug Administration, and a given dose may contain anywhere from a megadose of an active ingredient to no active ingredient at all, Kemper says. Herbs can also be contaminated with toxic heavy metals such as lead or mercury, or, in the case of many herbs imported from China, intentionally laced with steroids and other dangerous medications, she says.

Furthermore, only a few herbs, including echinacea and St. John's wort, have ever been tested for safety and effectiveness. And in almost every study, the subjects were either lab rats or adults, not kids, Kemper says. As she writes in her book, "Children are not sophisticated rodents or small adults." Because young bodies process drugs differently, kids may be especially vulnerable to side effects, she says.