Oriental medicine views the treatment of children to be extremely important, and when treating children the primary system to treat is usually the digestive system. A classic Chinese saying that expressed this is xiao er pi bu zu, “Children’s Spleen is often insufficient.” The focus of the digestive system in Oriental medicine consists of the Spleen and Stomach systems.
According to Chinese medical theory, children’s spleens and stomachs up to the age of approximately six are inherently immature because they are still developing. That means they do not function as efficiently as a healthy adult’s does. Until then, the digestive systems are weak and overworked, so it is not uncommon to see children complaining of various digestive upset, from diarrhea to indigestion.
In Chinese Medicine, these complaints can be classified as an accumulation of food. Children’s digestion is easily damaged by poor diets and an unnecessary use of antibiotics. When antibiotics are used they kill the “bad” bacteria which is possibly causing the illness.
Antibiotics simultaneously kill the “good” bacteria (flora) found in your intestines. This “good” flora is necessary for a strong digestive system and a healthy immune system. Persistent antibiotic use can lead to children have poor digestive systems or a recurring illness.
Parents might then ask, what is the best diet for my children? Children should be fed easy-to-digest foods, otherwise known as a clear and bland diet. This type of diet allows the child’s digestive system to work more efficiently.
Infants should be feed breast milk above all else, as it is the best food for infants. Breast milk has the proper antibodies necessary to keep a baby’s immune system strong and functioning optimally. For more information on the benefits of breast-feeding the FDA offers this helpful information.
While breast milk is the optimal food for infants, it is still possible to overfeed an infant with breast milk. This can lead to an accumulation of food in the baby’s stomach and lead to digestive ailments.
When solid foods are introduced, one should start with easily digestible foods, like cooked carrots and well-cooked grains such as cream of rice.
Understanding Nutrition through the Lens of Chinese Medicine
Because the process of digestion in Chinese medicine is likened to a process of cooking and distillation, foods which are cooked are, in general, more easily digested than uncooked foods. In other words, cooking is pre-digestion. Therefore, infants and very young children do best when they are fed mostly cooked, mashed, partially predigested foods than when they eat few uncooked, chilled, or cold foods.
Chilled and cold foods “douse” the fire of the spleen and make digestion difficult. Likewise, drinking too many liquids and especially with meals “swamp” the spleen. Foods that Chinese medicine labels as very “dampening” also easily harm the spleen when eaten excessively. These include sugars and sweets in general, dairy products and especially chilled dairy products such as cheese and yogurt, peanut and other nut butters, and bread.
What are some causes for disease or illness in children?
There are several factors that can contribute to disease in any person, and the same is true of children.
In Oriental Medicine there are internal and external causes of disease.
The external causes are linked to natural phenomenon that the Chinese observed to be true and the cause of illness. These external causes are wind, cold, dryness, heat, and dampness. When these factors are experienced in an excess amount then they may cause illness. They may also cause illness if the child has a weak constitution leaving them vulnerable to illness.
Another common cause of disease is emotional factors, also known as the seven affects. Emotions are usually not a cause for illness in children, as they do not hold back from expressing their emotions. If children do go through emotional problems at home this can lead to illness. Some examples of illness arising out of emotional disturbances are asthma, insomnia, urogenital disorders, and a number of mental illnesses.
As mentioned, diet is the primary cause for illness in children. Some dietary problems that may cause illness are too little food, too much food, irregular feeding, unsuitable milk, early weaning, and food allergies. All of these factors contribute to illnesses, as the digestive system is inherently weak in children.
Common illness treated with Oriental medicine
Constipation is seen frequently in children, as their digestive systems are delicate.
If baby does not have a bowel movement for one day this is considered constipation. If constipation continues, treatment should sought out.
There are two main causes for constipation in children. The first is an accumulation and overeating, irregular eating, and eating raw indigestible foods can cause this. As this causes more of a strain on the spleen and stomach systems it leads to the common pattern of accumulation.
Constipation can also be caused by a weak spleen and stomach. This weakness can be acquired by poor diet, prolonged digestive upset and recurrent illness.
The accumulation disorders respond quicker to treatment, as the child’s digestive system is still somewhat strong. The same cannot be said for a child affected by a weak digestive system. The treatment for this is longer as the practitioner needs to work on strengthening the child’s digestive system.
Parents know all to well the sound of their child coughing. A chronic cough can disturb the entire family, not least of all, everyone’s sleep.
Coughs may be caused by consuming foods that are phlegm-producing (such as dairy), unnecessary use of antibiotics, poor digestion, being overtired, experiencing a long-term illness, or immunizations. When treating cough-related symptoms and their underlying condition, acupuncture, herbal medicine, dietary changes and even lifestyle changes can provide an effective holistic treatment.
Otitis media is a very common illness in babies and children. Ear infections are no fun for the child as the pain is extremely uncomfortable, and parents are scared that their child might become deaf due to the infection. It is for this reason that parents often rush their children to the doctor to receive antibiotics, and if the problem persists, to have tubes placed in the ear.
Parents will be relieved to know there are other treatments that can help treat otitis media, without the side effects of western medicine.
Acute ear infections are usually attributed to a virus or bacteria affecting the ear. If the infection is caused by a virus, western medicine has little to offer in the form of treatment (yet antibiotics are still routinely prescribed). The treatment of otitis media with frequent doses of antibiotics can cause the pathogen to linger, leading to chronic otitis media. Julian Scott, OMD says, “the lingering pathogenic factor can be traced to an immunization, commonly the pertussis vaccine.”
Regardless of the cause, Oriental medicine has a good track record for treating both the acute and chronic variations. Acute otitis media is much easier to treat with the child experiencing relief quickly. For chronic otitis media, the child will feel relief with treatment, however, as with most chronic conditions continued treatment is necessary for a lasting effect.
Allergic rhinitis, also known as allergies or hay fever, can cause seasonal problems for children. Fortunately, allergies typically only come once a year; unfortunately, the symptoms – including nasal congestion, discharge and irritation, sneezing, red and watery eyes and headache – can be debilitating for children.
Parents will be happy to know that Oriental Medicine can treat allergic rhinitis. While again, diet can be the center of the problem, so too can the lung, liver, and spleen. The liver is quite often affected, and usually makes itself known by irritability and a red face.
While you can always see a practitioner when the symptoms arise, the best time to treat allergic rhinitis is a month before the symptoms usually appear to prevent a more severe flare-up.
Hyperactivity, Attention Deficit Disorder, Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder
Parents, teachers, friends, and family all suffer when children are hyperactive. Children can be very energetic, disruptive, rude and violent when they experience hyperactivity. This pattern has some clear diagnoses in Oriental Medicine, which differs considerably from western medical diagnoses. Whereas in conventional medicine “there are few tools with which to help these children other than drugs,” Oriental medicine makes large strides with acupuncture and herbal medicine.
The four main causes for hyperactivity are heat, phlegm-heat, weakness in the digestive system (spleen), and kidney weakness.
When treating these patterns, length of treatment may vary but usually children need to be seen ten to thirty times.
It is important to be prepared for the child’s response to treatment. Children may actually become a little wild, angry, and yell during and after treatment. This response will diminish with continued treatment.
It is also extremely important to modify the child’s diet. A reduction in sugar, food colorings, junk food and dairy is necessary, along with a reduction in television and video games.
Treating Children with Chinese Medicine
Parents are usually weary of bringing in their child to get acupuncture because of its association with needles. However, children usually do not have a problem with needles.
Not all treatments need to use needles. Often I use an acupressure machine at the acupuncture point to send a small pulse to the area of need. This pulse feels like a small tapping and some children even feel like it tickles. Often with treatment, children become more and more comfortable with the experience.
Another important therapy for children is herbal medicine. Herbal medicine has been used for centuries in China, in the treatment of children and adults alike. Antibiotics are not always necessary, and with herbal medicine you can bypass the side effects experienced from taking medication. Herbal medicine is used for a short period when treating acute conditions, and longer when treating chronic conditions.
In conclusion, our children are so precious to us and watching them be sick is difficult as parents. For some final words of encouragement, Oriental Medicine has been treating children since the Song Dynasty (960-1279). Today it continues to be a safe, effective medicine that is increasingly supported by modern research. Through the treatments of Oriental Medicine we can strengthen the child and simultaneously prevent illness, for this and every stage of life.
Julian Scott and Teresa Barlow, Acupuncture in the treatment of Children, Eastland Press, Seattle, Washington 1999
Bob Flaws, The Essence of Chinese Pediatrics