Build Your Family’s Herbal Medicine Chest

Winter weather was upon us early this fall amid scary stories of novel strains of influenza.  What’s a parent to do when it comes to supporting and promoting health in your children this cold and flu season?  For naturally minded families the foundation of health is prevention through breastfeeding, and healthy lifestyles that include a whole foods diet, stable routines, lots of sleep and encouraging play that gets our kids bodies moving and blood pumping.   Yet all children get sick, usually more often than adults.  It’s a part of their natural process of developing and strengthening immunity in the early years.   Investing in a few quality books about children’s health and natural healing is a must, as is developing relationships with trusted practitioners both medical and natural to turn to when your child needs extra help and expertise.  Most childhood illness can be successfully treated at home with a few simple remedies and some common sense home nursing skills. It makes good sense to acquire a select assortment of natural products that you can use before you turn to Acetominophin and antibiotics.

As an herbalist, I have hundreds of remedies in my home.  There’s a few I’ve turned to again and again with my own children and the children in my practice. The following remedies I consider “must-have” remedies in our Herbal Medicine Chest

Elderblossoms: A Children’s Fever Remedy Par Excellence

Elder (Sambucus nigra,), a small tree, which grows locally, offers both blossoms and berries as different but complementary  medicine especially suited for children.  I always keep a good sized jar of dried Elderblossoms in my cupboard for my family and my clients. I like to harvest the umbels by hand and dry them at home but they are readily available online or in local co-ops.  Elderblossoms are one of the best fever remedies available.  Herbal fever remedies are called diaphoretics. Diaphoretics work by increasing circulation to the surface capillary bed, opening the pores and provoking a sweat.  In traditional parlance fever is trapped heat; in traditional medicine it’s simple, we let the heat out.  Elderblossoms have a lightly floral taste and make an excellent tea for children or adults during fever.  It mixes well with Peppermint, another tasty diaphoretic.  I also like to use Elderblossoms in a hot herbal bath, which can effectively provoke a sweat and cause the fever to break.

Elderberry Syrup: A Yummy All Purpose Anti-Viral

The dark purple berries are the second medicinal gift of the Elder bush.  The berries are beloved by birds but aren’t sweet or flavorful enough to be choice berries for human consumption.  Elderberries are best made into syrups, cordials, jellies and jams. As with the blossoms, the berries can be gathered locally, if you can find a tree or purchased.  I make mine into gallons and gallons of syrups. The syrup, made with ginger, cinnamon, and cloves (all potent common cold remedies in their own right) offers a delicious and effective general remedy for colds, flu and other viral illness. Recent studies on Elderberry extracts have found that people and animals given Elderberry have significantly fewer days of symptoms than those given a placebo. Elderberries have been shown in in vitro studies to be effective against 10 different strains of influenza.

Boneset:  When Flu is Upon Us

When the flu is really upon you, turn to Boneset (Eupatorium perfoliatum).  This remedy native to North America comes to us from the traditions of the Native Americans.  It is a deep, profound remedy  or the immune system used traditionally for Malaria as well as Influenza.  It is specifically indicated when there is alternating fever and chills, and aching in the muscles and bones associated with influenza.  Throbbing headache, aching eyes, diarrhea, and vomiting bile are other specific indications. Boneset is an extremely bitter herb; personally I can’t imagine drinking it as a tea. In my practice I use it as a tincture.  Boneset has no known toxicity or dangers associated with use, but it is a strong herb. I find it effective in small doses of 1-3 drops.  I recommend using these tiny doses under the tongue every 2-4 hours. During acute illness it is often more effective to give the body repeated nudges with herbal remedies rather than one or two large doses of medicines at the beginning and end of the day.

Aromatherapy Chest Rub:  Bringing Movement to a Congested Area

Many of us grew up with Vick’s Vaporub when we had a cold, cough or congestion.  Our grandmother’s and great grandmother’s may have experienced a onion plaster or mustard plaster.  The principles behind chest rubs and plasters are sound and chest rubs are remedies that work by mobilizing the body’s natural healing abilities. The trouble with most rubs on the mainstream market is that they are made with petroleum jelly. My family and clients use a natural chest rub with beeswax, quality oils like Almond and Shea and 100% essential oils including Eucalyptus, Camphor, Peppermint, Lavender, Nutmeg, Thyme and Cedarwood. When rubbed over the congested chest these plant based substances tingle, bring blood flow to an area and help break up underlying congestion. Most essential oils are also profoundly anti-microbial and breathing in these strong vapors helps clear the respiratory passages and sinuses and kill germs.

Sage Tea with Lemon and Honey:  There is no better Sore Throat Remedy

I’m always happy to share my favorite sore throat remedy with people.  I love that it is so easy and so accessible to everyone no matter where you live and no matter how little or how much you know about herbal medicine.   Sage tea with honey and lemon is the best sore throat remedy.  It also works really well for uncomfortable postnasal drip and I like it personally when I have swollen gland in my mouth, throat or under my jaw. Garden Sage (Salvia officinalis) is an easy and fun perennial herb to grow in your home garden but it is also one of the few medicinal herbs that is available fresh year round at almost every supermarket in America. You can find it, (often organic) in the produce section in small hanging clear plastic containers.  Simply cut up a tablespoon or two and pour a boiling cup of water over the top.  Place a saucer on top of the cup so the valuable volatile oils don’t waft away with the steam. Let it steep for 15 minutes or so. Strain the Sage leaves from the tea, add the juice of one-half a lemon and a spoonful of raw local honey.  I encourage you to procure some raw local honey for your family’s health.  Raw honey is a living food full of enzymes, anti-microbial properties and a soothing expectorant for coughs.

Mullein Garlic Ear Oil:   A Remedy to Survive Most Earaches without Antibiotics

Most children while have an ear infection or two during the first 7 years of life.   A simple anatomical difference in children accounts for the high incidence of earaches in early childhood. The Eustachian tube of children’s ears is horizontal compared to that of adults.  Thus children are much more prone to the buildup of fluid within the ear compared to their parents.  The inflammation of the Eustachian tube and buildup of fluid frequently correspond with other upper respiratory illness and sometimes fever.   Sometimes however, an earache occurs independently of a cold. I find the most children can get through an occasional ear infection without antibiotics. Try ear oil to ease the pain, while the child’s body moves through the illness.   A variety of herbal ear oils are available.  I prefer oils with Mullein and Garlic.  Mullein (Verbascum Thapsus) is an anodyne, or pain relieving herb.  Garlic is a potent antimicrobial.  In a pinch you can make your own garlic oil by simply simmering garlic in olive oil for a few minutes. Strain and it’s ready for use. Oils should be warm but not hot and parents should use a dropper to drop 1-3 drops of oil into the ear canal.  More is not better; it will simply drip out of the ear and make a greasy mess. Treat the corresponding illness (if there is one) with your Elderberry or Elderblossom.  Keep the diet simple and warm.  Chiropractic or Cranial Sacral Therapy can be very helpful with acute or chronic earaches.  Congratulate yourself for successfully handling an ear infection without antibiotics!

Herbal Nervines:  Bringing Peace in Times of Upset

The extreme crabbiness of some sick children is enough to make you want to dump them at the door of the nearest daycare and run screaming to the nearest spa.  Relaxing herbal remedies called nervines definitely have a role to play in dealing with illness at home. My favorite nervines for children include Catnip (Nepeta cataria) Chamomile (Matricaria recutita and Chamaemelum nobilis) and Linden Blossoms (Tillia spp.)  All of these are effective as teas or tinctures. Try throwing some in the herbal bath as well.  Catnip is indicated for angry babies and children and is also a good herbal diaphoretic. Chamomile is best suited for whiny, clingy fretful babies and children. Linden is relaxing and good for active children who seem unable to sit still and rest. Linden is also a good diaphoretic.

With the help of the remedies we have explored you too can build your family’s natural medicine chest and treat most illness at home.  Educate yourself, find a natural practitioner you can trust and turn too when you need extra support or information.  Trust your mother’s intuition and seek help when you need it. Blessings on your home healing work.

For More Information

Folk Remedies for Common Ailments by Anne McIntyre

Healing Childhood Ear Infections by Michael A. Schmidt

The Herbal for Mother and Child by Anne McIntyre

Natural Healing for Babies and Children by Aviva Jill Romm

Superimmunity for Kids by Leo Galland


How to Make a  Medicinal Tea

1 tsp of dried herbs or 1 Tbs of fresh herbs added to 8 oz. boiling water.  The tea should be steeped, covered, for 10-15 minutes.  The tea can be cooled before drinking.  Babies may given 1-2 Tbs lukewarm tea.  Most children under 3 will naturally drink about ¼ cup of medicinal tea, kids from 3 to 7 can take about ½ cup, and for older folks use a 1 cup dose. Doses can be repeated several times daily.  Honey can be added for children over the age of one for taste and soothing expectorant qualities.

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