If your baby were suffering from colic, would you treat him with artificially dyed and sweetened simethicone (the chemical in drugs such as Mylanta and Mylicon) or first try an emulsion of fennel seed oil? If your young daughter developed a persistent rash, would you prefer the doctor to prescribe antihistamines or a diet rich in omega fatty acids?
More and more, it’s likely you’d give the second choice a try. The big news is that mind-body pediatrics has come of age over the past generation. It’s a trend that seems very appropriate for a generation of parents looking for foods without pesticides and cosmetics without solvents.
A major symptom of its acceptance is the publication of the first textbook book on Integrative Pediatrics, edited by the avuncular and reassuring Dr. Andrew Weil, the U.S.’s best known nonconventional medicine practitioner and spokesperson ((www.oup.com/us/catalog/general/subject/Medicine/Pediatrics/?view=usa&ci=9780195384727). The august National Institutes of Health has set up a center devoted to its study (www.nccam.nih.gov/health) while the American Academy of Pediatrics has formed a practitioners’ Section. And you can now find pediatricians across the nation who will use integrative practices to care for your children (resource: www.app.org/sections/CHIM/ParentResources.html, click on hyperlink to members, select Section on Complementary and Alternative, for a listing by zip code; also, www.aaemonline.org).
This kind of medical care works to keep children well by instilling a long-life pattern of healthy living and by treating simple problems such as ear aches without resorting to the overuse of drugs. It particularly lends itself to caring for children with chronic illnesses, such as cancer, juvenile arthritis, obesity, asthma and developmental disorders such as autism and ADHD, where conventional medicine hasn’t a great track record of cures. In fact, there’s been a major increase in the number of prescription medications used to treat symptoms of childhood chronic illnesses, despite the absence of data that they are effective in curing the underlying problems.
If the incidence of chronic childhood illnesses continues the upward climb it has taken over the past two decades, and as more families understand the link between prevention and treatment, integrative pediatrics may very well become the standard practice of the future.
Probably only grandmothers like me remember when revered New York Times journalist James Reston, returning from a 1972 reporting trip to China with President Nixon, wrote about his surprising experience in undergoing an emergency appendectomy with acupuncture as the only sedative. That launched our nation’s first timid and by now vast interest in alternative medicine, from acupuncture to meditation, massage and body manipulation, biofeedback, exercise, nutrition and the use of botanically-based supplements.
Now that these techniques are no longer ‘alternative’ to conventional western medicine but have become pretty much an accepted part of it, they are called “integrative” (meaning they’re integrated into standard practice) or “holistic” or “complementary” or “environmental” (a term especially acknowledging the effect of toxic exposures).
In my interviews with integrative pediatricians, they explain, first and foremost, that the power in holistic practice is their relationship with the child and her family, that healing is inexorably bound to the connection between practitioner and patient. (www.oup.com/us/catalog/general/subject/Medicine/Pediatrics/?view=usa&ci=9780195384727, pp 594-620.) To create that connection, they spend lots of time meeting and talking and educating. They build a team with the parents; the pediatrician acts like a quarterback helping the parents navigate the health care system. In the first months of a child’s life, they focus on frequent well-baby care where they also design individualized schedules for vaccinations and treat problems that may arise, such as colic. These conversations with parents and patient continue as the child grows, so different from the usual harried, cookie-cutter 15-minute consultation.
If you visit Dr. Lawrence Rosen, a 43-year-old MIT grad and Mt Sinai-trained integrative pediatrician, you’ll find his pleasant office in New Jersey a paragon of green construction – the flooring, cabinetry and paint were chosen as the safest, least toxic (his website offers resources on green pediatrics construction based on his research and experiences). Even the staff’s dishware is either glass or nontoxic plastic made from recycled materials. Dr. Rosen explains that “the build-up of low-level toxic exposures is responsible for more illnesses than one-time higher exposure.” He’s given him practice a name: The Whole Child Center (www.wholechildcenter.org), and he blogs when he can about natural parenting practices (www.thewholechild.us).
One of his patients is a ten-year-old girl (let’s call her Jenny) with asthma so severe she was using several different inhalers and several different allergy medications every day. Some of the steroid-based drugs were affecting her appetite and causing weight gain, while their continued use could have threatened her long-term development. Yet she still found it hard to participate in school sports. Jenny also had eczema and food allergies. “Rather than prescribing more medicines to suppress her symptoms, I looked for ways to balance her immune system response,” Dr. Rosen explained. He didn’t remove her from her medications immediately, to avoid an attack, but slowly over time worked with Jenny to integrate complementary therapies.
He started her on a daily probioitic, –which are supplements or foods like yogurt, rich in beneficial live microorganisms such as lactic acid bacteria. He told her mom to ensure her diet included lots of fruits and vegetables with their healing antioxidants as well as foods with high levels of omega-3 fatty acids. Jenny was encouraged to build up her physical strength by swimming and walks outdoors in nature. Dr. Rosen also worked with her on relaxation techniques including guided imagery and breathing (“Everyday Blessings: The Inner Work of Mindful Parenting,” by Jon Kabat-Zinn.and his wife, Myla). After careful monitoring, she’s now mostly weaned from her prescription meds, uses an inhaler infrequently, and has achieved her dream of participating in sports. Whereas last year she had missed 40 days of school, this year it was down to five.
A young patient with cancer in remission might be treated with similar practices, to support his immune system and his body’s overall strength and resilience.
“Conventional Western medicine is about fixing disease, mainly acute illnesses. It’s oriented around disease labeling and treatment,” Dr. Rosen says. Integrative pediatricians focus on wellness and innate balance of health.
American Academy of Environmental Medicine
A membership association of environmental physicians
Holistic Pediatrics Association
For families and practitioners; has a member directory
A practitioner group
To my readers: I’m working on a related article that will focus on the way that nutrition can heal developmental disorders such as ADHD and autism. And another article on how today’s health care system impedes the use of integrative pediatrics.