However, for many common childhood problems, long term treatment with strong pharmaceutical drugs or antibiotics can undermine the child's ability to develop their own immunity and lead to long term weakness in their system.
In China, the situation is different. Chinese parents who have been brought up and treated themselves with acupuncture and Chinese herbal medicine from an early age, have no hesitation in taking their young ones to their local traditional practitioner when the need arises. In most cases, in both China and the West, these problems are associated with digestion and poor immunity. So often, minor changes in a young child's diet can resolve these issues before they develop into more serious dysfunctions.
We need to remember that babies have no prenatal function of the spleen and stomach as their digestion in the womb is taken over by their mother, with nutrients distributed directly to their bloodstream via the placenta.
Consequently, the digestive system of infants is immature and often delicate. It needs to be trained progressively to allow the associated organs to fully develop since the young child can easily get sick from ingesting foods, which are either too cold or too rich in nature. This includes establishing regular feeding patterns with consistent meal times, and adequate portions of food to avoid overfeeding, which often results in vomiting, diarrhoea, and malnutrition.
In their first few years, it is very important to give young children a balanced diet to introduce them gradually to the different flavours in foods. This is especially relevant in Traditional Chinese Medicine, where each of the five tastes - Sweet, Sour, Bitter, Acrid and Salty - has a specific medical action on the body.
According to these principles, the natural sweet flavour found in avocado, pumpkin, and various fruits moistens dryness in the body. Unfortunately, if the child's diet is too sweet in nature, their digestive system is overwhelmed with an abundance of fluid, which gradually develops into phlegm and obstructs the functioning of the lungs, leading to the development of what we call in traditional medicine, "dampness".
The sour flavour found in lemon, grapefruit, vinegar, and leek vegetables is an astringent. It contracts and tones the body tissues, and stops leakage of fluids. It is commonly prescribed to alleviate diarrhoea and incontinence.
The bitter flavour in rye bread, artichokes, coffee, wheat and apricots, improves our appetite and dries dampness in the body, which is useful to counteract too much sweetness in the diet.
The presence of salty flavour found in most seafood, as well as duck, pork, soybeans and chestnuts, is useful to soften hard masses in the body. It also eliminates phlegm and relieves constipation.
Finally, the acrid flavour associated with ginger, garlic, asparagus, parsnips and watercress stimulates the circulation, benefits the lungs and eliminates cold and flu symptoms.
Ideally, a balanced diet should include each of these flavours in equal quantities. Unfortunately, some flavours are more palatable than others, hence the importance of early training.
We often see kids who haven't been introduced to a wide range of foods at an early age grow up with a very restricted range of tastes. They love sweet and salty flavours, but can't bring themselves to eat most fruit and vegetables. This has obviously been very successfully exploited by the fast food industry and has been associated with the growing incidence of juvenile diabetes and obesity.
Also, young children are very susceptible to external pathogens. It is recognised that infants have no immunity and rely on antibodies absorbed through the mother's milk. As they grow up, their very active nature leads to excess amounts of Yang energy in their body. Yin energy acts like a buffer to our external environment. Without any significant Yin substance to insulate them and protect their core temperature, they become very susceptible to even modest environmental changes. This can lead to high fever, which consumes the already deficient Yin energy, drying out their mucus membranes, and leading to further heat damage in the lungs and stomach.
Chinese herbal medicine has always been very successful in treating non life threatening conditions in children. Unfortunately, in the past, the strong tasting herbal concoctions were often quite difficult to administer to immature palates. Now the accessibility of patent Chinese formulas in capsule form has eliminated this problem to a great extent. Often great results can be achieved from a combination of diet, herbs, and acupuncture to build up their immunity and strengthen their developing systems in harmony with nature.
Olivier Lejus MHSc (TCM), BHSc (Acup.) is an accredited acupuncturist practising in Sydney