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- Ancient wisdom in the modern world


The no nocebo!

Most people have heard of the 'placebo' effect (whereby the benefit of a treatment comes from the power of the belief that it will be helpful) but not many know about the potentially equally potent 'nocebo' effect. A nocebo is what happens when the patient has a negative expectation or at least a strong degree of doubt about the value of their treatment. In many parts of the world; e.g. Asia, Africa, India, Eastern Europe, Southern America, herbal medicine is still part of the mainstream and remains deeply rooted in people's traditions; they grow up with it and expect it to help. In New Zealand in general and most certainly in conservative Christchurch the opposite is the case; Western pharmaceutical-based medicine is everywhere and it is almost entirely tax-funded so, at least in appearance, it seems to be largely free to the population. In this culture herbal medicine is well beyond the fringes of the mainstream system and it can be seen that many people have needed to be very badly and chronically sick and not responding to conventional treatments before they venture into what seems to them to be a very 'alternative' medicine.

I am now personally in the fortunate position of having been in practice for long enough that virtually everyone who comes to see me has been referred by someone they know who already had a good result so this means I don't have to deal with too much 'nocebo' but in the early years of my practice it was a lot harder indeed. The exception to this was always my young patients. They didn't have any notion that they were in an office that was not part of the New Zealand mainstream medical establishment and what I saw time and again would be how those little children would get better from things in mere days that would typically take weeks or even months for grown-ups to get through. I think that a big part of their rapid improvements was having no nocebo; they had no developed mind with all its culturally conditioned doubts and expectations to get around. The was nothing to stop the medicine from simply working.


The healing power of nature

I should not be too simplistic about this though. As well as positive vs. negative expectations there is another at least equally potent factor that serves to speed or slow down the healing process; it is what is known as the vis medicatrix naturae, which loosely translates to ‘the healing power of nature’.

This power, or force, is not something to underestimate. The vis medicatrix naturae is a gift from life. We don’t have to do anything to earn it, it’s already ours. It is the self-correcting, self-healing intelligence that all living creatures are born with and it is a lot more to do with the energy of the body than the nature of the mind. Little children can also heal quickly because they do not get in the way of the healing by forcing themselves to keep going. If they are ill enough then they just somehow know how to stop, lie still and sleep, and sleep, and sleep. Their self-healing is taking up all their energy, for as long as it needs to, and they don’t get in the way of it like an older person who can weigh up all the things they think they 'should' be doing and so greatly limit their ability to rest, which is often the best medicine...

Immune Problems

The two subjects, allergies and infections, that come up in my work with young children more than anything else have the same basic root, namely the immune system.

Babies are not born with an immune system of their own, which is an extraordinary fact when you think about it and it goes a long way to demonstrate just how remarkably vulnerable our children are when they are little. A breast-fed baby borrows its mother’s immune system to get at least some help during their first exposures to bugs in their early months and formula-fed babies have to catch up extra quickly. All baby’s are born with the capability to start making white blood cells but this is not an easy task to learn. In fact it takes many years to really get the hang of it.


In modern life we have a remarkably new phenomenon called ‘cleanliness’. At no time in human history have we ever been anywhere near as clean as we are now. Most scientists who work in this area share some agreement that our much more sanitised living is a prime reason why the number of allergies has exploded in modern times.

Just like a baby has to grow teeth, our immune systems have to evolve to grow a ferocious army of formidable fighters with names like ‘Natural killer T cells’. White blood cells can be very nasty to you if you get on their bad side; some of them literally reach arms out of their walls to swallow in bits of foreign matter or microbes and then set about dissolving them in a cauldron of enzymes. Others just practice chemical warfare by squirting out poisonous substances on things that don’t pass the grade as being ‘self’ i.e. safe.

So what do you think might happen when this powerful, ‘wanting to work‘ army has nothing to do? What happens if there aren’t anywhere near so many bugs, germs, parasites, worms etc. around for it to fight because our homes, cars, clothes, hands, even our pets, are all so clean?

It would appear that what happens is that common foods and airborne particles start standing in for the ‘foreign invaders’. The problem is that once our immune systems start attacking something they will keep having a go at it every time they see it. You can explore this subject much more by looking up the ‘hygiene hypotheses’ on the Internet.

A rapidly increasing number of children now get allergies and there are a host of health problems come along as a result; eczema and asthma being the two that come up the most. This is an important subject that must be approached with care and you can read about it in a lot more detail in my article on allergy and intolerance here.



Some children go down a different route, also to do with the immune system not developing as it should but this time, instead of becoming a misdirected army; it just struggles to deal with infections, especially when they start a new school or pre-school when there is a greatly increased exposure to new bugs in the form of other little children!

Such children will often get repeated infections in their ears, noses, throats and even lungs and by the time I meet them they have often taken repeated courses of antibiotics with highly dubious results. In working with such children you get to see how just how great the herbal immune tonics can be. They nearly always seem to rapidly break the cycle of sickness and most children start to thrive soon into their treatment (so long as they take it!) If recurrent infections are the main problem that is affecting your child then I suggest you read my article on colds and flu's here as well as my general article on some of the key things that make for a healthy immune system here.

Echinacea angustifolia

Failure to thrive

Another problem that I have often worked with is where children have very little appetite and are not thriving, or growing well. This is an old problem and I think anyone can understand how much this would have worried any parent throughout history. What to do about failure to thrive speaks directly to by far the biggest potential obstacle in treating children with any kind of problem; taking the medicine.

The herbs that work to stimulate appetite and growth are famously bitter to take and yes that can seem like an insurmountable obstacle to some parents. I often tell parents when they want to bring in their children that I have an excellent success rate in treating children so long as they take their medicine!

I do put flavouring extracts like licorice root, peppermint or aniseed into the tonics I give children, but the bitter herbs in a digestive and appetite tonic will still linger under the surface. The only way to get really comfortable with taking a herbal tonic is to start doing it. People, and children, always get better at it and more used to it with time.

When a child who is not thriving starts to take a small and regular dose of a bitter tonic they rather wonderfully and predictably start to eat more. The best of all herbs to help this is, in my view, Gentian root, have a close read about it here to learn more about why it works and how to use it.

Gentiana lutea (Gentian)


Childhood cancer

Is there anything else that could be worse in this world? I truly hope you are not reading this part because you have to. First of all please do whatever it takes to find a good herbalist in this hardest of times - I have some suggestions about how you might go about that process written up here. Then, as soon as possible, start giving them some of the greatest health allies in our hour of need; the tonics. I have seen time and again how these incredible herbs make a world of difference to supporting the whole person in general and their immune systems in particular. For example some of the ones I use the most and rate the highest include Reishi mushrooms, Echinacea, Astragalus, Withania, Panax Ginseng and Licorice root. I do have quite a lot more to say from my experiences from working with people with cancer so if you do need to hear those thoughts then look here.

Stomach aches

If your child has chronic stomach aches then you have probably been to your GP and been told they cannot find any obvious reason. Nevertheless you may well have been given a prescription all the same. Please think very hard about the wisdom of giving children a drug like losec, omeprazole (or any kind of medication that reduces stomach acid). It may well alleviate the discomfort, especially at first, but at what cost?

Why do we make something as dangerous sounding as ‘acid’ in our stomachs in the first place? Is it some kind of evolutionary mistake that modern medicine is fortunately able to help correct? People, and children, need to make this intensely powerful stuff because that is what it takes to break down proteins into small enough bits that your blood can absorb, and use.
Proteins are incredibly important, we use them for everything. Every cell in your body needs proteins to be there in the first place. You need them to rebuild yourself every day from the wear and tear of being alive. If you are a child you need them even more; to grow!

Messing with what it takes to get the building blocks of your body is a really dangerous long term strategy. I am not anti-drug philosophically, believe it or not, but I am anti antacids. I think that they can do deep and invisible harm and that they are especially dangerous because we don’t instinctively connect the injuries and failure to thrive that happen months later with the drug that fixed the stomach problems back then and that are still being taken today.

Many children get stomach aches but there is always a reason. It can be a physical reasons such as liver congestion, constipation or food intolerances or it can also be how your child is telling you that they are stressed. As mentioned in the side note above, if this is a chronic problem then I highly recommend you find a holistic practitioner to help you work it out. Digestive herbs are a huge part of every herbalist’s daily work and have been used for thousands of years to help such things. In the meanwhile, because it can only help, do try using some Chamomile tea, more about it here.

Matricaria recutita (Chamomile)


Behavioural difficulties

I am often asked by parents if I can help with problems such as attention deficit disorder (ADD) and attention deficit hyperactive disorder (ADHD). I tell them that I am happy to try but they need to know that I have things like microscopes and fibre optic examination lights worth 10s of thousands of dollars in my consulting room so if their child has a skill for running wild and breaking things then to please consider bringing dad or some other support person into the visit because the whole appointment can take up to an hour!

I also want to make it known that I am deeply wary of accepting all the ADD, ADHD labels that are being handed out to children right, left and centre in the last generation. Boys in particular have always been boys and if they don’t get that physical energy dissipated on a daily basis you can only expect trouble, and plenty of it. The playgrounds are empty whilst the malls are full to overflowing. I' ve written an article speficially about ADD and ADHD which can be found here.

Side Note to the Reader: Surely the best approach in this and any other important area of their health is to meet and treat each child as the unique individual that they are. On the one hand it can be profoundly comforting for a patent to have a name for what is wrong. On the other this is fraught with danger because as soon as we affix a label to a person we tend to stop seeing them and instead focus on energy on their 'disease'. This means we often miss crucial clues as to what they need to get better because we are locked into a system of treatment that only works on a certain level of the problem. People, and I certainly include children in this, are remarkably complex. They change, they grow, they evolve and they get better from an incredible number of obstacles in all shapes and sizes. Again, if at all possible, I urge to to find the help of a good herbalist or holistic practitioner who will help you see the big picture and be able and willing to help you to find different approaches - even if it is to simply see what does and doesn't work! I have a short write-up to suggest how you might go about finding such a person here.

Please understand that I cannot personally advise you without seeing you in my clinic.
This living 'book' is my labour of love so, wherever you are, I wish you peace & good health!



© 2011 R.J.Whelan Ltd