Healing Crisis: Don't Worry Mom, I'm Just Growing!
By Melissa L. Block
Issue 119, July/August 2003
Editor's note: This article features the ideas, knowledge, and advice of Dr. Philip Incao, MD. Dr. Incao received his MD from Albert Einstein College of Medicine in 1966. Dissatisfied with the limitations of modern medicine, he spent two years in Europe studying anthroposophic medicine, which he has practiced since 1973, first in rural upstate New York, and then for the last seven years in Denver, Colorado. Anthroposophic medicine was founded in the early 1920s by medical doctor Ita Wegman in collaboration with Rudolph Steiner, the founder of Waldorf education and anthroposophy. According to Dr. Incao, anthroposophic medicine or, as he likes to call it, "Steiner holistic medicine," is "based on a marriage of our rational thinking with our deeper intuitive faculties to foster a growing understanding of the human spirit's role in health and illness." Dr. Incao was the first president of the Physicians' Association for Anthroposophic Medicine (PAAM) in the US . He lectures frequently nationwide, is a consultant to many Waldorf schools throughout the US , and is a member of the advisory boards of Alive and Well AIDS Information Network in Los Angeles , the National Vaccine Information Center in Virginia , and the Foundation for Health Choice in Washington , DC .
Long before my now-almost-three-year-old daughter, Sarah, was even a twinkle in my eye, I had the privilege of meeting Dr. Philip Incao, one of only a handful of American physicians who openly question the safety of vaccinations as well as other conventional medical practices. I left the meeting with a fat folder full of Dr. Incao's writings and the scientific studies that supported his arguments. Once I began to pore over them, I couldn't stop. Not only did Dr. Incao make perfect sense of the baffling rise in all kinds of chronic disease in American children; he also revealed to me the reasons I had suffered from so many bouts of strep throat and lung infections during my own childhood-and how the conventional ways in which those illnesses were treated had led to my adult battles with asthma and allergies.
With the guidance of the Santa Barbara Midwives, I birthed Sarah at home-16 days post-date-right into my husband's hands. She weighed 9 pounds, 12 ounces and looked not in the least bit like a newborn. As I sat around the house in my robe, nursing and sleeping, regaining my strength, falling in love with this brand new person, the realization that she was mine to protect hit me hard. Pondering the vaccination question again, I wondered how to best support her health? I didn't want her to fall prey to any microbe that came her way. I decided to call Dr. Incao.
By the time I hung up the phone, I felt confident. He had given me common-sense advice: don't take your baby out in crowds while she's small; when you do take her out, keep her close to you, in your arms or in a sling; keep her warm; breastfeed her exclusively for the first six months; put her to bed early; don't overstimulate her. He told me how to deal with fever, and how to support my baby's body through whatever illnesses might come along. Most important, he helped me to recast my ideas about what illness is--that it isn't something to be dreaded or even to always be avoided. Instead, he encouraged me to regard feverish illness as a sign that my child's body was developing the ability to heal itself.
Sarah had a bout of mastitis at the age of one month, for which I unquestioningly gave her the penicillin and Tylenol the pediatrician prescribed; even the midwife I spoke with agreed that this type of infection had to be dealt with in this way, and once we started the medication, it cleared up quickly. Over a year passed before Sarah fell ill again. One afternoon, she woke from a nap and refused to nurse. She was burning with fever, listless, and vomiting frothy white mucus. I feared the worst. Meningitis? Some virulent strain of flu? I took her temperature and called the pediatrician's office. They asked me a few questions and concluded that Sarah probably didn't need to be brought in. I hung up the phone and lay there with her for hours as she slept, waking every so often to vomit. We went to bed; I cuddled her hot little body to mine until morning, worrying that we were in for days of more of the same.
Morning came, and when she woke, she was her smiling, rambunctious self again. I could have wept for joy: her immune system was so powerful. I knew then that I had made the right decision.
My parents believed--as did most parents of their generation--that illness was an enemy to be eradicated by any means necessary. As soon as I began to show the slightest symptoms as a child, I was toted to the doctor's office and given antibiotics. By the time I was in my twenties, I had developed severe asthma and allergies. Today, I believe that this is because those natural childhood illnesses were never allowed to run their course.
Now I know that symptoms are not illness; rather, they are signs that the healing process is beginning. When we suppress symptoms--when we interrupt what Dr. Incao calls the healing crisis--we prevent our children's bodies from healing.
Ending the War on Disease
Healing is commonly described in metaphorical terms, and the images those metaphors evoke have a strong influence on the way we heal. The metaphors of healing that pervade Western medicine today are those of war and battle. We fight illness and doctors treat illness aggressively. We declare war against cancer. We eradicate infection with our arsenal of pharmaceutical weapons. While this war against disease has provided us with treatments that can be lifesaving, it has also created the mindset that illness is always bad, and that health is a state of complete freedom from illness.
Germs have become the scapegoat in this metaphorical war against disease. If we can rout out those dastardly microbes that cause our children to fall ill--if we can kill them off with antibiotics or antiviral drugs, prevent them from ever taking hold with vaccines, and quickly relieve symptoms whenever they do affect our children--then shouldn't we expect those children to enjoy nothing less than a state of glowing good health?
For anyone who is paying attention to the health of children in developed nations, the answer to this question is a resounding "No." In 1960, 1.8 percent of American children suffered from chronic (i.e., lasting longer than three months), activity-limiting conditions such as asthma, neurological and learning dysfunction, autoimmune diseases (including Crohn's disease, rheumatoid arthritis, and ulcerative colitis), diabetes, and cancer; by 1995, this figure had increased more than threefold, to 6.5 percent, and it continues to rise. (Today's adults are also more prone to chronic health problems: more than 100 million Americans suffer from some sort of chronic disease.) Conventional medicine has been unable to satisfactorily explain this rise in chronic disease incidence, and offers no cures-only more symptom-suppressing medications.
Traditional Medicine's Definition of Health
The metaphors used by more traditional healing practices, such as Chinese medicine, homeopathy, naturopathy, and Ayurveda, are metaphors of balance. According to these medical models, illness isn't caused by an invasion of unfriendly germs, but rather is a result of our bodies being out of balance. Treating illness isn't about eradicating a microbe or feeling better right away, but about gently guiding the body back to its natural balance point so that it can heal itself.
Imbalance is a natural consequence of growth and change, which are at their height during the years of early childhood. And while the illnesses that take hold during childhood can be uncomfortable, they are an indispensable part of the growth and change children's bodies undergo. The duty of the pediatrician and the parent is to support the child's body in ways that facilitate its return to a balanced state. If the measures used to correct imbalances are overzealous, the scales can easily be tipped too far in the opposite direction. This is what happens when an obstetrician uses overly aggressive medical measures to bring a baby into the world, or when a physician recommends antibiotics, vaccines, and other drugs when they aren't really needed.
A child's body is remodeled over and over again between birth and adulthood, and every change requires not only the building of new tissues but the demolition of old ones. The immune system does this work, targeting and breaking down outworn or foreign materials and expelling them from the body. Studies of children have shown that respiratory infections steadily increase in frequency from birth, peak around the age of six, and decline sharply after age seven. This pattern is seen in the majority of children, regardless of how those infections are treated. In other words, these illnesses appear to be a normal feature of childhood. They are an intrinsic part of the development of a healthy and active immune system, just as bumps and bruises are an intrinsic part of learning to walk, climb, and run.
Fever, mucus production, vomiting, rash, and diarrhea are among the immune system's most important tools for cleansing the body. When you suppress these symptoms with medication, you're sending those wastes and toxins more deeply into your child's body, where they will be stored indefinitely-or until her immune system rallies again in an attempt to be rid of them. This is why children so often have runny noses, productive coughs, rashes, diarrhea, fever, and episodes of vomiting: their immune systems are actively working, pushing wastes and toxins out to make way for the growth of new tissues.
One five-year-old patient of Dr. Incao's demonstrated his intuitive understanding of this process when, at the peak of his illness, he said to his concerned mother, "Don't worry, Mom--I'm just growing!" Another child admonished his mother when she came at him with some Tylenol: "No medicine yet--I'm almost finished."
Germs Precipitate the Healing Crisis
Fever, mucus production, rashes, ear pain, and sore throats are all caused by the same immune response: inflammation. In fact, referring to colds, bronchitis, flu, and other common childhood ailments as infections--the result of contamination by or contact with disease-producing matter--is a misnomer. Our bodies are constantly exposed to and contain all manner of bacteria and viruses, but these make us sick only once in a while. When we hear the word infection, we tend to picture nasty, sharp-toothed, microscopic creatures intent on harming us.
Children's illnesses are more accurately referred to as acute inflammations. If it's red, painful, swollen, and hot, it's inflamed. All of these characteristics of acute inflammation are caused by the immune system shifting into high gear, focusing its considerable energies on reestablishing a state of balance in the body. Acute childhood inflammations are not solely the result of malicious bacteria or viruses, but also of the inherent wisdom of your child's body in recognizing when it's time to clean house, get rid of the old and outworn, and make room for new, healthy tissues. Germs are a necessary link in the chain of feverish childhood illnesses, but they are not the first link: before they become active enough to cause symptoms, they require sustenance in the form of wastes and debris naturally produced by a growing body.
Each fever and acute inflammation is like a labor pain. While it's hard to welcome and embrace the intense discomfort of a contraction, each one brings you closer to holding your baby in your arms. Each fever and inflammation is trying to bring to birth a new balance in your child, helping her to make a new step in her development. (I noticed a definite developmental leap right after my daughter's last illness. Dr. Incao has seen this happen over and over again with his pediatric patients.)
Our role as caregivers is not only to remove discomfort, but also to provide a warm, supportive, and positive atmosphere--exactly the sort of environment ideal during labor and childbirth. Antibiotics, aspirin, Tylenol, ibuprofen, and other medications that suppress symptoms do so by suppressing the inflammatory response of the immune system. The result is that the symptoms subside before the illness has worked its way out of the body. Either the inflammation will return, or the debris the immune system was attempting to get rid of will settle more deeply into the body, eventually increasing the tendency toward allergies, asthma, and autoimmune disease.
Dr. Incao emphasizes that the selective and appropriate use of antibiotics can be very helpful--even lifesaving--when the "cleansing fires" of inflammation and fever threaten to burn the proverbial house down. Most of the time, however, they are used neither selectively nor appropriately. Doctors may prescribe them only because they feel the parents expect them to; parents demand them because they fear the illness will worsen otherwise; and, for the most part, neither parents nor physicians know about the cleansing and healing methods Dr. Incao uses successfully for treatment of most feverish illnesses. (These methods are described later in this article and in the sidebars.)
There is very little evidence, on the other hand, that anti-inflammatory medications (including Tylenol, aspirin, and ibuprofen) do any real good when a child is ill. They may briefly make the child more comfortable, but their potential side effects far outweigh their benefits. Parents trying to keep their children comfortable by giving them Tylenol every four hours around the clock have ended up unwittingly causing those children liver damage. Frequent use of Tylenol has also been linked to increased risk of asthma in children.1 If aspirin is given to a child with a viral illness, a potentially deadly side effect called Reye's syndrome can be the result. The use of ibuprofen in treating children with bacterial infections has been linked to increased risk of complications.2
The Protective Power of Childhood Illnesses
Acute inflammations in childhood protect against chronic, low-grade inflammations such as asthma and allergies later on. Excessive use of vaccines, antibiotics, and anti-fever medications compromise the ability of the immune system to create healing inflammations. Studies have shown that when the number of childhood fevers and inflammations is higher, the child's risk of chronic inflammatory conditions later in life-including asthma, allergy, and eczema-is lower.3 These slow-burning, chronic inflammations never heat up enough to push toxins out of the body, and strong evidence exists that vaccinated children are at greater risk of these conditions because their ability to create powerful inflammations is reduced.
In a study conducted by the Developmental Delay Registry, a nonprofit organization of parents and clinicians who suspect that there may be a relationship between increasing immune problems, antibiotic use, and developmental delays in children, a multinational survey of 696 children revealed that those with developmental delays were 50 percent more likely to have been on continuing, prophylactic rounds of antibiotics.4
Helping Your Child through a Healing Crisis
Dr. Incao has been a family doctor practicing anthroposophic medicine since 1973. An extension of conventional Western medicine that was developed by Austrian scientist Rudolf Steiner and a group of European physicians in the 1920s, anthroposophy is based on a spiritual model of the human being--the same model on which the Waldorf system of education is based. It takes a holistic view of illness and health, embracing both the spiritual and the physical in its healing practices. While conventional pharmaceuticals may be used when necessary, anthroposophic treatments usually apply common-sense comfort measures--the kind your great-grandmother probably used-along with homeopathic remedies and other natural therapies designed to encourage the body's innate healing processes.
The following cleansing and detoxification recommendations have been proven time and again in more than 80 years of anthroposophic medical practice around the world, and in Dr. Incao's medical practice of 30 years. Once you begin to apply them with your own children, you will find it easier to discern whether they need the help of medications or can make it through without them.
At the first sign of acute inflammation, fever, ear ache, or sore throat, Dr. Incao recommends that you cleanse the child's bowels, unless diarrhea is already present. For children older than one year, give a glycerin rectal suppository or one-half to one adult bisacodyl (Dulcolax) suppository (not available in pediatric sizes). Keep the cleansing going throughout the illness by giving a dose of milk of magnesia once a day for three to five days. Children from one to five years of age should take one to two tablespoons or two to four tablets; children five to 12 years of age should take two to three tablespoons or four to six tablets; and children over 12 and adults should take four tablespoons or six to eight tablets. If your child won't take milk of magnesia, try the flavored kind, or give prune juice or stewed prunes instead. Infants under the age of one can drink weak fennel tea and diluted juices from stewed organic apricots and prunes, or can be given an infant glycerin rectal suppository. Give the child lots of warm herb teas, especially horsetail (equisetum), which cleanses the kidneys. All of these remedies are designed to support the natural drive within the child's body to expel wastes and toxins--to flush out what's no longer needed and make way for the building of new tissues.
Dress your child warmly. Toxins accumulate faster, and viruses and bacteria grow more quickly, in a body that is not adequately warmed. The child should wear layered natural fibers and wool socks, weather permitting. In traditional medical practices, fever is considered a helpmate that "burns out" illness, and for good reason. Warmth supports increased immune activity and creates an atmosphere that is less hospitable for bacterial and viral growth. This is the reason fever exists.
When a fever is cooled with medications or the body is not properly supported with warm clothing and rest during illness, immune activity slows down. During a fever, you'll know your child is wearing enough clothing when his cheeks are red and his hands and feet are warm, but not perspiring. If the child is very uncomfortable and restless, wet a washcloth with tepid water and arnica tincture (you should be able to find this at your local natural food store or vitamin shop) or lemon juice. Avoid undressing a feverish child from the neck to the knees, but rub the arms, legs, and head vigorously with the damp cloth until the skin turns red. This will help dissipate excess body heat through the skin. Remember that restlessness and irritability during a fever are caused by circulating toxins that need to be released. The body, in its wisdom, wants to be hot in order to digest and eliminate these toxins.
Dr. Diet, Dr. Quiet, and Dr. Merryman
The next time your child has or is coming down with any type of acute inflammation, cold, or fever, before you reach for the liquid Tylenol, think about this advice, attributed to author William Bullein: "The best doctors are Dr. Diet, Dr. Quiet, and Dr. Merryman."
Dr. Diet Laboratory studies have shown that eating little or no food during an illness literally activates the immune system's function, so don't pressure a child who isn't hungry to eat during an illness. When she becomes hungry, offer her vegetable broth or vegetable soup, herb tea, fruit juice, grains, or light crackers. Avoid protein-rich foods (meat, eggs, beans, fish, nuts) for the duration of the acute illness; if she is no longer nursing, avoid dairy products as well. Definitely avoid giving any refined sugar, which hampers immune function significantly. It is a good sign when your child's appetite returns, but the illness may not be over yet, so keep meals light for another day or so. Your child will naturally regain any weight he or she has lost. Reintroduce protein foods gradually once you're sure the illness is over.
Dr. Quiet Most adults crave peace and quiet while ill, and find that they are disturbed by noises that normally wouldn't bother them. Children have the same need while ill, but rarely express it. Out of boredom, they will tend to ask to watch television or videotapes or play videogames-all overstimulating for a sick child, especially a younger one. Explain that illness is a time to relax completely and allow one's body to repair and renew itself in a peaceful, supportive environment.
If at all possible, be there for your child during his illness in an unhurried, reassuring way. Keep him quietly under covers in bed or on the couch, away from any hustle and bustle, and encourage him to sleep as much as possible. Read to him or talk quietly together. These times can be wonderful opportunities for renewed communication and bonding between parent and child.
Dr. Merryman Articles about "fever phobia" have appeared now and again in pediatric medical journals. This unreasoning and unwarranted fear of fever has prevented many a child from undergoing a needed healing crisis. Although a merry attitude about your child's fever may seem far-fetched at first, it helps to keep reminding yourself that the fever is the child's protector, doing what needs to be done to naturally restore balance in his or her body.
Fear is a natural response to powerful forces that we do not understand, and acute fever and inflammation are poorly understood and powerful forces indeed. When fear gains the upper hand, clear vision and judgment go out the window. If we can master our fear and sit calmly and reassuringly with our children when they are ill, observing them carefully, there is much we can learn. We may find that our fear gives way to a healthy respect for the changes that emerge through the ebb and flow of our children's healing crises.
Dr. Incao tells the story of one mother who had been very proud of her daughter's complete freedom from feverish illness--until the girl was brought to see Dr. Incao for evaluation of her recurrent eczema. Once the mother understood what was going on in her child's body and realized that, in order to heal the eczema, her daughter actually needed to get sick--in other words, to fully undergo the healing crisis of feverish illness--the girl promptly developed an illness that took care of the problem.
In other words: It's never too late to implement these healing practices. Even if your child is fully vaccinated, has had several courses of antibiotics, and has taken other drugs to suppress symptoms, once you create a warmer environment for your child, her body will respond by flushing out toxins during illnesses. Nature is forgiving; even if healing crises have been suppressed repeatedly, a change in approach usually brings about exactly the healing crisis a child's body needs. For that matter, I'm hoping that my own body will respond this way when I bundle up during my next illness--so that I can be free of the chronic health problems I've tried so hard to spare my daughter from.
1. S. O. Shaheen, et al., "Frequent Paracetamol Use and Asthma in Adults," Thorax 55 (2000): 266-270.
2. "Doctors Warn of Painkiller Link to Flesh-Eating Disease," National News, New Zealand Press Association, February 1, 2001; www.vaccinationnews.com.
3. C. Bodner, et al., "Childhood Exposure to Infection and Risk of Adult Onset Wheeze and Atopy," Thorax 55, no. 5 (2000): 383-387.
4. "Child Developmental Delay Study Notes Role of Vaccine Reactions," "Vaccine Reaction," 1, no. 3 (July 1995).
Crocetti, M., et al. "Fever Phobia Revisited: Have Parental Misconceptions About Fever Changed in 20 Years?" Pediatrics 107, no. 6 (June 2001): 1241-1246.
Greenstone, Sandra. Healing at Home. Ann Arbor , MI : Healing At Home Resources, 1999.
Lemer, Patricia S. "Link between Antibiotics and Developmental Delays in Children." Developmental Delay Registry, Silver Spring , MD. www.waldorflibrary.org/Journal_Articles/GW3413.pdf.
Leviton, Richard. "The Promise of Anthroposophical Medicine." East West Journal (July 1988): 54.
Martinez , F. D. "Role of Viral Infections in the Inception of Asthma and Allergies During Childhood: Could They Be Protective?" Thorax 49 (1994): 1189-1191.
Murphy, Christine, ed. The Vaccination Dilemma. New York : Lantern Books, 2002.
Newacheck, P. W., et al. "Trends in Activity-Limiting Chronic Conditions Among Children." American Journal of Public Health 76, no. 2 (1986): 178-181.
Odent, M., et al. "Pertussis Vaccination and Asthma: Is There a Link?" Journal of the American Medical Association 272 (1994): 588.
Paffenbarger, R. S., et al. "Characteristics in Youth Indicative of Adult-onset Hodgkin's Disease." Journal of the National Cancer Institute 58, no. 5 (May 1977): 1489.
Ronne, T. "Measles Virus Infection Without Rash in Childhood is Related to Disease in Adult Life." The Lancet 8419, no. 1 (1985): 1-5.
Shaheen, S. O., et al. "Frequent Paracetamol Use and Asthma in Adults." Thorax 55 (2000): 266-270.
Thompson, N. P., et al. "Is Measles Vaccination a Risk Factor for Inflammatory Bowel Disease?" The Lancet 345 (1995): 1071-1074.
Warden, C. R., et. al. "Evaluation and Management of Febrile Seizures in the Out-of-Hospital and Emergency Department Settings." Annals of Emergency Medicine 41, no. 2 (Feb 2003): 215-222.
For more information about childhood diseases, see the following past issues of Mothering: "Fever in Children," no. 95; "Natural Remedies for Childhood Diseases," no. 77; "Natural Remedies for Winter Illnesses," no. 69; and "Unvaccinated Children," no. 42.
None of the suggestions in this article are meant to replace the advice of your personal doctor.
Me lissa L. Block, MEd, is a freelance writer on health and nutrition who lives in Santa Barbara , California . She and her husband, Patrick Block, have two children: Sarah Irene (2 1/2) and a baby boy, due soon.