Elderberry Syrup & Coconut Oil & Amber Necklaces & Essential Oils & Probiotics

But wait, coconut oil cures everything, right? We take a hard look at Portland’s favorite green family wellness trends to see if they really live up to the hype. 

Let’s get one thing out of the way: We all want the best for our kids. No parent wakes up one day and decides they’d simply love to pump their cold-and-flu-afflicted child full of sodium benzoate and yellow No. 6. But vacations and emergencies happen, as do long weeks at work and confusing, insomnia-addled trips to Walgreens at 11 pm.

This guide is not for those times. One can’t swing a surveyor locator in this city — or, increasingly, its suburbs — without hitting a natural-foods store of some sort, filled with herbally scented and extremely expensive promises of greener, healthier, more righteous ways to ward off the colds and flus that drove you to that Walgreens in the first place. But do these products actually work? Does that stylish vegan mom in Aisle 6 with the hand-crocheted tunic know something you don’t? We took a look at some of the more popular remedies to let you know what they’re supposed to do, what they actually do, and what medical professionals really think of them.


Amber Teething Necklaces

The claim: Baltic amber contains succinic acid, a natural analgesic that is supposedly released when the beads are heated by the skin, thereby reducing teething pain.

The cost: $14-$20 for baby necklaces and $30-$56 for adult versions through Vancouver, Wash.-based The Art of Cure (theartofcure.net).

Did it work? Nothing signals one’s natural-parenting bona fides quite as clearly as an amber teething necklace on a baby or toddler. My own son didn’t seem particularly affected by teething — and I was leery of the potential choking hazard — but it wasn’t difficult to find dozens of parents who remain fervent believers. “After a night up with my 2-year-old crying and feverish because of his molars coming in, I decided to get one as soon as the stores opened in the morning,” says Debra Almsted of Washougal. “After having my son tell me his teeth didn’t hurt anymore, I was convinced, and all four of my children have used them now.”

What do doctors say? “I do not recommend amber teething necklaces,” says Scott Spencer, M.D., a pediatrician at Pediatric Associates of the Northwest in Portland. “The American Academy of Pediatrics agrees that the use of amber necklaces to help relieve teething pain is not supported by modern science. The makers claim it releases pain-relieving substances into the bloodstream, but there is no evidence for this. Moreover, the necklace is both a choking and strangulation risk.”


Elderberry Syrup for Colds

The claim: Though the exact mechanism by which it works is unknown, the extract of Sambucus nigra, commonly known as the black elderberry, is thought to have anti-inflammatory properties and shorten the duration of colds and the flu.

The cost: $9.29 for Sambucol black elderberry syrup at Target.

Did it work? There is no better science lab than a kindergarten class in winter, so when my kindergartener’s neighborhood friends began sniffling, I began dispensing a dropperful of “disgusting” purple syrup each morning. To my surprise, my son only had a single cold all winter — and that was before I began the syrup.

What do doctors say? “I don’t have experience recommending or taking this product,” says Dr. Spencer. “But according to the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health, there are initial studies that indicate it can be helpful for colds in adults, but there is not enough evidence to say that for sure. However, there are no pediatric studies and there are possible side effects like nausea, so I can’t recommend this for children.” (Author’s note: Darn.)

Essential Oils for … Well, Everything

The claim: Not yet been invited to a “free intro to essential oils” class by your kid’s friend’s mom who sells Young Living? Well here are the Cliffs Notes: Essential oils can purportedly cure everything from eczema to stomachaches, as well as improve concentration, repel fleas, and be used as a natural sunscreen (no matter what your kid’s friend’s mom says, don’t try that last one at home).

The cost: Varies widely. A single 15-ml (half-ounce) bottle of multi-level marketing (MLM) oil such as Young Living or DoTerra can run anywhere from $13 to $80, while store-brand oils such as Now or Aura Cacia are usually under $10. Though MLM reps will swear on their favorite pair of LuLaRoe leggings that the price difference is due to their oils being “certified pure therapeutic grade,” this is not an official designation from any organization.

Did it work? Essential oils had never passed the smell test with me (no pun intended, I swear), so until now, I had not tried them. I decided to start with a problem we’d been having as a family — lack of focus. The internet suggested peppermint oil, so I found a bottle of Aura Cacia on sale for $5.99 at Natural Grocers. “Get that away from me!” my 6-year-old screeched when I asked him to smell the open bottle. “It smells like an old candy cane.” Improved focus? One could say so, but certainly not on schoolwork.

What doctors say: “Essential oils used for aromatherapy are generally accepted as safe,” says Dr. Spencer. “There is evidence that aromatherapy can produce improvement in mood, stress and feeling of health, so, in general, I support its use if desired by a parent or patient. One caution is that some people, particularly those with asthma, can be sensitive to inhaling these — or any — chemicals. So make sure that the essential oils are not causing difficulty breathing or any other unwanted allergic reaction.”

Tea Tree Oil for Lice

The claim: A known antiseptic, the distilled oil from Melaleuca alternifolia — a myrtle tree native to Australia — is thought to kill live lice, although its ability to kill eggs is in question. The most common application method seems to be applying directly to the scalp before covering the head with a towel or shower cap. Many sources, even ones of questionable veracity, seem to pooh-pooh the ability of tea tree oil to kill hardy parasites, but tea tree-based lice shampoo can be found at most grocery stores.

The cost: $10.95 for 1 fluid ounce on Amazon.

Did it work? I haven’t tried it myself, but a surprising number of parents I spoke to swore by it — one mom in my area, Tiffany Pulido of Washougal, goes so far as to spray her two boys’ hair every single day before school with tea tree oil diluted in water. “They’ve never gotten lice,” she maintains. “I am a strong believer.”

What doctors say: “I had to look this one up!” says Dr. Spencer. “There is evidence that tea tree oil is effective for killing live lice, but is not as effective in killing nits — the eggs that are attached the hair. So, a combing or nit-removal technique is needed if tea tree oil is used. The concentration of tea tree oil is also very important, as too-concentrated oil can cause a rash. There is also some evidence that repeated tea tree oil could cause male breast development (gynecomastia), presumably because it acts like a hormone in the body. Also, in higher doses and repeated applications, it is theoretically carcinogenic. So it is not recommended for frequent applications. Also, it doesn’t work as a preventative treatment to ‘repel’ lice.” (Editor’s note: Double darn.)


The claim: The live bacteria found in fermented foods such as yogurt, kombucha and kimchee have been credited with curing everything from constipation and depression to obesity; you’d be hard-pressed to find a crunchy Portland parent without a bottle in the fridge that probably cost half their monthly natural gas bill.

The cost: $19.99 for 30 capsules at Fred Meyer.

Did it work? In short, no. Neither my husband nor I saw a noticeable difference in temperament or gas reduction when my son was a baby, and though we still use probiotics capsules off and on to hedge our bets during cold and flu season, their effect on immune or gut function for us is largely unnoticeable.

What doctors say: “Like most medical providers, I recommend probiotics for all children while they are on antibiotics and also for certain other medical conditions,” says Dr. Spencer. “Probiotics are strains of good bacteria that are found in normal healthy digestive systems. Some studies suggest that using probiotics can help prevent colds, but there isn’t enough evidence to support this claim. I recommend a probiotic that contains active lactobacillus and/or Bifidobacterium …. One possible downside to probiotics is that most products contain dairy. So for those individuals with a dairy allergy or very significant dairy intolerance, I wouldn’t recommend probiotics.”

Coconut Oil

The claim: The hype is dying down a bit on this once-maligned, extremely saturated fat, but some still believe in its powers to regulate metabolism and strengthen the immune system, alleviate cradle cap and diaper rash, and even substitute as a sunscreen (again, do not try this at home).

The cost: $16.99 for virgin, unprocessed coconut oil at Costco. The refined kind is less expensive, but does not contain the purported health benefits.

Did it work? It’s greasy, it’s kind of expensive, and as a child of the ’80s, I distinctly remember being told I was going to die of coronary artery disease for eating it with my movie popcorn. Forgive me if I still have a bit of difficulty slathering it on the inside and outside of my body. However, it does make a pretty decent winter moisturizer for both my son and me.

What health experts say: According to Pediatric Associates of the Northwest’s staff dietician, Connie Liakos, coconut oil “just doesn’t live up to the hype as a health food” due to its saturated-fat content. However, she says less-processed “virgin” coconut oil is probably better metabolized in the body, so it is okay to use sometimes in cooking, but not as a primary cooking fat. One caveat: She actually specifically recommends it for children under 2 years of age, as infants need saturated fat for brain development.

Local Raw Honey for Allergies

The claim: Locally produced honey is made by bees who have visited local flowering plants, so people who consume the raw, unprocessed honey regularly — a spoonful a day is what’s typically recommended — are supposedly also consuming all the local pollen, allowing them to build a tolerance over time.

The cost: $5.99 for a 12-ounce squeeze bottle of Vancouver, Wash.-based “Artie’s Harvest” at QFC in Vancouver.

Did it work? My family is blessedly free of allergies, so I had to ask around on this one. Portland mom Jenya Rafi runs Inquisitive Mermaids, a local Facebook group focused on toxin-free living, and is such a devotee of local honey she buys it in bulk. “We use it all the time to help alleviate allergy symptoms,” she explains, “as well as to boost the immune system and as a cough suppressant. If allergies are really bad, local bee pollen is even better!”

What doctors say: “In terms of allergy treatment,” says Dr. Spencer, “according to the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health, eating honey — perhaps local honey — is theorized to reduce pollen allergies by exposing people to a small amount of the pollen and allowing the body to build up tolerance. However, the studies that have looked at this have been inconsistent. So it is unknown if it helps, but, as long as a child is over 1 year of age, it is safe to ingest raw honey.”

Kat Merck is a freelance writer, editor and mom who was once publicly shamed in line at Natural Grocers for buying cheese. She continues to buy cheese — and sometimes not even the organic kind — while living in Camas, Wash., with her husband and 6-year-old son. Kat’s article “Trash Talk,” April 2018, won PDX Parent a silver Parenting Media Association award for best service feature.

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