Reaching for height through herbsThe 13-year-old bespectacled Kim Won-ho sits in the front row of his class ― not because he’s so eager to learn, but because he’s so short. At just 148 centimeters (4 feet, 10 inches) tall, the middle school junior can’t see over other students’ heads, and is often mistaken for an elementary school student.
Seeking to spare him from psychological damage, his parents took him to an oriental medicine hospital specializing in height-enhancing treatments three months ago. Although he hasn’t grown significantly since then, his overall health has improved, said his father, Kim Eun-song. Which is exactly the point.
Oriental medicine doctors believe that respiratory diseases, skin conditions and digestive problems can result in insufficient growth. Respiratory diseases prevent children from falling into a deep sleep while digestive problems hinder the absorption of food.
“Won-ho also has severe atopy-related skin conditions and rhinitis. I thought these conditions affected his growth,” Mr. Kim said.
“[Oriental medicine] would provide comprehensive support for his physical condition,” he added.
The course of treatment prescribed to Won-ho involves drinking daily packets of a medicinal tincture brewed from a variety of plants. Won-ho also visits the clinic once a week to receive acupuncture and lie on a stretching machine, which hangs him, by his legs, upside down on an incline.
Local oriental medicine clinics only began offering such prescriptions recently as height-enhancing treatments. If anything is growing, it’s the number of people seeking out such treatments. The parents of short children hope to bolster their kids’ self-esteem and chances of success, while an increasing number of patients want to grow beyond their natural height, aspiring to become athletes or entertainers.
“Herbs prescribed for height enhancement were discovered long ago, but they weren’t intended to increase height. Later, oriental doctors discovered that some herbs were effective [for height enhancement, which is a] secondary effect,” said Dr. Song Woo-seop at the Jaseng Hospital of Oriental Medicine.
A recent Korean scientific study points to the efficacy of the treatments. Bone mineral density and height increased significantly in 157 prepubescent children studied in 2005 compared to a baseline for their ages, according to a paper by five researchers including Park Ki-won, an oriental medicine doctor at SeoJung Medicine, a private clinic. The children had taken oriental medicine supplements for six months, and their annual growth rate exceeded the average rate.
Comparing the treatment with fertilizing plants, oriental medicine is meant to “maximize physiological development,” said Dr. Song.
Oriental doctors generally believe that one’s height is 30 percent determined by nutrition, 20 percent by exercise, 20 percent by genetics and the rest by one’s environment.
However, there are individual differences: the influence of genetics is more significant when parents are short. If a child’s father is shorter than 164 centimeters and the mother less than 157 centimeters, the power of genetics is much stronger, says Dr. Park, the researcher.
Unlike Western medicines that target specific ailments, oriental medicine is geared toward improving overall health, as well as prevention. In height enhancement therapy, the biggest difference with Western medical treatments is that oriental clinics do not use direct hormone therapy, which has possible negative side effects such as diabetes and thyroid disease.
However, some do prescribe medicines that could induce the secretion of growth hormones or inhibit the secretion of sex hormones, which speed up the end of growth.
Dr. Song also cautions his patients to go easy on pornography, which he says increases the secretion of sex hormones, causing one’s growth to end earlier.
Oriental medicine doctors note that height-enhancing therapies are only effective when growth plates ― thin layers of cartilage located at the end of children’s long bones that regulate long bone development ―?remain open. The plates begin closing at puberty as they mature into hard bones. The plates are fully closed two years after a girl’s first menstruation, or at the age of 14 for girls and 16 for boys on average.
Dr. Park of SeoJung Medicine recommends that girls should have their growth plates X-rayed at age nine, while boys should do so at age 10.
But timing in an individual can vary significantly. Growth plates can close earlier in cases of prematurity, which lowers final expected height. Some girls have their first menstruation when they are seven years old. Prematurity can be caused by obesity, as well as environment.
To underscore the importance of height, Dr. Park recounts a patient who twice failed a physical exam to become a police officer. “Height can be a barrier to achieving one’s dream,” noted Dr. Park, who laments that height should be so important. “There was an old saying, ‘the smaller a pepper is, the hotter it is,’ but it no longer makes sense to children these days.”
Won-ho’s father can vouch that this is true. “Won-ho has been often mistaken for an elementary school pupil and seems to have suffered emotional damage,” said Mr. Kim, adding that it was especially difficult for his son when they were shopping for clothes.
Meanwhile, Korean teens have been getting taller and taller over the years. The average male high school junior was 170.5 cm tall in 1994, but was 172.7 cm tall in 2004.
An increase in height can improve one’s appearance and confidence, but height is not everything, notes Won-ho’s father. Won-ho has many friends in school and is not bullied by other children. “An individual’s position can be maintained through other means such as one’s ability,” Mr. Kim said, who points out that Won-ho is the class president.
Expected Height Formula
* Boy’s height = (Father’s height + mother’s height + 13cm) / 2
* Girl’s height = (Father’s height + mother’s height - 13cm) / 2
by Limb Jae-un