Holiday Meltdowns – Could it be your Christmas Tree?

Crying little boy with gift boxesNow, don’t get me wrong, I have nothing against Christmas or Christmas trees.  But the pine tree, might be a problem.

Before you run out and buy a fresh, new Christmas tree or holiday wreath, you’ll want to read my client’s experience at Christmas last year, when her son severely regressed.

During this lovely holiday season, her son (and therefore the whole family) was miserable for several weeks.  After removing the Christmas tree, the improvements were dramatic.

Here’s what happened – from my client Stephanie in Montreal, about her 10 year old son with autism, in her own words:

“During the Holidays our son regressed severely.  He became anxious, aggressive, and self-abusive.  He cried and had tantrums regularly throughout the day. He couldn’t sleep anymore and was up for hours at a time, night after night. He was hand-flapping like crazy.  We have a swing in the house for him and he now wanted to swing all day long, constantly, and do nothing else.  He lost eye contact and he stopped responding to his name.

I had made a few minor changes to both his diet and his supplement regimen.  When I spoke with Julie Matthews at our nutrition appointment, I explained what was going on and she agreed that these minor changes couldn’t possibly be causing this kind of setback.  Julie started asking me questions and going down “the list” of possible culprits.  Finally she asked me about our environment.  Did we change anything?  Buy anything new?

I said no but I casually mentioned the Christmas tree, not thinking for a second that it was even relevant.  “Christmas tree?  Do you guys have a real tree?” Julie asked.  Almost immediately, I realized that the timing of our son’s behaviours coincided with the arrival of the Christmas tree and that there was a real possibility that this could be the cause.

The decorations came off and the tree was put out that same night.  I didn’t tell anyone at home about our discussion.  I wanted to see if they would comment on my son’s behavior after the tree was gone.   The next day, he was much calmer.  He seemed to have “exhaled.”  Within 48 hours, our son was completely back to normal.  His improvement was blatantly obvious. And, everyone commented on it.”

This experience of my client and her son with the Christmas tree were dramatic.  The Christmas tree, more specifically the aromatic oils, the phenols, were very likely the cause of his behavior, mood, and sleeping issues.

Pine trees contain strong smelling oils – these aromatic oils are phenols.  Phenolic compounds come in many forms including artificial petroleum-based food additives, and salicylates found in plant and foods like strawberries and spices, as well pine trees.

When phenols are not able to be broken-down and detoxified (by a process called sulfation, which is low in many children with autism and ADHD), they can cause many symptoms including irritability, red cheeks and ears, hyperactivity, aggression toward self and others, “stimming,” sleeping challenges and many more.

If you know your child is sensitive to salicylates or other phenols (see our salicylate post from the summer), you’ll likely want to avoid the tree.  If you are unsure about their sensitivity to salicylates: you might ask yourself if your child is often hyper, irritable, or has red cheeks, and other common salicylate symptoms, or whether they crave salicylate-rich foods such as berries, grapes, apples, and ketchup.  If so, explore salicylates further.

In fact, since so many children with autism and ADHD react to salicylates (in my nutrition practice I find an overwhelming majority react negatively), I’d suggest a cautious approach to holiday decorating for all families of a child with autism, ADHD, and related symptoms: Simply avoid the pine Christmas tree.

Just because you avoid a fresh pine tree, does not mean you need to miss out on any holiday cheer or decorations.  Browse Pinterest or your search engine for “Christmas tree alternatives” and you will find many wonderful ideas: Using dropped and dried tree branches or other wood to build a “tree” to hang ornaments and decorate. It can be a fun new holiday project to design a creative tree.  Try a wreath made of dried hydrangea flowers or other materials; however, be careful and avoid dried herbs and plants with a strong smell – they are also very high in phenols.  There are also many other ways to make your home festive for the holidays too: candles (unscented) or lights, wrapped gifts, ornaments, or stockings.

Happy holidays to all!



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