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! Julie

Julie Matthews is a Certified Nutrition Consultant who received her master’s degree in medical nutrition with distinction from Arizona State University. She is also a published nutrition researcher and has specialized in complex neurological conditions, particularly autism spectrum disorders and ADHD for over 20 years. Julie is the award winning author of Nourishing Hope for Autism, co-author of a study proving the efficacy of nutrition and dietary intervention for autism published in the peer-reviewed journal, Nutrients, and also the founder of Download her free guide, 12 Nutrition Steps to Better Health, Learning, and Behavior.

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  1. I have a artificial Christmas tree for about 3 years, should I still be concern about lead exposure? This is very disturbing! I never considered that, i always avoided real trees due to pesticides not knowing I may be exposing him to something even worse!

  2. It is reassuring to find out that others can be as sensitive as your own. We also found that the fresh Christmas tree was a problem for my daughter, and yes, she was sensitive to salicylates. It has been many years now, and she tolerates an older tree, we get ours on Christmas Eve and the smell is very faint by then.

    • That’s an interesting idea, an older tree. Thanks Margaret.

  3. I had never even considered the possibility of being allergic to a Christmas tree. Thanks so much for sharing I’m going to pass this on to my fellow moms, several of whom have children with allergies!

  4. IMPORTANT: the lights are coated with lead powder and can cause children to inhale and touch it. The lead will cause increased heavy metal exposure with symptoms of aggression, brain damage, and poor regulation.

    • Are all Christmas lights coated with lead powder? Big and small, indoor and outdoor?

  5. HI,
    I can relate to the christmas tree story. My child had severe tics, both vocal and motor. Once we made the connection to his neurological allergie to animals, all chemicals, food and clothes, along with his diet from julie matthews, supplements b3 flush free and b12 in large doses kevin lost all his severe tics. No one would believe he used to have such a tic disorder he is doing great. This year I tried a pet turtle, He developed a eye tic every second, I got rid of the bedding for the turtle just used clothes, still the tic would not leave. I could not believe a turtle could create this in him. after two days of the turtle being removed from the home and alot of cleaning kevin never had that eye tic again. mom of a child in recovery from autism and severe tic disorder linda colleran

  6. I’m Stéphanie from the article. I’m so happy that despite the tough times, someone else’s child may be helped by this information. Before I started working with Julie, my son, Tristan’s diet was gfcf, SCD and mostly organic, yet he had meltdowns three times a day, seven days a week, year round. When I started to work with Julie, I hoped to find some relief for Tristan but I honestly did not expect these kinds of results so quickly. Once Julie helped me remove salicylates from his diet and his environment, Tristan improved immediately. I never knew just how much salicylates were a problem for him. But then the Holidays arrived and I lost him. He regressed severely. I remember pacing in the living room (next to the tree) and asking myself intensely “What’s happening to him?” I think that because his environment had been cleaned up of salicylates, his reaction was more intense once a sudden, high amount was reintroduced. We had the tree for about 4 weeks, and Tristan was a mess the entire time. I was especially impressed with his almost immediate improvement once I removed the tree. His demeanor spoke volumes about how relieved he must have felt. This year is a different story. He’s doing very well. He’s sharp, alert and happy.

    Happy Holidays everyone! Joyeuses Fêtes!

  7. We love our battery operated unscented candles.

  8. Wow, I just purchased a pre-lit artificial Christamas tree. After reading this , happy I did. I was surprised when I read about the strawberries. My son just had blood work done and I was told that he has food sensitivity to apples, bananas, and grapes. Many nights he eats a spinach salad with fresh strawberries ( organic of course). I am going to pay close attention to see if his stimming increases.
    Thanks for this information:)

    • I hope your artificial tree was made in USA — those from outside the country often have lead in them. Be careful!

    • Very interesting Kathy. You might enjoy the Salicylates and Summertime post that I referenced on this post. Spinach is high in salicylates, but it is very high in oxalates. Two studies on oxalates showed that the extremely high level of oxalate in spinach renders the calcium (and likely other minerals) unavailable and not absorbable. You might consider kale salad (with lacinato/dino kale) instead.

      Speirs, Mary. “The utilization of the calcium in various greens.” The Journal of Nutrition 17.6 (1939): 557-564.
      Peterson, Catherine A., J. A. Eurell, and J. W. Erdman Jr. “Bone composition and histology of young growing rats fed diets of varied calcium bioavailability: spinach, nonfat dry milk, or calcium carbonate added to casein.” The Journal of nutrition 122.1 (1992): 137.

  9. I would think that the insecticides that are sprayed on trees would be an issue as well. After talking with several farms, this did not include any organic tree farms, and Whole Foods this season it seems all use some kind of insecticide. One company stated the amount over the lifetime of the tree is 1/4 cup and they stop spraying in September before Christmas tree cutting season begins. A variety or insecticides are being used from the farms I spoke with. Some used a form of “Round Up”, while others actually used it, some spraying more often the. Others. I would think most would use fertilizers and weed killers as well but my investigation was strictly about insecticides. The question was asked of a real tree could just be hosed off in hopes of removing this and it was confirmed that insectides are not removable via water. Great read Julie!

    • Great points Linda! For those that don’t chop down their own “wild” tree, additional things sprayed on the tree could affect people as well, either causing or compounding the reactions: pesticides, flame retardants, artificial “snow,” etc. More good reasons to avoid a Christmas tree. Thanks for sharing your research.

  10. I never thought of this, and since we never had a Christmas tree it wasn’t an issue in our home. I’m sure this is true for lots of kids, however, and your suggested substitutions sound lovely.

    It’s important to remember, however, that holidays can be a terrible time for our population for other reasons too. All the things that make holiday season exciting for typical kids, can be very upsetting for ASD children (and adults). Suddenly schedules are thrown off with the break from school and therapies, well-meaning but (often) clueless relatives appear out of nowhere (or so it could seem to an ASD child), and in short EVERYTHING CHANGES. Since change is hard for many of our kids, many strategies are needed to get through the holidays. Sadly, what most parents remember fondly as a joyous time from their childhoods, can be a difficult and unpleasant one for their kids.

    So while the tree or other decorations may indeed be problematic, there are lots of reasons why this usually happy time of year is sometimes decidedly less so for ASD families. LL

  11. thanks 4 the advance.

  12. Very interesting article, thanks! Wondering if the reaction could be due to pesticides on these trees? Christmas trees are often heavily sprayed with Roundup. Also, I once came across an article (can’t seem to find it now) that mentioned sometimes trees are sprayed with an oil that enhances the pine smell. Perhaps there is something in this that could also be the source of behavior change.

    Would encourage everyone to consider buying an organic Christmas trees when possible – a great option more widely available these days (even in NYC!)

    • What an interesting article. WOW. Too late, I have my tree. I agree with Karolyn, that I am way more concerned about PESTICIDES, and more likely FLAME RETARDANTS in Xmas trees. We buy ours from a nursery that is the only one in town offering no-flame-retardant trees (they can spray with a non-toxic one for schools). But even the ones at Whole Foods are treated. Always ask!

      Thanks, Julie, for the article, and I will be watching my son (who did melt down lat night!).

      • Let’s us know Scarlett. You’ll have a great “test” since your tree is free of the toxic sprays.

    • “Roundup” is a herbicide: it kills any green plant. If the tree has been sprayed it will be yellow or brown and dry or wilted.


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