Is Your Christmas Tree Causing Meltdowns? Healthy Solutions to Keep the Holidays Happy


Christmas trees are varieties of pine trees and as such, they contain terpenes which are highly aromatic compounds that determine the smell of some plants and herbs. Common “scents” that also contain terpenes include rosemary and lavender.

Manufacturers use isolated terpenes to create the flavors and scents of many everyday products, such as perfumes, body products, cleaners, and even foods. In fact, pine-scented cleaners are often derived from 95% terpenes. And for this family, the aromatic oils that give pine trees their great smell were the cause of their child’s behavior, mood, and sleeping issues.

Another compound that can cause issues and that are in some strong smelling oils are phenols. Phenolic compounds come in many forms including artificial petroleum-based food additives, and salicylates found in plants and foods like strawberries and spices, as well as some essential oils such as cinnamon, clove, thyme, and oregano. In the winter, many people (including me!) diffuse these essential oils and blends and/or use soaps that include clove and cinnamon. Or some people simmer water on the stove with cinnamon sticks and clove buds to scent their homes. And to complicate things even more, some varieties of pine trees can also have phenols in addition to terpenes! This time of year can be one in which we are exposed to much higher amounts of phenols.

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. Terpenes are also processed in a similar biochemical way, further depleting this detoxification pathway and the corresponding nutrients.

If you know your child is sensitive to salicylates, terpenes, or phenols (see my salicylate article), you’ll likely want to avoid a traditional Christmas tree and artificially scented products.  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 when consuming or being exposed to too many), I’d suggest a cautious approach to holiday decorating for all families of a child with autism or ADHD. I’ll share some ideas below.

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