Are you aware that the aromatic oils that give pine trees their wonderful smell are phenols and that these phenols may be a trigger for anger and meltdowns, anxiety, hyperactivity, irritability insomnia, self-injurious behavior, digestive issues and autistic symptoms (such as stimming, swinging and hand-flapping)? All this can be caused by an indoor Christmas tree in susceptible individuals.
My colleague Julie Matthews writes about this here: Avoiding Holiday Havoc: Healthy solutions to avoid meltdowns and keep the holidays happy
“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 these symptoms and also red cheeks and ears. She shares that “phenolic compounds come in many forms including artificial petroleum-based food additives, and salicylates (a type of phenol) found in plants and foods like strawberries and spices, as well as pine trees.”
In the above blog, Julie shares this story about a client with a 10-year old son with autism. He severely regressed during the holidays and it was because of the Christmas tree. This is what the mom shared:
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.
Once the Christmas tree was removed the improvements were dramatic:
The next day, he was much calmer. He seemed to have “exhaled.” Within 48 hours, our son was completely back to normal.
I shared Julie’s blog on my Facebook page and a father in my community shared a similar experience about his autistic son’s severe reactions to phenols:
Yes! My autistic son who is sensitive to phenols, would completely meltdown during the holidays. We thought it was just the change in routine and his environment, but quite by accident we discovered fragrances seemed to make him worse. We got rid of the fragrances and holiday tree/decor and the improvement in our son was dramatic! We now realize it was the phenols.
My son’s reaction to phenols/fragrances are bright red cheeks/ears, dark under eye circles, headaches, inappropriate manic laughter, aggression/self injurious behavior, marathon meltdowns/screaming, incontinence, insomnia/less than 3 hrs sleep a night, bumpy rashes, GI issues/diarrhea, excessive sensory stimming (hand flapping, lip licking, running around and body slamming into things.) During the holidays, the intensity of these reactions shot through the roof.
They found out by chance that it was the Christmas tree that was causing his son’s issues each year. It started when he was a toddler and they figured it was the stress and changes of the holidays that was the issue. One year they didn’t put up a tree and they could not believe the difference. It was then they made the connection and learned more about phenols and made the necessary changes.
By reducing phenols in his diet and environment, and giving him Epsom Salt baths and enzymes (No-Fenol), most of the above symptoms were significantly reduced.
I suspect there are many families who are seeing similar meltdowns and have no idea it could be the Christmas tree. Keep in mind that the reactions may not be as severe as these two cases I’ve shared here. If you are seeing any increase in anxiety, irritability, sleep problems, digestive issues or other unusual behavior changes in your child, keep an open mind that it may be more than just the holiday changes.
Julie’s advice is this:
- Since so many children with autism and ADHD react to salicylates/phenols – in her nutrition practice she finds an overwhelming majority react negatively – she suggests a cautious approach to holiday decorating for all families of a child with autism or ADHD. Simply avoid the pine Christmas tree.
- If you are unsure about their sensitivity to salicylates/phenols 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.
I encourage you to read Julie’s blog to gain a better understanding of salicylates and phenols. If you are a practitioner and want to learn more about low salicylates/phenols and other special diets her practitioner training is excellent.
I appreciate this mom and dad for sharing their experiences with their sons so we can all learn and help other families. I also so appreciate Julie’s expertise in this area and really look forward to digging further into the research and picking her brain so I can share more.
Could your holiday anxiety and/or insomnia be phenol issues too?
Julie works with children with autism and ADHD but as someone who works primarily with adults with anxiety, I’m going to be exploring sensitivity to salicylates/phenols further. Julie recently shared this with me: “if you start looking you’ll probably see a lot of your clients with anxiety have phenol issues.”
If you also notice any increase in anxiety, anger, irritability, sleep problems, digestive issues or other unusual behavior changes, keep an open mind that it may be more than just the holiday stress or winter blues/winter anxiety. It may well be phenol issues too.
Serotonin connection to phenol issues
I’ll be blogging more about this and the fascinating serotonin connection to phenol issues. You may have noticed that many of the symptoms these 2 boys experienced sound a lot like either low serotonin or high serotonin (both of which can occur in autism). Serotonin is an endogenous phenol compound and this phenol issue is likely causing high serotonin.
When I asked Julie about this she shared this with me: “Yes, serotonin and dopamine are phenolic. And sulfation is important for the inactivation of dopamine and serotonin. So poor sulfation can lead to neurotransmitter imbalances.”
Using collagen to lower high serotonin?
I’ve blogged about how collagen can lower serotonin in susceptible folks and increase anxiety. It is also used by some folks to lower their high serotonin and make them calm. Misty reports using collagen ‘therapeutically’:
I use it to reduce tryptophan because I have a tendency toward high serotonin. I have suffered my entire life with ADD, tics as a child, grinding teeth, general anxiety, lack of motivation and later, IBS. In my 53 years I’ve never been as calm as I am now.
I don’t know if Misty has a phenol issue but I’m going to be exploring if collagen or gelatin could possibly be used to help lower the high serotonin and ease some of these severe phenol reactions quickly, in conjunction with other approaches like avoiding the foods and environmental exposures, enzymes and other nutrients, and Epsom salt baths.
Christmas tree syndrome, mold issues and toxic plastic trees
I hate to spoil the Christmas fun but here are a few other things to consider:
- Christmas tree syndrome is also a real issue for many individuals
- My friend and Enviornmental Toxins expert Lara Adler shares how mold from a real tree made her and her cat really sick “Within a few days of getting the tree, I broke out in a full-body rash that required a 10-day run of prednisone. I didn’t think it was the tree at first (it could have been something else), but then my cat, who was already dealing with GI inflammation and a gut issue developed asthma! Out of nowhere! She also ended up on prednisone. I got rid of the tree and both our symptoms never came back.”
- She also shares some issues with plastic trees: they are often made from toxic PVC (polyvinyl chloride) with “softeners like lead and/or phthalates”, and often treated with endocrine-disrupting flame retardant chemicals. More about this on Lara’s blog here.
Have you observed a salicylate/phenol reaction with your child or client/patient? What about a less severe reaction with your child or with you personally?
Have the following helped you: avoiding the foods and environmental exposures like a Christmas tree, using enzymes like No-Fenol and other nutrients, and Epsom salt baths? In the midst of a very severe reaction has collagen or gelatin helped reduce symptoms quickly?
What about mold issues or allergies with a Christmas tree?
Feel free to post your questions here on the blog too.