We’re just nuts for nutmeg. And, really, why shouldn’t we be? For not only is this beloved holiday spice equally at home in desserts and savory dishes, but it can also boost your health. So read on to discover why you should be nuts for nutmeg too!
Nutmeg: A Brief History
A member of the family Myristicaceae, nutmeg is the product of the seed of a yellowish green drupe that resembles an apricot. The fruit grows on a tropical evergreen tree called Myristica fragrans, or the nutmeg tree, which is native to the Moluccas in Indonesia.
During the Middle Ages, the Moluccas, whose Indonesian name is Maluku, were the only source of a number of prized spices. Because of their importance to the European spice trade, they became known as the Spice Islands and were at the center of decades of conflict until being taken over by the Dutch, who maintained control until 1949.
However, the history of nutmeg stretches far beyond the Middle Ages. In fact, the spice has been in use for at least 3,000 years, valued first by the islanders and then later by ancient Rome. Even today nutmeg remains an important component of both Ayurveda and traditional Chinese medicine and is traditionally used to calm the mind and treat gastrointestinal disorders, joint pain, skin wounds, parasites, and infections.
Interestingly, the nutmeg tree is the source of two well-known spices: nutmeg, which is produced using the seed itself, and mace, which is produced using the seed covering, or aril. While the two spices share a similar flavor, nutmeg is the bolder of the two.
Nutmeg can be purchased as either the ground spice or as whole nutmeg seeds, which can be ground as needed using a spice grater. In addition, ground nutmeg can be distilled to produce a potent essential oil, which is used by the cosmetic and pharmaceutical industries as well as by individual consumers for culinary uses and aromatherapy.
Nutmeg seeds can also be expressed to produce nutmeg butter, which is often used by the cosmetic industry as a component of lotions, creams, and hair conditioners.
Health Benefits of Nutmeg
Considering the small quantities of nutmeg that are used for cooking and baking, this fragrant spice contains a rich supply of several vitamins and minerals, including vitamin B6, thiamine, folate, potassium, magnesium, copper, and manganese.
But when it comes to health benefits, nutmeg is best known for its powerful phytochemicals, including pinene, limonene, sabinene, safrole, and myristicin, which contribute to nutmeg’s documented antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, antimicrobial, and anti-cancer properties as well as its potentially profound effects on the central nervous system.
Let’s now take a closer look at some of the many health benefits of nutmeg.
An intriguing study in the Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry found that the myristicin in nutmeg oil possessed “extraordinarily potent hepatoprotective activity.” Similarly, a study published in the Journal of Ayurveda and Integrative Medicine found that an aqueous extract of nutmeg was effective in protecting against both oxidative stress and liver injury. These findings were also confirmed in a study published in the Journal of Proteome Research.
According to multiple studies, nutmeg has a stimulating effect on the brain and can reduce stress and anxiety, improve memory, slow cognitive decline, and help brain tissue recover from the effects of a stroke.
What’s more, nutmeg oil has been found to have a significant anticonvulsant effect, and a study in the journal Phytotherapy Research even suggested that nutmeg oil may have potential as a treatment for grand mal and partial seizures.
Nutmeg has also demonstrated the ability to ease symptoms of depression—a finding many experts have attributed to nutmeg’s possible role in inhibiting the enzyme monoamine oxidase, which in turn leads to increased levels of serotonin in the brain. A study in the Avicenna Journal of Phytomedicine also found that an extract of nutmeg was as effective as imipramine in reducing depressive symptoms in male rats.
Nutmeg has traditionally been used as an antidiarrheal—a use that’s been backed up by multiple studies. For example, a study in the journal Methods and Findings in Experimental and Clinical Pharmacology found that nutmeg was effective in increasing intestinal tone and relieving symptoms of diarrhea and even exhibited a strong sedative effect.
Numerous studies have also backed up nutmeg’s traditional use as a pain reliever. For instance, a rodent study published in the journal Food & Nutrition Research found that nutmeg oil was effective in reducing joint pain and swelling by inhibiting both COX-2 (an enzyme related to inflammation) and substance P (a neuropeptide involved in the pain response).
Nutmeg has traditionally been used as a natural treatment for male sexual disorders, and a study published in the journal BMC Complementary and Alternative Medicine found evidence to support this. Researchers found that an extract of nutmeg produced a “significant and sustained” increase in sexual activity among male rats, without any noted side effects.
Ayurvedic medicine recommends the use of warm milk sprinkled with nutmeg as a natural sleep aid—a use that’s validated by multiple studies that have demonstrated nutmeg’s analgesic, antidepressant, and sedative properties. And when you take into account the fact that nutmeg has the potential to raise brain levels of serotonin by blocking monoamine oxidase, this traditional Ayurvedic nightcap really could be just the thing to bring on those pleasant dreams.
Potential Side Effects of Nutmeg
With all of nutmeg’s documented health benefits, it may be hard to believe that this warming spice also has a dark side. But when you consider that drinking too much water can kill you, it shouldn’t come as a real surprise that something as powerful as nutmeg can harm you if you overdo it. In fact, it’s long been known that ingesting large amounts of the spice can cause nutmeg poisoning.
Nutmeg has a history of being used as both an abortifacient and a narcotic at least as far back as the Middle Ages. The spice has also been used in the modern era as a readily available hallucinogen. Malcolm X even mentioned its hallucinogenic effects in his autobiographical description of his incarceration.
However, for all of nutmeg’s desired psychoactive effects, including hallucinations, giddiness, and feelings of depersonalization, which have been compared to those seen with heroin, people who consume large doses of the spice are just as likely to experience unwanted side effects, such as dry mouth, vomiting, extreme drowsiness or agitation, dizziness, memory lapses, and a sense of impending doom—effects that are thought to be related to the phytochemicals myristicin, safrole, and elemicin.
In extreme cases, the psychological side effects of nutmeg poisoning have been known to continue for months, and there have even been (exceedingly rare) cases of death. However, most people recover from nutmeg poisoning within 24 hours, and those who intentionally overdose on the spice tend to find the side effects not worth whatever psychedelic experience they might have had.
If all this makes you a little wary of that next cup of eggnog or slice of pumpkin pie, relax. Because to overdo it with nutmeg, you’d have to ingest a lot more than you get in your typical recipe. In fact, experts state you’d have to eat one to three whole nutmeg seeds or 1 to 3-1/2 teaspoons in one sitting to poison yourself with nutmeg.
However, people who use nutmeg essential oil for aromatherapy may also inadvertently poison themselves if they breathe the oil for too long or use too much in an oil blend, so it’s wise to keep that in mind when working with the oil.
Spice Up Your Life with Nutmeg
The next time you’re tempted to try out that new nutmeg recipe, don’t hold back. Whether it’s savory dishes like Indian curry, spinach quiche, or potato gnocchi or sweeter fare like apple pie, French toast, or custard, this classic fall spice makes everything taste better.
And, as we’ve seen, unless you get carried away and use an insane amount, nutmeg’s really good for you too. So go nuts for nutmeg. We know we are!