Whether sprinkled atop holiday eggnog, or folded into a classic bechamél or curry dish, nutmeg adds a slightly sweet and nutty flavor to a variety of dishes and cuisines. Chemical components contained in this seemingly harmless spice can deliver some harsh side effects.
Know the Medicinal Spice
This unassuming brown spice comes with a long history of medicinal use, according to Mosby's Handbook of Herbs and Natural Supplements. Native to the West Indies and Sri Lanka, the nutmeg we use as flavoring was traditionally used to treat a variety of ailments.
Conditions such as toothache, joint pain, anxiety, depression, chronic diarrhea and other gastric disorders have been targeted for treatment with nutmeg. Its antiemetic properties make it useful in helping motion sickness and nausea after general anesthesia and medical treatments. The nut also saw use in reproductive tract conditions and as an aphrodisiac, menstrual flow stimulator and abortifacient.
Nutmeg's antimicrobial components include malabaricones B and C, β-pinene and chloroform according to Mosby's Handbook and Science Direct. These elements proved effective against both gram-positive and gram-negative bacteria, including E. coli, according to a 2017 review of studies published in Pharmacognosy.
The review also found eating nutmeg to have antifungal and anticarcinogenic properties. Lignans and other chemopreventive agents in the seed proved effective against leukemia, colon and lung cancer cells.
Beware of Toxic Effects
Unfortunately, making liberal use of this medicinal spice can do you more harm than good, and even kill you. Consumed in large amounts, nutmeg produces a hallucinogenic effect, making it tempting for use by teenagers looking for a cheap and easy high.
Myristicin and elemicin are the two primary elements responsible for the seeds' psychologic and physiologic effects, according to the Tennessee Poison Center. A dose of two to three tablespoons produces the outcome; however, taking that much is pretty unpalatable, making getting high on nutmeg a relatively rare occurrence.
Although Tennessee Poison Center reports that a feeling of euphoria is one of the potential nutmeg side effects, there are many less-pleasant results that go along with over-ingesting the spice. Dizziness, headaches, dry mouth, painful skin flushing, high blood pressure and heart arrhythmia are all reported physical nutmeg side effects.
Psychological effects can also include visual hallucinations, hostile behavior, anxiety, psychotic episodes and dissociation. Drowsiness and small pupils are also common. In extreme cases, says Pharmacognosy, seizures, death and spontaneous abortion can occur.
How Much is Too Much
Sprinkling a little nutmeg atop your eggnog is unlikely to cause an adverse reaction unless you have a hypersensitivity to the spice, according to Pharmacognosy. Therapeutic doses for adults are sometimes prescribed using capsules or essential oil. For gastrointestinal issues, two pills as a one-time dose is considered a safe amount, for those who don't have a sensitivity to the spice. Four to five drops of the essential oil ingested on a sugar cube is another common way your naturopathic MD might have you ingest the spice.
Read more: Side Effects of Brazil Nuts
Nutmeg can also interact with other medications and foods, according to Herbs and Natural Supplements. Don't use nutmeg when you're taking anti-diarrhea medicine, or you could wind up with severe constipation. Psychotropic medications and MAOIs (monoamine oxidase inhibitors) are two other things you shouldn't mix with nutmeg. Check ingredients for nutmeg in surprising places, such as nutmeg in tea, if you're concerned about ingesting it.
Finally, avoid herbs containing safrole, such as sassafrass, anise, cinnamon and black pepper. A precursor to the drug Ecstacy, this chemical is also used as a flavoring in root beer, toothpaste, gum and some pharmaceuticals. Mixing the substance with nutmeg — which also contains safrole — can intensify the unpleasant hallucinogenic and cardiac effects, according to the U.S. National Library of Medicine's PubChem database.