Nutmeg is at once both nostalgic and mysterious, an essential oil that evokes the aroma of a fall afternoon, all crisp air and color-drenched leaves crunching underfoot, but also one that contains a substance that could classify it as a potential hallucinogenic.
While nutmeg is often associated with seasonal baking because it pairs well with similar warm spices including cinnamon and cloves, it is in fact a native of the Indonesian Banda Islands of the Moluccas, a tropical locale nicknamed Spice Islands because the region is home to myriad spices, not only nutmeg but also mace (the red, lacy outer covering of nutmeg) and clove.
Fun Facts About
For all its sweet charm, nutmeg brings with it a hint of allure because it contains myristicin, a compound that has been linked to several different psychedelic drugs by experts including Alexander Weil, Albert Hofmann (the first scientist to synthesize and ingest LSD) and Alexander Shulgin, author of the book “PiKHAL: A Chemical Love Story.”
And while there are anecdotal stories of people becoming intoxicated from ingesting it, the hallucinogenic properties in nutmeg are usually mild enough to offer welcome sedation instead, one of many health benefits that this autumn favorite has to offer.
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During the spice trade, nutmeg was so prized that the Dutch started a war in an attempt to control the heady, complex spice.
The History of Nutmeg
Nutmeg is derived from the myristica fragrans, an evergreen better known as fragrant nutmeg or true nutmeg. The tree produces a sweet fruit, but nutmeg, nutmeg oil, and nutmeg butter are derived from the seed of the ripe fruit, while mace, a nutmeg cousin, is obtained from the bright red, web-like wrapping surrounding the seed.
European settlers traveled the globe in search of spices like nutmeg due to the health benefits of the nutmeg oil, which has been used not only as part of Eastern medicine (both Indian and Chinese medicines included nutmeg oil), but also for ancient rituals including Egyptian embalming practices.1
The nutmeg tree can grow as tall as 70 feet, and it can take up to two decades before a young tree reaches full production of fruit. Nutmeg oil is steam distilled from the dried seeds of the tree’s fruit, which is eaten fresh or in chutneys in the regions where it grows.
A staple in Ayurvedic medicine, especially for respiratory problems, fevers, headaches, and digestive woes, nutmeg fetched high prices during the spice trade of the Middle Ages, when the location of nutmeg was a closely-guarded secret.
In Europe nutmeg was thought to be curative for the plague – a bacterial disease also known as the Black Death that took the lives of millions – which allowed traders to play on people’s fears and charge exorbitant prices for the highly prized essential oil.
Nutmeg spent time as the most popular spice in Europe because of its health benefits as well as its ability to flavor foods and mask the scent of rotting meat, an odor that was common before refrigeration allowed meat to stay fresher longer.
The Dutch had for a time held a nutmeg monopoly that allowed them to become a major player in the spice trade despite being a small nation, and in the 17th century, that country went to war in order to protect their interests in the islands where nutmeg grows.
During the so-called nutmeg war, the Dutch took over several of the Banda Islands, executing most of the villagers in order to gain control of the prized spice and strictly controlled the cultivation of nutmeg, ensuring the value of future crops.
The war ended with a trade to the British – the single island in the Moluccas Islands the British occupied for the island of Manhattan – and eventual bankruptcy of the spice company that sparked the brutal skirmish, an outcome that ended the Dutch monopoly on nutmeg.2
Nutmeg oil is used today as an additive in natural dental products and soaps, skin care products, analgesic ointments and diluted as a tea. It is also suitable as aromatherapy and can be used with carrier oils or in candles.
Nutmeg is also used around the world in food. In the United States, nutmeg – one of the main spices in the ubiquitous pumpkin pie spice – is found in sweet treats as well as savory options such as Swedish meatballs and some soups.
Nutmeg is also common in spicy Indonesian dishes, in European meat and potato dishes (nutmeg is a staple of the Scottish dish haggis) and in Indian dishes, where it is often part of the spice blend garam masala.
Nutmeg oil is rich in compounds with a range of health benefits, making it a smart addition to any essential oil collection.
In addition to a range of phytochemicals, terpenoids, terpenes, and other beneficial plant compounds, nutmeg oil offers antioxidants that can help fight free radical activity, including oxidative stress that can result in signs of aging.
While terroir impacts nutmeg oil, which is made from nutmeg harvested not only from the Moluccas Islands but also other parts of Southeast Asia as well as Grenada and the Caribbean, testing has shown that the properties between nutmegs are generally similar.
Some of the chemical compounds found in nutmeg oil include:
- Sabinene. This terpenoid helps fight free radicals that can damage healthy cells. It also helps support healthy inflammation while acting as an anti-microbial and antifungal.
- Alpha-pinene. Alpha-pinene is a terpene that may inhibit the activity of an enzyme that targets the neurotransmitters that send messages from the brain to the rest of the body, giving it the potential power to protect brain functions including memory. Interaction with the same neurotransmitters that are affected by anti-anxiety drugs makes alpha-pinene a compound that may offer similar stress relief as that offered by benzodiazepines.
- Myrcene. A monoterpene, myrcene is believed to help ease anxiety. It is effective because it has molecules small enough to cross the blood-brain barrier, so it can interact with neurotransmitters linked to feelings of stress.
- Beta-pinene. Another monoterpene, beta-pinene is believed to help boost a blue mood, reduce the presence of toxins and potentially slow the growth of cancer cells.3
- Limonene. This terpene has been studied as an anti-inflammatory, a compound to prevent or treat cancer and an antibacterial that helps speed wound healing.
- Safrole. Used in the production of the hallucinogenic drug MMDA – better known as ecstasy – safrole is believed to play a role in easing the pain, regulating mood, and enhancing libido.
- D-borneol. Commonly used in Eastern medicine, borneol helps enhance the therapeutic effects of other compounds and also acts as an antibacterial, an anti-inflammatory and a pain reliever.
- Geraniol. A monoterpene, geraniol not only acts as an antioxidant but is also an effective antibacterial.
- Myristicin. A phenylpropene, myristicin is found not only in nutmeg but also in parsley and dill. According to some experts, myristicin can be metabolized into the psychedelic drug MDMA, an amphetamine with hallucinogenic properties that has been considered as a potential tool for psychotherapy.
- Elemicin. Elemicin is also a phenylpropene and is believed to contribute to the potential hallucinogenic properties associated with nutmeg oil.4
Nutmeg is also a source of minerals including manganese, calcium, iron, magnesium, potassium, copper, selenium, zinc and phosphorus, omega-6 fatty acids and vitamins including A, B6, C, thiamin, niacin, folate, and riboflavin.
With so many different natural elements, nutmeg oil is an essential oil powerhouse.
There are many reasons why nutmeg oil played such a pivotal role in both Ayurvedic as well as ancient Chinese medicines and is used as a homeopathic remedy today.5
The volatile oil is versatile and powerful and has been used to treat digestive woes including indigestion, gas and bloating, nausea and constipation, the pain associated with forms of arthritis, toothaches and gum problems, anxiety and feelings of depression and excess fatigue.
Uses for Nutmeg Essential Oil
Myristicin and elemicin, the same properties in nutmeg oil that make it a potential hallucinogenic, may also help boost a blue mood and keep feelings of anxiety at bay. Researchers believe that the compounds may increase the activity of the neurotransmitters serotonin and dopamine, lifting stress and anxiety.6
Compounds in nutmeg oil including safrole and d-borneol give the essential oil the potential power to relieve pain. It can be mixed with a carrier oil or butter and rubbed into sore muscles after exercise. It can also be massaged into the temples to help erase headache pain. Nutmeg oil is used in Chinese medicine to ease joint swelling associated with exertion or rheumatoid arthritis, making it an effective way to keep inflammation in check.7
Nutmeg oil offers properties that act as a sedative, calming and soothing the mind while relieving stress, which can improve sleep while making the dreams that come during those hours of rest more vibrant and detailed, a gift from the myristicin and elemicin in the volatile oil.8
Maintains Healthy Blood Sugar
Research has suggested that properties in nutmeg may help improve the body’s response to insulin, leading to lower blood glucose levels. Insulin is responsible for sending messages to the cells of the body to take in blood glucose, which is used as energy.
If glucose levels are often high, however, the body can develop insulin resistance, making it more difficult for cells to respond to the presence of glucose in the blood. Nutmeg, however, may trigger a response from the protein tasked with transporting glucose from the blood through cell walls, so less remains in the blood.
Improves Concentration and Memory
Nutmeg oil can stimulate brain activity, lifting away exhaustion while improving concentration and memory. For best results, use nutmeg oil in a diffuser.
Maintains Health Blood Circulation
Nutmeg oil not only stimulates the mind, it also encourages better blood flow throughout the body, making it an excellent oil for those at risk of neuropathy, arteriosclerosis or other circulation-related health problems.
Because of the safrole found in nutmeg oil, it may have benefits as an aphrodisiac.
Maintains Healthy Respiratory Function
Symptoms of colds or allergies may be treated with nutmeg oil, which is commonly found in not only herbal cough medicines but also cold rubs. Nutmeg oil may help relieve congestion and open bronchial airways for improved breathing.
Improves the Appearance of Skin
The antioxidants in nutmeg oil make it an effective way to elevate your skincare routine. Because antioxidants target free radicals, which are especially attracted to the proteins collagen and elastin, which make up the structural layer of skin, nutmeg oil can help fight the fine lines and wrinkles associated with aging.
Nutmeg oil is believed to help act as a detoxifying agent, cleansing the kidney and liver of unwelcome toxins while helping to dissolve kidney stones.
Banishes Bad Breath
The detoxifying agents in nutmeg oil can prevent bad breath. To use, mix a few drops of oil with lukewarm water and gargle with the mixture.
Before using nutmeg oil topically, it should be mixed with a carrier oil including olive oil, coconut oil, almond oil or grapeseed oil. It should also be used sparingly when taken internally, and should not be used by children under 6, pregnant women or those with epilepsy.8