Nutmeg Poisoning: A Deadly Addition to the Kitchen Cabinet?
A low-cost, high-risk drug hiding in plain sight – in your kitchen cabinet! This is a highly aromatic spice that can change the trajectory of your food, and is sometimes used as a healing agent in traditional medicine. It’s nutmeg, a commonly used spice that comes from the nutmeg tree, indigenous to Indonesia, utilized in spiced desserts, eggnog, and even savory meat and vegetable dishes! Unbeknownst to many, this seemingly aromatic enhancer has a dark side - nutmeg contains a substance called myristicin, a narcotic with very unpleasant toxic side effects if taken in large quantities.
The Origins of Nutmeg: Indonesian and Asian Connections
Nutmeg is the dark reddish-brown seed within the fruits of myristica fragrans; the seed is surrounded by a deep red, fleshy, net-like membrane, called mace. The nutmeg tree is native to the tropical Banda Islands in the Maluku region of Indonesia.
Indigenous Asian societies, particularly in the Indian subcontinent, China, and modern-day Southeast Asia, have had access to nutmeg for eons. However, the Europeans only discovered nutmeg later. In Sanskrit texts like the Charaka Samhita, from the 1st century AD, a mention of nutmeg is found in relation to clear and fragrant breath (along with cloves).
In the famous and oldest Hindu scriptures, the Vedas, composed between 1500 and 1000 BC, nutmeg was recommended for better digestion, headache, colds, fevers, bad breath, and neural problems. Later subcontinental texts expanded the medicinal scope of nutmeg to include cardiac problems, asthma, toothache, rheumatism, and even flatulence. Much later, by the 8th century, nutmeg had made its way into popular parlance in Chinese literature for a similar range of medicinal benefits.
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Nutmeg is used in powdered form for cooking and medicinal uses. (pilipphoto / Adobe Stock)
Nutmeg Crosses the Seas: Europe and Arabia
There is a vague mention of macir in 1st century Greek physician Dioscorides’ writings, and even earlier in Pliny’s writings. The first clear references appear in Byzantine medical texts of the 6 th century, which refer to macis or mace as a red bark, a musky nut, and nux muscata.
Sometime in the Middle Ages (5th century onwards), with the development of intricate trading links across the overland Silk Road, nutmeg would become a highly coveted spice in Europe. Not only did various European trading companies make tons of profit by selling nutmeg at several times the purchasing price, nutmeg would become a firm favorite in medieval European cuisine. In its medicinal capacities, medieval texts prescribed nutmeg as a way to end unwanted pregnancies, although there’s no scientific proof to back this.
“The marketplaces of medieval Europe were redolent of the spices that purportedly first arrived with returning Crusaders,” writes Jessica Savage. Soon, spices like nutmeg found their way into medieval cookbooks and medical recipes. It also found its way into drink, becoming an integral part of a medieval wine-based spice concoction called hippocras, which was intended for winter months.
In the Golden Age of Islam, roughly between the 7th and 13th centuries, the Arabian Peninsula would become a central force of learning, knowledge, and culture. A scientific discipline was inculcated into the works of Islamic scholars, who particularly focused on medicine. Many renowned scholars from this period believed that medical illnesses were a result of bodily imbalances, which could be restored through the right diet of herbs and spices – and nutmeg featured very highly as a restorative spice.
As a result, the Arabs really became the first people to heavily use nutmegs (and cloves) in their food preparation. Nutmeg was appreciated for its pungent fragrance, medicinal properties, and enhancement of flavor. In his highly regarded Al-Qanun fi al-Tib (The Canon of Medicine, 1025), Ibn Sina recommended "three-eighths of a dram of nutmeg with a small quantity of quince-juice" for "weakness of the stomach," and he described nutmeg as a potent anesthetic concoction. This was one of many literary works that detailed the wonders of nutmeg.
Nutmeg would graduate from European medicinal cabinets and into cooked food sometime as late as the 14 th century, though it was only the elite who could afford this ‘exotic’ spice. Presumably, the reason for this graduation was the discovery of the maritime trading routes to the east.
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Nutmeg and mace (David Stanley Travel / CC BY 2.0)
Nutmeg: A Deadly Wonder Drug?
Nutmeg has held a staid role in medicine and nutrition for centuries; yet it also has less respectable and potentially deadly uses as well. In 1960, Dr. George Weiss wrote that that the uses of nutmeg were manifold – while it was a flavoring agent and a stimulant to the gastrointestinal tract, it could also be applied externally as a counter-irritant.
At this point, nutmeg was being tested on animals as a possible narcotic substance. Smaller animals, when administered nutmeg oil reported an unsteadiness of gait, dilation of the pupils (which is a condition that occurs with many drugs), and a loss of reflexes. Several case studies of human beings and nutmeg reported similar effects, including two fatalities preceded by heavy drowsiness and stupor.
In the human body, the breakdown of myristicin produces a compound that affects the sympathetic nervous system. This causes the central nervous system to experience hallucinations, dizziness, and nausea, among others, as myristicin enhances the neurotransmitter norepinephrine. Myristicin can have mind-altering effects just like LSD if ingested in large (but not fatal) doses, with a buzz that can last one or two days!
Most reported cases of nutmeg poisoning concern attempts to achieve a euphoric and hallucinogenic state at low cost. Today, nutmeg poisoning is also associated with a dry mouth, facial flushing, nausea, unsteadiness, epigastric pain, urinary retention, and blurred vision, in steadily emerging medical literature.
“People have told me that it feels like you are encased in mud,” said Dr. Edward Boyer, professor of emergency medicine and chief of the division of medical toxicology at the University of Massachusetts Medical School. “You’re not exactly comatose, but you feel really sluggish. And your remembrance of events during this time period is incomplete at best.”
The very first case of nutmeg poisoning was reported in 1576, when 10-12 nutmegs were ingested by a pregnant English woman, who was attempting to induce inebriety. It also found traction within the ‘Hippie Movement’ over the 1960s and 1970s. Over the last 30 years, more and more cases of nutmeg poisoning have been reported in prisoners, college students, and adolescents.
In the seminal book, ‘The Autobiography of Malcolm X’, the activist himself described using nutmeg when he was incarcerated. “A penny matchbox full of nutmeg had the kick of three or four reefers,” he wrote, with a ‘reefer’ referring to a cannabis joint. Clearly, nutmeg, self-administered in small amounts, can have pleasurable and euphoric effects for the user, and function as a cheap alternative to over-the-counter drugs. Emerging medical research can help us unpack the potency of this hidden gem in the kitchen.
Top image: Ground nutmeg, used through history as powerful drug. Source: oksix / Adobe Stock
By Sahir Pandey
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