Nutmeg is a rich and fragrant spice that can crank up the flavor of just about any dish or dessert. Not only is this spectacular spice versatile and delicious like other healing herbs and spices, but it has also been well-studied for its impressive benefits, including its effects on brain and heart health, digestion, inflammation and more.
So is nutmeg good for you? Is nutmeg a nut? And what is nutmeg used for? Keep reading for the answers to all of your burning questions about this incredible ingredient.
What Is Nutmeg?
Nutmeg spice is derived from the seed of Myristica fragrans, a type of evergreen nutmeg tree that is native to certain parts of Indonesia. The nutmeg plant itself can grow up to 50 feet tall and produces dark green leaves and waxy yellow flowers. It also produces the nutmeg fruit, which is a pear-shaped fruit with a brown seed that is ground into the spice.
This warm, rich spice can add a pop of flavor to dishes while also bumping up the health benefits of the final product. In fact, it has been associated with a long list of potential benefits and uses. These include enhanced heart health to better brain health, decreased inflammation and more. What’s more, it also helps supply a small amount of several essential nutrients, including fiber, magnesium, calcium and iron.
One tablespoon (about seven grams) of this common spice contains approximately:
- 36.8 calories
- 3.5 grams carbohydrates
- 0.4 gram protein
- 2.5 grams fat
- 1.5 grams fiber
- 0.2 milligram manganese (10 percent DV)
- 0.1 milligram copper (4 percent DV)
- 12.8 milligrams magnesium (3 percent DV)
Benefits and Uses
- Relieves Pain and Inflammation
- Boosts Brain Health
- Supports Better Sleep
- Promotes Digestion
- Improves Heart Health
1. Relieves Pain and Inflammation
If you suffer from chronic, persistent pain, this spice may be able to help provide relief. Decreased pain may rank as a top health benefit of nutmeg. It can be especially beneficial for pain related to inflammatory conditions, such as arthritis.
According to one animal model published in Food & Nutrition Research, nutmeg oil may help alleviate inflammatory joint pain while also reducing swelling. Another study conducted by the National Institute of Hygienic Sciences in Japan showed that specific compounds found within the seed were effective at decreasing inflammation in mice.
2. Boosts Brain Health
Although current research is limited to animal models and in vitro studies, some evidence suggests that nutmeg may have neuroprotective properties that could help optimize brain function and protect against disease.
A recent 2017 animal model reported that the volatile oils extracted from the seed were able to alter levels of specific neurotransmitters in the hippocampus, which is the region of the brain associated primarily with memory. According to the researchers, this may aid in the treatment and prevention of several neurodegenerative disorders, such as Alzheimer’s disease and Parkinson’s, although more research is needed to understand if these results are applicable to humans as well.
3. Supports Better Sleep
A pinch or nutmeg in a glass of warm milk is a common natural remedy recommended to help treat insomnia and promote better sleep. But can nutmeg help you sleep, or is it little more than a myth?
Several studies have focused on the insomnia-busting properties of this spice and demonstrated that it could be an effective remedy to help support better sleep. In one study, taking a capsule containing nutmeg for four weeks was found to improve symptoms of insomnia while also enhancing mood and decreasing weakness. Similarly, an animal study published in the Journal of Ethnopharmacology showed that taking an extract of nutmeg helped significantly increase the duration of sleep in chickens.
4. Promotes Digestion
When paired with a balanced diet and healthy lifestyle, adding a few servings of nutmeg to your daily routine may help optimize overall digestive health.
Not only does it have powerful anti-inflammatory properties to protect against conditions like leaky gut, but certain compounds found in this spice also have been shown to have a healing effect on stomach ulcers in some animal models. A study conducted by the Department of Pharmacology at the All India Institute of Medical Sciences also demonstrated that nutmeg could decrease loose stools to help treat diarrhea and support regularity.
5. Improves Heart Health
The heart plays a vital role in health, pumping blood through the body to supply the tissues with the oxygen and nutrients that they need to function and thrive. Promising research suggests that nutmeg can improve several aspects of heart health to keep your heart healthy and strong and protect against disease.
For example, a 2016 animal model found that the seeds were effective at lowering levels of total and “bad” LDL cholesterol in rats, both of which are risk factors for coronary heart disease. Meanwhile, another study conducted on rabbits showed that nutmeg extract decreased total and LDL cholesterol as well as triglycerides. It also helped block the aggregation of blood clots. This could aid in the prevention of conditions like stroke.
Although nutmeg is perfectly safe when used in normal amounts as part of a healthy diet, overdoing it can actually end up doing more harm than good when it comes to your health. This is because it contains a specific compound known as myristicin, which may possess psychoactive properties. Although this spice contains the highest concentration of myristicin, it’s also found in many other plant sources, including dill and parsley.
It’s typically recommended to keep consumption to less than 10 grams per sitting. That translates to around 1.5 tablespoons of ground nutmeg. Consuming amounts higher than this can cause toxicity. Toxicity may cause symptoms, such as:
- Dry mouth
- Blurred vision
- Increased heart rate
Uses in Traditional Medicine
Thanks to the potent healing properties found in whole nutmeg, this superstar spice has long been used in many forms of traditional medicine.
In Ayurvedic medicine, it is used to help improve digestive health and decrease diarrhea due to its aromatic, astringent properties. It’s also thought to calm the nerves and act as a sedative to promote relaxation, soothe stress and prevent insomnia.
Meanwhile, according to Traditional Chinese Medicine, this spice has warm, pungent properties. It can impact the health of the spleen, stomach and large intestine. It’s also believed to enhance circulation, stimulate the stomach and decrease digestive distress.
Nutmeg vs. Mace, Ginger, Cloves and Cinnamon
Nutmeg can often be found in the spice aisle right alongside other healing herbs and spices, such as mace, ginger, cloves and cinnamon. This is thanks to their similarities in flavor and shared uses. In fact, many are unaware of the differences between these unique spices and often use them interchangeably as a substitute for nutmeg when they don’t have any on hand.
Mace spice is actually made from the outer coating of the nutmeg kernel, which is dried and ground into a fine powder. Ground mace is a common nutmeg substitute because it shares the same pungent, sweet taste but is a bit more mild and subtle.
Ginger, on the other hand, is incredibly aromatic. It has a zesty, peppery and slightly woody flavor that helps add a bit of zing to desserts, salads or soups. It’s also been associated with a number of ginger health benefits. Benefits include better blood sugar control, improved cognitive function and decreased menstrual pain.
Meanwhile, cloves are considered one of the strongest spices. They have a warm flavor that is both sweet and bitter. Cloves are available in whole bud or powdered form, not to mention clove oil. This spice is perhaps most well-known for it analgesic properties. These properties help provide pain relief when applied topically.
Finally, cinnamon is a highly aromatic spice made from the inner bark of a specific type of tree. It has a one-of-a-kind flavor and can fit into a variety of different dishes, both sweet and savory alike. Ceylon cinnamon, in particular, has been linked to several health benefits, such as reduced inflammation and increased insulin sensitivity.
Where to Find and How to Use
Nutmeg powder and ground nutmeg can be easily found in the spice section of most major grocery stores. It’s also available in whole form and can be grated prior to use. While whole nutmeg tends to stay fresh for long periods of time, ground nutmeg loses its flavor and aroma very quickly and can only last around six months with proper storage.
There are plenty of potential nutmeg uses. It has a warm, spicy flavor that works well in a variety of different dishes. It’s frequently found in desserts, including seasonal specialties like pumpkin pie. It can also add a hint of flavor to beverages like coffee, chai, mulled wine or eggnog. Plus, it even works well in savory recipes, such as soups, sauces and meat dishes.
Keep in mind that a little goes a long way with this strong spice, so use it sparingly to bump up the flavor of your favorite foods but avoid going overboard.
There are plenty of delicious ways to take advantage of the multitude of nutmeg benefits. Here are a few simple recipes that you can use to start:
- Chocolate Chip Oatmeal Cookies
- Honey Vanilla Nutmeg Summer Fruit Bake
- Mediterranean Grilled Lamb Chops
- Cauliflower and Coconut Milk Soup
- Frothy Chai Tea Latte
Nutmeg has been used for thousands of years throughout history. The oldest recorded use dates back over 3,500 years ago to the Banda Islands, which are a group of islands in Indonesia. Interestingly enough, up until the mid-1800s, the Banda Islands, also known as the Spice Islands, remained the only place that produced nutmeg and mace.
This incredible spice has long been valued for its flavor and medicinal properties. It was widely traded, which brought it to new areas around the globe. In 1512, Portuguese ships arrived in the Banda Islands and, as the first Europeans to reach the island, began filling their ships with nutmeg, mace and cloves.
In 1621, the Dutch East India Company seized the island in an effort to gain control of the trade market for this spice. Following the bloody battle, the population of the island dwindled from around 15,000 to less than 1,000. During the Napoleonic Wars, the British temporarily took control of the island and began transplanting nutmeg trees to other areas, such as Singapore, Sri Lanka and Bencoolen.
Today, Indonesia still dominates the world market for this spice, followed by Grenada and other areas like India, Malaysia, Singapore and New Guinea.
Risks and Side Effects
Although there are plenty of nutmeg benefits to consider, there may also be some drawbacks associated with frequent consumption as well. Because it contains a high concentration of myristicin, a hallucinogenic compound, it’s recommended to keep intake in moderation to avoid negative side effects.
So what are the side effects of nutmeg? A nutmeg “high” or toxicity can cause symptoms such as increased heart rate, nausea, seizures, pain, hallucinations and changes in mood or behavior. How much nutmeg is safe? It’s typically recommended to keep consumption to less than 10 grams — or about 1.5 tablespoons — per sitting to avoid adverse effects on health.
Note that despite its name, this spice is not a tree nut. Thus it should be safe for those with an allergy to other nuts, such as almonds, walnuts and pistachios. However, it is considered a type of seed, so those with a seed allergy should check with their doctors before consuming to avoid food allergy symptoms like hives, itching and swelling.
- Nutmeg is a spice derived from the seed of Myristica fragrans, a type of tree that is native to Indonesia.
- Potential health benefits of this spice include decreased pain and inflammation, better brain and heart health, improved sleep, and enhanced digestion.
- However, this common holiday spice is best consumed in moderation. It contains myristicin, a psychoactive compound that can cause adverse side effects when consumed in high doses.
- Try adding this sweet spice to sweet and savory dishes and drinks for a burst of extra flavor and health benefits.