Most of us are familiar with the intensely fragrant, woodsy-sweet Nutmeg (Myristica fragrans). Maybe we’ve experienced the whole seed grated over eggnog, or enjoyed it in a pumpkin spice latte, a baked good like gingerbread, a savory sauce like bechamel, or a warming Indonesian stew. This beautiful herb is said to “calm all bitterness…, open your heart, and make your mind cheerful” (Hildegard Von Bingen, 1151 AD). In addition to its delightful culinary uses and festive associations, Nutmeg is a wonderful herbal ally as well!
Botany & Etymology
Nutmeg is the seed of a tropical evergreen tree. These trees are native to Indonesia’s Banda Islands, often referred to as the “Spice Islands.” Nutmeg is still mostly cultivated in Indonesia and the West Indies. The trees usually range from about 20 to 25 feet in height, produce fruit after about 9 years of growth, and continue to produce for about 75 years. The trees have smooth, grayish bark, abundant yellow sap, and shiny green oblong leaves, about three to six inches long, with small, dioecious flowers. The seed grows inside a fleshy fruit resembling an apricot in size and shape.
Myristica is derived from the Greek word ‘myristikos,’ meaning ‘fragrant, for anointing’, and fragrans, Latin for fragrant, both pointing to Nutmeg’s unique sweet musky scent.
Nutmeg has been used medicinally, spiritually, and for culinary endeavors worldwide for centuries. Carrying nutmeg in your pocket brings prosperity and luck. Ancient Romans burned Nutmeg as incense and wore it in sachets as an amulet to fend off injury, disease, and evil forces. Traditional Chinese Medicine uses this herb(Rou Dou Kou) for its ability to aid Yang, circulate blood and Qi, and disperse cold.
The demand for and popularity of Nutmeg increased in the 1300s during the bubonic plague, as it was believed to protect against the disease. Nutmeg was such a valuable commodity that the Dutch and English went to war over one of the Spice Islands. The Dutch ultimately gained control of the Islands and secured a monopoly on trade in exchange for New Amsterdam–as a result, New Amsterdam became New York.
Nutmeg is an aromatic herb with warming, drying, and relaxing energetics. Its actions are antiemetic, anti-microbial, analgesic, antifungal, antioxidant, aphrodisiac, carminative, hypnotic, nervine, psychotropic, sedative, and spasmolytic.
Potent Sleep Aid
Nutmeg is used for deep sleep support in both Western and Ayurvedic herbal traditions. Its nervine properties help to relax the nervous system, while its sedative and hypnotic properties allow for deep, restorative sleep. Certain phytochemicals in Nutmeg trigger the release of serotonin, which can also induce sleep. A classic Ayurvedic remedy for insomnia is to drink a glass of warm milk (we’ve all heard this one!) with the addition of a big pinch of Nutmeg. KP Khalsa, a renowned Ayurvedic herbalist who specializes in sleep aid, writes that Nutmeg works best when taken 3.5-5 hours before bed, as its effects are delayed. Khalsa says that this practice should result in a solid 8 hours of sleep.
Like many culinary spices, Nutmeg supports the digestive system. Most fragrant herbs found in the kitchen are rich in volatile oils, which have carminative action. The oils in the seed help to dispel gas and discomfort from the stomach and intestines by stimulating digestive juices, and by calming and warming the digestive system. This greatly improves our ability to both break down food and absorb nutrients. Similarly, this herb’s nervine action relaxes the sympathetic nervous system (fight/flight/freeze), allowing the parasympathetic nervous system to accomplish its primary goals of resting and digesting.
Nutmeg has long been considered an aphrodisiac herb and has been included in love spells and aphrodisiac elixirs for centuries. This is partly due to Nutmeg’s aforementioned nervine action, which helps to relax the body. Additionally, it’s warming, stimulating, and circulatory properties push blood and heat to bodily extremities–which is an important part of physiological arousal. The locals of Zanzibar use this herb when they’d like to let loose or spice things up for special occasions like weddings and dances. A significant Indian study found that a 50% ethanol extract of Nutmeg possessed measurable aphrodisiac activity, as it increased both libido and potency in rats.
Several scientific studies have found that both extracts of nutmeg and its essential oil have presented strong antimicrobial activity against bacteria, viruses, and a variety of fungi. Nutmeg is a holistic remedy for dental issues and bad breath. It is antimicrobial and analgesic (pain-relieving) properties. Its pleasant flavor lends to its inclusion in many natural toothpastes as well. Nutmeg has been shown to have antibacterial action against harmful bacterias E. coli and Streptococcus mutans.
Methods of Medicinal Use
Freshly Ground Powder
Nutmeg quickly loses potency once ground, so sourcing the whole seeds and grinding or grating just before use is ideal. As always, look for fair trade, direct trade, organic Nutmeg, if accessible. This is important for imported, exotic herbs, especially if you intend to use them medicinally.
Ayurvedic herbalist KP Khalsa recommends taking capsules for use as a sleep aid. Khalsa suggests taking one capsule at 6 pm the first night, and two capsules the second night. A typical dose is 3 grams.
Be sure to source good quality capsules and abide by dosing rules. Overdosing on Nutmeg can be toxic.
Using Nutmeg essential oil in a diffuser can be great for sleep, relaxation, or aphrodisiac qualities! Topical application of the oil can be effective against arthritic, rheumatic pain, and toothaches.
Source well and use sparingly, and always with a carrier oil. The volatile oils of this herb can burn the skin if applied directly.
As with all herbs and medicines, please consult a trusted herbalist and your doctor prior to use.
The Botanical Safety Handbook warns against ingesting more than 5 grams of Nutmeg per day. Nutmeg can reduce blood pressure — regular or excessive use is not recommended for folks with low blood pressure. Avoid during pregnancy and with children under five.
Like other members of Nutmeg’s Myristicaceae family, this herb can be toxic if consumed in excess. “One nut is good for you, the second will do you harm, the third will kill you,” a saying at the Salerno School in the early Middle Ages warned. Nutmeg can be poisonous and have unpleasant psychotropic effects if consumed in excess.
- De La Foret, Rosalee. Nutmeg. Rosalee De La Foret. 2019. https://delaforet.s3-us-west-2.amazonaws.com/Nutmeg-Ebook_Nov_1.pdf
- Gardner, Zoë. American Herbal Product Association’s Botanical Safety Handbook. Taylor and Francis Group, LLC. 2013. https://www.amazon.com/American-Products-Associations-Botanical-Handbook/dp/1466516941/ref=mp_s_a_1_1?adgrpid=57611843233&gclid=EAIaIQobChMI__XLraPm9AIVBKSzCh1LCAfBEAAYASAAEgIWB_D_BwE&hvadid=274678658784&hvdev=m&hvlocphy=9002245&hvnetw=g&hvqmt=e&hvrand=5773333898117916863&hvtargid=kwd-307972457010&hydadcr=22188_10176620&keywords=botanical+safety+handbook&qid=1639587490&sr=8-1
- Khalsa, & Tierra, Michael. The Way of Ayurvedic Herbs. Lotus Press. 2008. https://www.amazon.com/Way-Ayurvedic-Herbs-Contemporary-Introduction/dp/0940985985/ref=asc_df_0940985985/?tag=hyprod-20&linkCode=df0&hvadid=312031138203&hvpos=&hvnetw=g&hvrand=7884950318649090539&hvpone=&hvptwo=&hvqmt=&hvdev=m&hvdvcmdl=&hvlocint=&hvlocphy=9002245&hvtargid=pla-466283512025&psc=1
- Krutch, Joseph Wood. Herbal. Balance House. 1965.https://www.amazon.com/Herbal-Joseph-Wood-Krutch/dp/B002DSG4IE
- JY Chung, JH Choo, MH Lee, JK Hwang (2006). “Anticariogenic activity of macelignan isolated from Myristica fragrans (nutmeg) against Streptococcus mutans”. Phytomedicine, Volume 13, Issue 4, Pages 261-266. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/16492529/
- Thring, O. “Consider Nutmeg” https://www.google.com/amp/s/amp.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/wordofmouth/2010/sep/14/consider-nutmeg
- “Zhang, Kevin Wei. Nutmeg oil alleviates chronic inflammatory pain through inhibition of COX-2 expression and substance P release in vivo.”