Nutmeg is what you probably remember spicing up your pumpkin spice latte or pumpkin pie every fall. Along with cinnamon, it’s the classic fall spice. It is indigenous to Indonesia (called the Spice Islands for a reason) and now grows in much of the tropics.
Nutmeg is the dried seed of the Myristicia fragrans plant. Most of the world wouldn’t recognize the mature fruit, bright red, and fleshy, called “mace” (1). Nutmeg oil is used in gravies, meat products, soft candy, puddings, condiments, and baked goods that we all know and love (2).
While there are no medically approved uses for nutmeg, in traditional medicine, the flesh and seed of this tree have been used to treat rheumatism, cholera, anxiety, and stomach cramps, in addition to being abused as a hallucinogen (1). That said, several animals, cells, and clinical trials show nutmeg’s health benefits and its potential at alleviating symptoms of various conditions.
Health benefits of nutmeg
Nutmeg shows promise as a treatment for skeletal muscle problems
Sarcopenia is the age-related loss of muscle and strength that occurs naturally as we age. In rats with sarcopenia, nutmeg oil reduced symptoms and increased protein levels required to generate new muscle.
Nutmeg oil also had various other beneficial effects, improving several body pathways impaired during aging, showing many potential benefits if used as a supplement for the elderly to prevent muscle loss and age-related problems(3).
Nutmeg could bring benefits for people with diabetes
Nutmeg has been alluded to as diabetic-friendly, causing an insulin-like effect when consumed as part of a meal (4). This primarily refers to Type 2 Diabetes and obesity because some of the nutmeg constituents affect pathways in the body involved with these conditions (5). More research hopefully will come with time on this topic.
Nutmeg extract has some antibacterial activity
With conditions like multi-drug resistant Salmonella enterica, and antibiotic resistance continuing to rise at an alarming rate, natural alternatives to current pharmaceuticals are always being investigated. In preliminary tests, nanoparticles made from nutmeg may be an effective solution to antibiotic resistance (having the same effect as a traditional antibiotic) and result in less environmental pollution during production (6).
Extract of nutmeg was also effective against several enteric (gut-based) bacteria in a different research study (7). If you are interested in prebiotic food, check out our article “13 Best Prebiotic Foods to Eat.“
Antioxidants in nutmeg could have protective effects on our DNA.
Nutmeg is high in antioxidants, which we know as free oxygen radical scavengers. Free oxygen radicals are produced naturally through metabolism and can damage our bodies, particularly our DNA, causing cancer conditions. In lab tests on DNA, nutmeg essential oils reduced DNA damage through an antioxidative effect (8). This suggests it could be a significant source of beneficial antioxidants in humans, too!
It was investigated the effect of cooking on these helpful antioxidants in nutmeg, which can be destroyed by heat. So far, studies have been inconclusive but continue to be performed (9). After all, most of the nutmeg we consume has seen a heat source at some point, and if that eliminates those helpful antioxidants, that’d be a good thing to know!
Nutmeg could reduce atopic dermatitis and other skin problems
Atopic dermatitis, better known as eczema, and other skin problems are a substantial healthcare issue. With 50% of Americans over 65 sufferings from two or more skin diseases, skin diseases found in 65% of a randomly chosen population in a recent surveillance study (10).
In a trial done in mice with atopic dermatitis-like skin lesions, oral administration of nutmeg reduced skin thickening and inflammation and reduced symptoms of the condition (11). This means nutmeg could be an effective solution in humans, but the clinical results aren’t yet.
Nutmeg could also be effective at improving light-related skin damage
A recent study performed in human skin cells showed that nutmeg was an effective intervention for photoaging (12). Photoaging refers to skin damage, which accumulates because of light exposure. With a little, too much time in the sun, our skin wrinkles, and the surface skin cells become damaged.
Compounds in nutmeg appear to increase procollagen and other portions of the skin that reduce this damage. Also, vitamin A is important for your skin health. Check the “Top 10 Foods High in Vitamin A.”
Nutmeg health benefits against cancer
In mice with colon cancer, nutmeg was found to improve their symptoms and normalize various body systems. The mice had reduced tumorigenesis (tumor formation) in their intestines, decreased inflammation, and regulated toxin and metabolism processing.
Researchers suggested this could be due to gut microbiome regulation, which was normalized by nutmeg addition (13). Further studies are needed to determine specific applications, but these results are very exciting!
In a Vietnamese lab, researchers tested Vietnamese nutmegs for cancer-fighting potential. Four compounds isolated from nutmeg showed some protection against cancer in cell lines, reducing tumors, and cytotoxicity (cell death) (14). This also hints at nutmeg’s anti-cancer potential.
Nutmeg benefits against mental decline and cognitive impairment
Animal studies showed some protection against memory decline, anti-depressive effects, and a variety of other benefits. Nutmeg has been implicated in reducing neurodegeneration (which is the cause of Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s diseases, among other conditions) (15). This suggests a future pharmaceutical application, but more studies are needed.
Nutmeg oil could alleviate chronic pain and inflammation
A study done in rats showed those receiving nutmeg oil had a reduction in inflammatory pain through modulation of blood substance P, which translates to pain, among other changes.
In this study, the rats were injected with nutmeg oil. The jury is still out on whether injection or oral administration of nutmeg oil and extract is better. Still, this study showed the potential health benefit of nutmeg as a chronic pain reliever (16).
In conclusion, we are just starting to fully appreciate the various potential health benefits of nutmeg oil, extract, and whole seed. Future research should yield more answers, and I expect we’ll be hearing more about this spice as a natural solution to some common medical disorders.
So, enjoy your pumpkin pie or pumpkin spice latte, get used to adding nutmeg to your favorite holiday classics, and incorporating it into your cooking year-round. It could be doing better than you think!