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Nutmeg Toxicity

October 31, 2013 by Michael Greger M.D. in News with 28 Comments

Can Too Much Nutmeg Be Toxic?

The spice nutmeg appears to have a relatively narrow margin of safety.

In my research on cinnamon I ran across a peculiar paper entitled “Christmas Gingerbread and Christmas Cheer: Review of the Potential Role of Mood Elevating Amphetamine-like Compounds.” The author suggested that certain natural constituents of spices such as nutmeg may form amphetamine compounds within the body “sufficient to elevate the mood and help provide some added Christmas cheer” during the holiday season.

This hypothetical risk was raised as far back as the Sixties in the New England Journal of Medicine in an article called “Nutmeg Intoxication.” The paper pondered whether the age-old custom of adding nutmeg to eggnog arose from the psychopharmacological effects described in cases of nutmeg intoxication. Such cases evidently go back to the 1500s, when it was used as an abortifacient to induce a miscarriage and in the 1960s as a psychotropic drug.

Mental health professionals from the ’60s concluded that while nutmeg “is much cheaper for use and probably less dangerous than the habit-forming heroin, it must be stated that it is not free from danger and may cause death.”

The toxic dose of nutmeg is two to three teaspoons.

I assumed no one would ever come close to that amount unintentionally until I saw report in which a couple ate some pasta, collapsed, and were subsequently hospitalized. It was a big mystery until “On close questioning, the husband revealed that he had accidentally added one third of a 30g spice jar of nutmeg to the meal whilst cooking it.” That’s about 4 teaspoons–I don’t know how they could have eaten it! I imagine the poor wife just trying to be polite.

There are also potentially toxic compounds in certain types of cinnamon. See my video Update on Cinnamon for Blood Sugar Control.

We can also overdo other healthful plant foods if we consume too much of the yellow curry spice turmeric, drink too much tea, or eat too much soytoo much seaweedtoo many broccoli sprouts, and even too many raw cruciferous vegetables.

The final video in this three part series on the latest on spice safety is The Safety of Tarragon.

-Michael Greger, M.D.

PS: If you haven’t yet, you can subscribe to my videos for free by clicking here and watch my full 2012 – 2014 presentations Uprooting the Leading Causes of Death, More than an Apple a Day, and From Table to Able.

Image credit: Simo ubuntu / Wikimedia Commons

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Dr. Michael Greger

About Michael Greger M.D.

Michael Greger, M.D., is a physician, author, and internationally recognized professional speaker on a number of important public health issues. Dr. Greger has lectured at the Conference on World Affairs, the National Institutes of Health, and the International Bird Flu Summit, testified before Congress, appeared on The Dr. Oz Show and The Colbert Report, and was invited as an expert witness in defense of Oprah Winfrey at the infamous "meat defamation" trial. Currently Dr. Greger proudly serves as the Director of Public Health and Animal Agriculture at the Humane Society of the United States.

View all videos by Michael Greger M.D.

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  • guest

    How do you feel about vinegar, both distilled or fermented. Is it harmful to the GI tract? It seems like a substance that was not “meant” to be ingested. Something about it seems so harsh, like it should be reserved for cleaning kitchen floors and toilets. Does anyone have any research or thoughts on this? I’ve seen the vinegar video but it doesn’t seem to address the science of whether or not vinegar causes harm to internal tissue. And it seems so man-made and industrial … not that that is always a bad thing.

  • guest

    Is it OK to combine raw fruit with beans? I like to add pineapple chunks to my bowl of black beans but have read that fruit should always be consumed alone. Is there science to back this up? Also would like to know if it is proper to eat fruit with nuts. So many people online say food combining is important, and fruit and fat should be separated.

    • Darryl

      Most “food combining” regimens don’t stand up to scientific scrutiny. As far as I can tell, the one that has some evidential basis is weight-loss diets where starches and proteins are eaten in separate meals, as protein – particularly animal protein – potentiates the insulin response to carbohydrate (1, 2, 3). Obviously, this wouldn’t apply to beans, which are already one-stop shops for protein, low-glycemic starch, fiber, and some useful phytochemicals. Nor would it apply to fruit & nuts (as fats have little immediate effect on insulin and fructose has a low glycemic index).

      • Paleo Huntress

        Not to be too nit-picky, but a cup of black beans has a glycemic load of 19, and 20 is considered “high”. So that’s the high end of moderate and not low glycemic by any stretch.

        • Darryl

          Processing has a big impact here. Canned beans have glycemic indices around 71, while slow-cooked dried beans have glycemic indices around 47 (source), not particularly high compared to bread (~85), baked potatoes (~98), or white rice (~75).

          The question for me is that, given the impracticallity of eating only green vegetables and fruit (too low in calorie density), my understanding that starch is the macronutrient category with the least adverse effects when consumed in excess of 10-15% of diet, what’s the most attractive form of starch from a disease-prevention/longevity standpoint. Beans, particularly lentils, are pretty attractive compared to other starch alternatives as staple fare, and their more moderate glycemic indices contribute to my opinion here.

          To be honest, glycemic indices are less interesting to me than insulin response and its crosstalk with IGF-I in cancer promotion. Lentils fare well here, too. Baked beans, not so much.

          • Paleo Huntress

            I have mo argument with your interests in glycemic response, sometimes you may want a rapid response (recovery after a workout) and sometimes you may want a slow response. But glycemic index is only part of the equation, the glycemic load is more important. So while carrots are high glycemic index foods, the typical servings make for low glycemic loads. And though beams have a moderate glycemic index, the typical servings make for a relatively high glycemic load. Regardless of which you favor, if you believe it’s worth mentioning, than it clearly matters to you, and it makes sense to be accurate.
            FWIW, the same size serving of brown rice has a load of 21 which is only 2 points higher than the beans– and white rice is only 2 points higher than the brown.

          • Thea

            Darryl: Your comment about canned beans having a GI around 71 caught my attention. I like to use the “Self Nutrition Data” website to get nutrition information. Here’s a page showing canned beans having an estimated GI of 22:

            http://nutritiondata.self.com/facts/legumes-and-legume-products/4295/2

            That’s a big difference from what you have seen for canned beans.

            I’m not saying your source is wrong. That’s a very interesting study. Just noting the size of the difference.

            One thing that Dr. Barnard pointed out in his book is that effects on blood sugar on healthy people are often very different than the effects on say people with diabetes. And I noticed that your study looked at people with type 2 diabetes. Their GI for dried beans was averaging 47, quite a bit higher than what we see for healthy people. So, maybe that explains some of the difference.

            Just talking here. Not arguing. I find it interesting.

          • Paleo Huntress

            Thea, respectfully, glycemic index and glycemic load are different things. Please do a little more checking into that. It is the LOAD that self lists, not the index. The index is only one part of the formula, the serving size is the other. The index alone isn’t relevant, and the experts are not conflicted about the ratings at all, you are merely not educated about the difference between the two.

          • Thea

            You are right that I didn’t look closely at the words used. Thank you for the clarification.

            But my main points are still valid:
            1) someone reading your original post might be scared off eating a cup of beans.
            2) From what I can tell, one of the leading experts in this area has no problem with people eating a cup of beans. That’s the take-home point I want to make sure gets across.

          • Paleo Huntress

            There are many leading experts that would advise against it as well, and there ate many people who SHOULD avoid foods that raise their blood sugar that much, especially considering that cup of beans usually sits beside a pile of grain or other food even higher glycemic load. But I’m not going to argue whether a ton of starch is a good thing or not, we all have to make our own choices. The point is that beans are high glycemic foods, and interestingly, canned beans are more nutritious because pressure cooking eliminates most traces of phytate and lectins, so unless you soak and pressure cook your own beans, the canned beans are more nutritious than home cooked, dried beans.
            Bottom line, accuracy matters in such things. It’s disingenuous to tell people that beans are low glycemic, some may have issues that require they stick to low glycemic foods, and it’s better to arm them with the facts and let THEM decide what’s right for their own bodies.

          • Darryl

            Look closely, that’s a figure for glycemic load, which will vary by serving size.

            That cup of canned great northern beans has 55.1 g carbs, so NutritionData is using a glycemic index of 40 (a bit on the high side for beans using Harvard’s page).

            Glycemic indices should be higher in diabetics, but that was the best source I could find for the difference canning makes.

          • Thea

            Good point.

        • Thea

          While perhaps technically correct, I’m concerned that people reading Paleo’s comment will be misled. In the strictest sense, there are no doubt people who would “consider” a Glycemic Index (GI) level of 19 to be high. But such people are the Paleo/Atkins/Wheat Belly/Eat For Your Blood Type people who want to set up rules in such a way that whole plant food based eating is unhealthy by definition.

          To my knowledge there is no universally recognized system for defining what counts as low, medium and high GI levels. Humans are still trying to figure out how much GI even matters as a factor. Sure, it matters. But it is by no means the sole determining factor of a food’s health. The consideration of GI for health should be taking into context with other factors. (How much fat does the food have? What do we know about the health effects of the whole food? etc.)

          For the moment, we have to go by expert opinion on what counts as low, medium and high. Choose your experts carefully. On this topic, I can’t think of a better expert than Dr. Bernard who was in charge of a study that successfully, clinically reversed Type 2 diabetes in the study participants. In his book, “Dr. Neal Barnard’s Program for Reversing Diabetes”, Dr. Barnard suggests the following general guidelines for interpreting the GI index of a food: 55 and below = low. 56 to 69 = medium. 70 and above = high.

          (But remember that Dr. Barnard also treats the GI index with the perspective that it deserves. Dr. Barnard would not recommend a food solely because it has a low GI. Nor would he tell people to shun carbohydrates just because such foods can push up blood sugar. Instead, Dr. Barnard lays out a range of dietary factors to consider and encourages people to work to reduce their body’s insulin resistance. Dr. Barnard tells us how in his book.)

          Dr. Barnard’s book has a lot more information about the GI index. There are several details you need to understand if you want to use the GI as even a partial indicator of healthy eating. I encourage everyone who is concerned about this topic to check out the book. What I can easily quote for anyone concerned about beans, “Beans and their relatives (lentils, peas) are always low GI.”

        • Mike Quinoa

          According to Harvard Health Publications, a serving of black beans (150 grams) has a glycemic load of 7, which is low.

          http://www.health.harvard.edu/newsweek/Glycemic_index_and_glycemic_load_for_100_foods.htm

          • Paleo Huntress

            Harvard’s table (which isn’t calculated by Harvard, but rather Fiona S. Atkinson, Kaye Foster-Powell, and Jennie C. Brand-Miller) measured DRAINED beans. The measure I gave includes the cooking water (which is typically how folks eat beans). So yes, if you cook the beans and you throw away the water that contains a good amount of the original starch content, you’ll have lower glycemic load beans. As further evidence of this, RAW black beans have a glycemic load of 19-28. (1/3 cup to 1/2 cup) Black beans expand 2-3 times their raw volume when soaked and cooked. So if you’re truly about the “whole food” (WFPB) then you need to include the cooking water (that contains part of the food) in your analysis as well.

    • Toxins

      No, it is not based on sound science. Food combining is a myth. Mix and match all that you please! You can intensify the antioxidants of certain foods with combining, such as turmeric with black pepper. Other then that, it will never harm you.

  • George Taylor

    When it comes to vinegar I can tell you first hand that it is pretty much safe. I received 5 QTS of Braggs from a tractor trailer accident and No kidding drank a quart in 5 days. Every morning a had a couple of big gulps of it. Before heading out. When the weekend hit, I was mowing the lawn and was sweating and no joke. I smelled like vinegar, as far as weight loss. Did not lose a pound from drinking it.

    • Paleo Huntress

      You drank 5 quarts, or 1 quart in 5 days?

      • George Taylor

        1 quart in 5 days.

  • guest

    I took enough nutmeg to trip. You don’t die from it unless its too much for your kidneys. Which is more than what this article suggests. I had two to three tablespoons. I am alive. Erowid.org if you don’t know about substances little ones.

  • seachangeau

    its a wonder the nanny state has neglected the poison label on my nutmeg jar!

  • 18235

    back in 1984, after reading in ‘the autobiography of malcom x” of prisoners taking nutmeg to get high, i tried it a # of times.

    the first time i tried it, my eyes became two red slits—not bloodshot, but red slits.

    last time was in 2006, with a visit to hospital for possible gallbladder attack, though i also ate a whole pizza by myself that same day.

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  • Tom

    A friend of mine ate 3-5 Nutmeg seeds (You buy them in a supermarket, small round tube.)… Anyway, he ate them around 12:30am and went to bed, when he woke up he had a rapid heart beat,felt extremely extremely sick, headache to the fullest, etc. He managed to get up to go the toilet and his eyes were puffed out of his head, white face,etc. He found it hard to walk,and was extremely dizzy and felt ate poison. He drank water and went back to bed and tried to get to sleep (it was also very hard to get to sleep but it was the only thing he could do) This went on for 3 FULL DAYS, 3 days of being like this. Around the 2nd day he drank apple juice and puked up, he felt about 20% better but still extremely awful. He slept/staid in bed for the 3 days. He was unable to read or do anything. Awful awful stuff.

  • Tom

    Again: Nutmeg is NO way a fun experience, it has nothing good to it. Even months after and still having the sick and weird feeling even thinking about nutmeg.

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