Sunday, 13 March 2011

The medicinal spicing and the brain cooking powers of Nutmeg

Hello friends, it has been a week since my last article; I was craving for some action but couldn't find the free time for a good insight article. And suddenly found something special, yet simple, to bring up to your attention. 

Can you feel the cold breeze of curiosity taking over your spine like a cold metal fluid climbing upwards your back to meet your central nervous system for a spiced up dinner time? Well, they can too, since they found... just wait a second. Before that, just exercise your imagination for a while.

It appears that apparently kids have run out of stupid ideas to get their healthy minds and bodies into trouble. Sports and Music aren't working for them any more so they had to look further every corner 'round the neighbourhood, but still couldn't find anything interesting. When they were about to give up, grandma was getting Bread Pudding done. Immediately, they got ready for some secret operation. Snatch grandma's nutmeg!, as they have recently re-discovered a brand new way of blowing their central nervous system out. It couldn't be simpler, it couldn't be more basic and, therefore, ridiculously uncontrollable. But Nutmeg (Myristica officinalis (L.), Nux Moschata [best described as a substitute psychotomimetic substance of abuse]) is considered to be gaining adepts amongst the younger masses. Nutmeg my friends, that egg shape nut of the nutmeg apple (see 1st image). It is known that large quantities of nutmeg can be hallucinogenic due to some components, such as myristicin (methoxysafrole), this is the main aromatic volatile organic component of nutmeg where a good number of intoxication events have been reported due to an ingestion of approximately 5g of nutmeg, something like 1 to 2 mg of myristicin per kg of body weight [1]. 

But let's go for a very brief introduction on the tropical tree brought from Indonesia, West Indies, South Africa as from other tropical regions, that develops this interesting nut. Well, growing to a height of 8 meters, this greyish brown smooth bark showing dark-green elliptical leaves (see 2nd image) produces a brown wrinkled oval fruit [2] which contains a nut entrapped in a red lacy net (see 4th image), somehow resembling a membrane. The nut is widely used in culinary efforts when dried (see image 3) and adds up to the gorgeous flavour of many cuisines worldwide. The nut gained fame for many reasons, probably, the most interesting one being its aroma which is quite flavour enhancing, and also due to the medicinal applications as the nut has been used in the past for its spasmolytic (antispasmodic), antiemetic (effective against vomiting and nausea), orexigenic (stimulating the appetite), gastric secretory stimulant, prostaglandin inhibiting,  anti-inflammatory, and cerebral stimulant properties [2], widely used "in the treatment of dyspepsia, nausea, vomiting, diarrhoea (especially if related to food poisoning), dysentery, intestinal spasm, colic, and inflammatory disease of the gut wall. In small quantities it acts on the stomach to improve the appetite and digestion. In trials, it has been used successfully to treat Crohn's disease. In France, it is given in drop doses in honey for digestive upsets and halitosis. Externally, the oil is used for rheumatic pain and, like clove oil, can be applied as an emergency treatment for toothache.  Grieve suggests an ointment of grated nutmeg and lard for the treatment of haemorrhoids" [2]. Am I forgetting any of the many qualities this product has? Well, apparently for some people the hallucinogenic power works as a driving force compelling them to try and experiment dangerous doses of nutmeg. Kids, in this modern day and time, are braving through the many plants our globalised world has to offer, and all the plants that used to be oceans distant are now just a credit card and a browser away. 

Many studies can be found throughout the web where the unpleasant side effects associated to abuse of nutmeg have driven people to hospitals. A case-report revealing a 13 years old female who ingested approximately 15 to 24g of nutmeg gelatin capsules over a 3-hour period, along with consumption of cigarettes of marijuana caused her to display bizarre behaviour, and experience visual, auditory and tactile hallucinations, "nausea, gagging, hot/cold sensations, and blurred vision followed by numbness, double, and ‘‘triple’’ vision, headache, and drowsiness. Nystagmus, muscle weakness, and ataxia were present" [3]. The medical staff had to counterstrike the reaction by administering 50g of activated charcoal. Doctors say it is all in the central nervous system that is affected when chemical compounds present in this kitchen spice are bioconversed into amphetamine-like compounds, and that is mainly because nutmeg contains several known components famous for central nervous system neuromodulatory activity [3]. 

Based on historical data available, the consumption of nutmeg as a hallucinogenic reports back to to the 17th century, but we are talking about dark ages where stupidity was so natural it was the common trend (just like our mates from the 25th century will consider the dumb guys from the 21st century to have been). Nearly 200 years passed and the turn from the 19th to the 20th century set the plateau for nutmeg toxicology to become an epidemics and periodically rediscovered by teenagers, but by then the problem was likely to be, again, of lack of sufficient scientific knowledge. Then the 60's came and one had to expect that the 60's would do to Nutmeg what Beatles made to Music, i.e., spiced it up and popularised it for the world to consume and share. From then onwards, nutmeg wasn't a simple nut any longer!!! The following video reports the growing use of nutmeg by youngsters and how internet is making it even more popular, whilst sharing the experiences online became as easy as getting access to the nut istelf.

It seems unlikely, though, that the consumption of nutmeg will ever become a huge problem exactly because of the  unpleasant and somehow frightening side-effects.  The intake of several oils present in the nutmeg, where myristicin is known to be the major responsible for triggering the side-effects can be found in [4]. The relative quantities and the effects they produce are also listed and I took some time to summarise them hereby: 
  • Myristicin, comprises around 7% of the aromatic fraction - reported effects are calcium antagonism, hypotensive (lowering blood pressure) properties, sedative, antidepressant, hallucinogenic, anesthetic, serotonergic, 
  • Elemicin, around 2.4% -  antidepressant, hallucinogenic, antihistaminic, hypotensive, antiserotonergic,
  • Safrole, around 1.3% -  anticonvulsant, calcium antagonist, CNS depressant, anesthetic,
  • Methyleugenol, around 0.6% - anesthetic, sedative, narcotic, anticonvulsant, 
  • Eugenol, around 0.2% - anticonvulsant, antiarachidonate, motor depresant, calcium antagonist,
  • Methylisoeugenol,  0.4% - anesthetic, antihistaminic,
  • Methoxyeugenol, around 0.3%, 
  • Isoeugenol, aroound 0.2% - sedative, motor stimulant/depressant, 
  • Isoelemicin, around 0.1%,
  • Toluene,  around 0.1%.
Source: [4].

So, the greatest challenge for governments, educators, parents, the snatched grandmas of this world and so forth, is the emerging new drugs of abuse not legally established as drugs, per se; and deriving from the adolescents curiosity to lick and taste everything that will basically give'em a kick.  In this sense and only if you wish to find and add some in-depth knowledge to the information provided by this article, by all means read reference 5 and have a go on the new coming techniques for toxic analysis of the emerging drugs of abuse. 

Bare in mind that people are curious, your children are naturally curious like you were years ago. They will never stop chasing for new ways of blowing their minds away. From getting high on binaural beats (upcoming soon to the pages of TheToxicologistToday) to a simple spice nut you use for adding up flavour, everything these days is likely to be used for fun, putting their health in danger.

[1] Hallstrom, H and Thuvande, A (1997). "Toxicological evaluation of myristicin". Natural Toxins5(5), pp.186-92.

[2] Myristica fragans (Houtt.), ©Purple Sage Botanicals,, Last updated 17th February 2011, last visited on the 11th of March 2011

[3] - Sangalli, B. C., Chiang, W. (2000). "Toxicology of Nutmeg". Clinical Toxicology, 38(6), pp. 671–678.

[4] - Duke, J. A. (1992). Handbook of phytochemical constituents of GRAS herbs and other economic plants. Boca Raton, FL: CRC Press.

[5] - Peters, F. T., Martinez-Ramirez, J. A., (2010). "Analytical toxicology of emerging  drugs of abuse". The Drug Monit, 32(5),   pp. 532-539.

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