Nutmeg, while not a type of nut, is the seed of Myrista fragrans, a tree that grows in Indonesia. The seed is covered with a skin known as mace which, like nutmeg, is also used as a spice.
Although strongly associated in the West with holiday treats like pumpkin pie and eggnog, nutmeg has a medicinal use — particularly in the East, where it is used for toothache, infection, asthma, and rheumatic pain.
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In traditional Chinese and Arab medicine, nutmeg is used to treat gastrointestinal disease, including diarrhea. Recent research has shown that nutmeg helps with disordered lipids, elevated blood glucose, heart tissue damage and liver toxicity.
Nutmeg contains phytochemicals that provide significant antioxidant activity, including eugenol, sabinene, elemicin, α-pinene, β-pinene, limonene, and more. Eugenol and isoeugenol have been found to play a major role in nutmeg’s ability to inhibit platelet aggregation.1
Effects on Inflammation
Nutmeg’s anti-inflammatory property and analgesic effect, as confirmed in experimental research, suggests a use as a chronic pain reliever.2 In addition to inhibiting lipid peroxidation, extracts of nutmeg have demonstrated an ability to inhibit the cyclooxygenase enzymes COX-1 and COX-2, which are involved in inflammation.3
A study involving rats with induced diarrhea found that two weeks of an orally administered extract that contained nutmeg significantly reduced diarrhea scores and weight and number of wet stools, while improving signs of intestinal damage. Further investigation led the researchers to conclude that the extract’s antidiarrheal effect may, in part, be the result of the regulation of hormones involved in the maintenance of fluid and electrolyte levels as well as the enhancement of sodium ions and water.4
Nutmeg’s antifungal effect was demonstrated in a study that evaluated its effects against Candida albicans, the cause of oral thrush and vaginal yeast infections. In a comparison with the antifungal drug nystatin, nutmeg extract displayed marked anti-Candida activity, suggesting its use as an adjunct to conventional therapy.5 Nutmeg also has an antibacterial effect, which may be attributable in part to its sabinene content. One study suggested that sabinene might be more potent than ciprofloxacin, the standard drug treatment for Salmonella typhimurium, and concluded that the compound might be a safe alternative to treat infection and fight drug resistant bacteria.6
Malabaricone C from nutmeg has shown potential against Streptococcus pneumoniae via an ability to inhibit enzymes that facilitate bacterial colonization.7 An investigation of nutmeg extracts in oral bacteria revealed activity against Streptococcus mutans ATCC 25175, Streptococcus mitis ATCC 6249, Streptococcus salivarius ATCC 13419, Aggregatibacter actinomycetemcomitans ATCC 29522 and Porphyromonas gingivalis ATCC 33277.8
Research indicates a neuroprotective effect for nutmeg. A study suggests that some lignans may cross the blood-brain barrier, the structure that prevents the entry into the brain of many potentially beneficial, as well as harmful, substances.9 The compound macelignan has been shown in vitro to protect neurons that produce dopamine, which degenerate in Parkinson’s disease.10 In the rat hippocampus (an area of the brain that is important for memory and emotion), nutmeg increased the neurotransmitters serotonin, norepinephrine and dopamine in comparison with a control group.11
In neurons deprived of oxygen, the nutmeg compound myristicin enhanced cell viability by inhibiting apoptosis (programmed cell death).12 Myristicin additionally inhibited malondialdehyde (a compound that is marker of oxidative stress) and upregulated the antioxidant enzymes superoxide dismutase (SOD) and glutathione peroxidase. Nutmeg compounds have also demonstrated activity against acetylcholinesterase, an enzyme that breaks down the neurotransmitter acetylcholine.13
A water extract of nutmeg seeds has been shown to suppress the growth of human colon cancer cells and reduced tumor growth in mice that received transplanted lung cancer cells. 14 The researchers found that nutmeg inhibited cancer growth and cancer metabolism by inhibiting the activity of a key enzyme responsible for cancer metabolism regulation known as lactate dehydrogenase. In a mouse model of colon cancer, nutmeg reduced the formation of intestinal tumors. In this animal model, nutmeg attenuated the levels of uremic toxins, which are likely produced by the gut microbiota, and decreased intestinal tumorigenesis.
Nutmeg-treated mice had decreased interleukin-6 levels and normalized dysregulated lipid metabolism. These findings suggested that, at least in part, the uremic toxins were responsible for the metabolic disorders that occur during tumorigenesis. Moreover, these findings demonstrate a potential biochemical link among gut microbial metabolism, inflammation, and metabolic disorders, and suggest the possibility to develop colon cancer chemoprevention strategies by modulating the gut microbiota and lipid metabolism using dietary interventions or drugs.15
Researchers from China recently studied nutmeg’s liver-protective effects.16 They found that nutmeg extract protected against liver damage induced by a toxic compound in mice, as revealed by recovery of liver enzymes, and less oxidative stress and inflammation in the liver. Gene expression analysis determined that the protective effect was the result of modulation of the peroxisome proliferator-activated receptor alpha (PPAR alpha), which regulates the transcription of genes involved in fatty acid oxidation and transport. The researchers discovered that myrislignan, a neolignane in nutmeg, was also significantly protective against liver injury.
The lignan nectandrin B has been shown to protect liver cells against oxidative injury and suppress liver cell fat accumulation, possibly by mechanisms that include AMPK activation.17,18
Will Nutmeg Become a Drug?
“Nutmeg is a valued kitchen spice that has been used for centuries all over the world,” Ehab A. Abourashed and Abir T. El-Alfy of Chicago State University wrote in a recent review. The authors highlight that, as a source of diverse secondary metabolites with potential for drug discovery, nutmeg needs to receive more attention as a resource for developing new drug entities of benefit humanity.19
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