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Nutmeg High

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By Drs. David Niesel and Norbert Herzog, Medical Discovery News

If you're lucky, you'll be partaking in more pumpkin spice lattes, pies, and eggnog than usual over the next couple of months, and with that, more spices such as cinnamon, allspice, and nutmeg. But beware -- nutmeg also has a darker side as a somewhat poor substitute for recreational drugs used in prisons or by teenagers, some of whom end up needing the help of poison control centers.

Nutmeg is derived from the seed of an evergreen tree called Myristica fragrans that is indigenous to the Maluku Islands of Indonesia, which is still the global leader in producing nutmeg. They were first planted in the Caribbean in 1802 but are now cultivated more widely in countries with similar climates. Nutmeg made its way to Europe via Arab traders in the 12th century and was soon recognized to be particularly potent. It was used to treat infections like the Black Plague, as an aphrodisiac, to stimulate menstruation, and in higher doses induce abortion. It also gained a reputation for inducing a hazy high that could include hallucinations. At one time, nutmeg was the third most valuable commodity in the world after gold and silver.

Word of nutmeg's properties eventually made it to modern prisons. The biography of Malcolm X describes how inmates would purchase nutmeg hidden in matchboxes and mix it into liquids, inducing a high equivalent to several marijuana cigarettes. What that description does not include are some of the more unpleasant side effects: intense nausea, dizziness, extreme dry mouth, rapid heartbeat, and audio, visual, and tactile hallucinations. The effects start three to six hours after ingestion and typically last 12 hours. The slowing of normal brain function lingers, prompting some to describe it as a two-day hangover. Memories of the time are often incomplete.

The active ingredients in nutmeg responsible for these effects are myristicin, safrole, and eugenol, psychoactive compounds sometimes used to make illicit drugs such as MMDA and ecstasy. Since 1967, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has categorized nutmeg as a psychoactive drug, and because of its potential toxicity, it is also included in the FDA's poison database. Over a period of 10 years, one study found 32 cases of nutmeg poisoning, 15 of which were deliberate. These cases involved 15-20-year-olds who mixed the spice with pharmaceuticals, one case of which left the user in serious condition. Another study found 119 cases between 1997 and 2008, more that 70 percent of which were deliberately ingested.

There are no confirmed deaths from nutmeg ingestion, but large doses of nutmeg can be detrimental to the liver, central nervous system, and hearing. Don't worry - the amount of nutmeg in your desserts isn't nearly enough to cause a high, but it is important to take precautions and keep this holiday spice away from children.

Medical Discovery News is hosted by professors Norbert Herzog at Quinnipiac University, and David Niesel of the University of Texas Medical Branch. Learn more at www.medicaldiscoverynews.com..