Can you get high on nutmeg? A doctor explains what it does to the brain
“I've never experienced anything like this in my life.”
Jeanine Roeters van Lennep, M.D., Ph.D
Jeanine Roeters van Lennep is a vascular medicine internist at the Erasmus Medical Center and a self-described straight edge. She doesn’t do drugs and rarely overdoes it with alcohol, either. So when she woke up the night after a dinner in 2014 feeling dizzy, disoriented, and unable to recognize her colleagues or the campus, she was truly terrified. What, she asked herself, had happened to her at the dinner?
Her friends rushed her to the emergency room, where doctors were unable to determine the source of van Lennep’s confusion. They sent the confused and worried physician home with a shrug.
“They couldn't find anything expected that I had a high heart rate,” van Lennep recalls for Inverse.
“I thought, well, I better go home because I don’t know what’s wrong with me but there’s definitely something wrong. I’ve never experienced anything like this in my life.”
It was only later that van Lennep realized the culprit. At the fateful dinner, she had sprinkled an extra pinch or two of a pungent and deceptively hallucinogenic spice onto her food: Nutmeg.
“Traditionally in the Netherlands, you always have some nutmeg with asparagus,” van Lennep says. Usually, the diner grates their nutmeg themselves on the food, but that wasn’t the case at the large party van Lennep had gone to, which was part of an academic meeting.
“To make it convenient for a large group, they had little bowls of already grated nutmeg,” van Lennep says. Each diner could help themselves to as much or as little as they pleased — or not.
“I was just chatting with my friends so I just added some nutmeg and I thought, well, it's a little bit too much... I came back [for more] and again, a little bit too much.”
As the nutmeg fell ever more thickly on her asparagus, van Lennep says she felt fine as she ate it. But then hours later, in the middle of the night, she began to feel strange — so strange she went to the emergency room and ultimately remained in a weird mental state for several days.
What makes nutmeg hallucinogenic?
Van Lennep experienced autointoxication from nutmeg, meaning she accidentally gave herself a potent dose of the spice and intoxicated herself. But on the chemical level, van Lennep gave herself a high dose of a hallucinogen, myristicin, which is found in the oil of fresh nutmeg.
“Penny matchbox full of nutmeg had the kick of three or four reefers.”
You need to eat a lot of fresh nutmeg to get the effect van Lennep experienced. Unless you are as absent-minded — and perhaps underwhelmed by the stringent taste of the spice — as van Lennep, it is very unlikely that the 1/4 teaspoon or so worth of nutmeg that adorns holiday drinks and spices up baked goods this time of year will get you high.
According to van Lennep, it typically a person has to eat at least 5 grams (a little over two teaspoons) of nutmeg to experience any psychotropic effects.
Can you get high from nutmeg?
The reason why nutmeg has such a profound effect on the brain is to do with myristicin, which targets your body’s central nervous system and floods it with norepinephrine, a hormone responsible for increasing heart rate in blood pressure.
Similar to peyote, intoxication from nutmeg can cause:
- Dry mouth
Not everyone is as unhappy as van Lennep was to experience such effects. She says humans have been chasing this spicy high since as early as the 1500s. Historical accounts show religious crusaders would ingest nutmeg to combat the boredom and foot pain that can come with long journeys overland. Nutmeg may even be responsible for giving seers, like 15th-century physician and astrologer Nostradamus, their prophetic visions.
More recently, civil-rights leader Malcolm X has said he enjoyed a potent spoonful of nutmeg every now and again, too, after being introduced to the spice in prison: “A penny matchbox full of nutmeg had the kick of three or four reefers,” X writes in his eponymous autobiography.
Records dating to the 12th and 15th centuries also document medicinal uses of nutmeg as a form of birth control, seemingly able to induce menstruation as well as being used in terminations.
As for autointoxication like van Lennep, cases aren’t very common in the literature — although she believes there may be more people like her whose experiences go unreported.
There is, however, one current trend in taking nutmeg for recreational reasons that is very much public knowledge: the TikTok nutmeg challenge.
What is the TikTok nutmeg challenge?
In April 2020, during the early days of the coronavirus pandemic, stir-crazy teenagers on TikTok started posting about the powers of the drug hiding in their parents’ spice cabinets.
The “#nutmegchallenge” involves TikTok users stirring multiple tablespoons — roughly 7 grams each — of nutmeg into a glass of water. They then chug the water and record the experience. Videos show teens splayed out on bedroom floors, riding the high.
But the challenge also highlights the dangers involved in taking too much nutmeg. In one instance, a 19-year-old user even blends an entire bottle of nutmeg into a protein shake — this doesn’t end well. The teen ends up in the ER suffering from seizures. TikTok has blocked the hashtag for violating community guidelines, but videos of users consuming the substance can still be found if you search creatively enough (i.e. by misspelling the original hashtag by a few letters).
Is getting high on nutmeg dangerous?
Tossing back a teaspoon of nutmeg to engage a holiday high may seem like harmless fun, but both the TikTok ban and van Lennep’s experiences show it can have serious consequences.
In addition to risking a dreaded “nutmeg hangover” — a side effect that can last for two days and make you feel generally lousy — she says nutmeg intoxication can also cause seizures, heart palpitations, and even coma or death in serious cases. There are other, less dangerous, ways to have seasonal fun.
As for van Lennep, she says she enjoys nutmeg in food — cautiously, of course.
“All my friends and family tease me about my nutmeg experience because I’m a person that doesn’t use drugs,” van Lennep says. “So for a very long time, I didn’t take any nutmeg. [But] now sometimes I use it — very, very sparingly, just for the taste.”
CHECK, PLEASE is an Inverse series that uses biology, chemistry, and physics to debunk the biggest food myths and assumptions.