Holiday memories are often laced with the scent of spices: for me, a whiff of baking gingerbread can bring back the comforts of childhood in an instant. But a rash of recent media reports suggests that the allure of gingerbread may be due not to its rich smell and taste alone, but also to the fact that spices like nutmeg, mace, cloves and anise may act like drugs.
Only 67 cases of nutmeg exposure have been recorded by the American Association of Poison Control Centers this year, compared with 5,000 phone calls for marijuana. Aside from the drumroll of nutmeg press reports, I can find no evidence that its use is actually increasing.
It is true, however, that nutmeg is psychoactive. But like the alleged “high” kids get from sniffing glue or paint, the psychedelic nutmeg experience — which requires doses far larger than one would ever encounter in gingerbread — is excessively unpleasant. Shafer writes:
One anecdotal report: A drug-savvy friend of mine compares his one nutmeg high to being keelhauled by a freight train on a transcontinental run.
Most people who try getting high on nutmeg never do it again. And, as with inhalants, abuse is seen mainly among younger teens, poor people and prisoners. In other words, it’s taken in desperation or boredom by people who can’t get real drugs.
So what does nutmeg do to the brain? A 2005 Czech paper explores the possibility that compounds in nutmeg, cinnamon, clove and anise are precursors to amphetamines that are formed during baking. The abstract notes:
Humans may be exposed to amphetamines derived from these precursors in forno, the formation during baking and cooking, for example in the preparation of Lebkuchen, or Christmas gingerbread. It is possible that this may be responsible, in part, for uplifting our mood in winter. However, the role of these aromatic substances, acting simply as odours, evoking old memories of winters past, cannot be ignored. Whether spices have a true pharmacological effect or they act as aromatherapy remains to be elucidated through clinical and laboratory studies.
More recent research on nutmeg in mice has found that extracts have varying effects depending on whether they are given orally or injected; the compounds produced some stimulant-like effects and some pain relief. Another recent study found that chemicals in nutmeg also positively affect receptors involved in cholesterol levels. It remains to be seen whether any of this will lead to drug development that is useful for humans.
So for now, it seems better to stick to the aromatherapy version of the nutmeg high: cheap, safe and hype-free. Happy holidays!