The Humorous Herbalist |

The Humorous Herbalist

Laurel Dewey

Dear Humorous Herbalist,

I tend to use a lot of nutmeg when I bake during the holidays. A good friend of mine recalls a letter you answered several years ago from a reader who asked about nutmeg. In your reply, you apparently gave certain warnings about overuse of nutmeg. My friend told me that you said nutmeg was fatal in large amounts. This obviously concerns me, and I’d like to know if you could reprint the response to that letter for my reference. Thank you very much.

” Tara (via e-mail)

Dear Tara,

That letter must have been printed a long time ago because I cannot find it in my files. However, I can certainly address the concern over your nutmeg dilemma.

In small, measured amounts, nutmeg does have medicinal benefits. It has been used for centuries to quell nausea, intestinal gas and as a digestive aid. An “old time” herbal formula for these purposes is combining one teaspoon of clove powder and a quarter teaspoon of nutmeg powder to seven ounces of hot water. Let the mixture steep for 10 minutes, strain the herbal powders through a muslin cloth and sip slowly.

Nutmeg also has sedative abilities. Stir one-half teaspoon of nutmeg powder in a cup of warm milk and sip before bedtime.

Nutmeg does work beautifully when used in moderation and in small amounts (i.e., between one-quarter teaspoon and one-half teaspoon.) The problems begin when people buy into the “more is better” adage. A single dose of one tablespoon of powdered nutmeg is considered “toxic” by some herbalists. Others warn that two ground-up fresh nutmeg seeds could cause death in sensitive individuals due to a constituent in the seed called “myristicin.”

Overdose of nutmeg typically causes a “dream-like, floating, slightly euphoric, blissful” state followed by the not-so-blissful gut cramping, head-aching, diarrhea-producing effect. Other more serious consequences of too much nutmeg include hallucinations, a dull stupor, double vision, delirium and intense stomach pain.

One definite caution with nutmeg is that pregnant women should not drink the tea since it can cause uterine stimulation. A slight pinch here and there of the herb as a spice is OK. However, if you have a history of miscarriages, I would avoid the herb altogether.

When you say you use “a lot” of nutmeg, I have no idea what that means. If you are smothering your puddings and pies with the spice, I’d probably back off and try a gentle sprinkle here and there. I’m sure you don’t want to be known as the “holiday hallucination queen” just because you tipped a little too much nutmeg into your Christmas pudding.

Dear Humorous Herbalist,

I just ran across some herbal tinctures that I know I bought in the mid-1990s. Some have been opened and used and some still have the factory seal around the top. Are these still effective, potent remedies or are they too old to use?

” Deborah (via e-mail)

Dear Deborah,

That depends. Check on the side of the bottle and see whether they are made out of a combination of distilled water AND alcohol or if vegetable glycerine was used to extract the herb’s properties. If they were made with water and alcohol, they are still potent remedies, whether they have been opened and used or not. Alcohol extracts have an extremely long shelf life, as opposed to glycerine extracts, which are much less potent and have a one- to three-year shelf life, depending upon the extraction process.

Besides taking the alcohol tincture to a lab and checking out the levels of active properties, there is no sure way to determine exactly how the strength varies with each passing year. However, I can offer a personal anecdotal experience: I recently found a bottle of calendula tincture that was purchased in the early 1970s. I decided to give it a try when I needed to treat a canker sore on my lip. (Calendula tincture is great for this purpose.) I needed to apply the tincture on the canker sore five times (instead of the typical one or two applications) over a period of several hours to get the canker sore to diminish. But the point is, the canker sore DID diminish.

So, yes the tincture was effective but after 30 years of it sitting on the shelf, I needed to use a little more of it to get the desired effect.

E-mail your questions to The Humorous Herbalist at

The information in this column is not meant to take the place of your physician’s advice, nor is it intended to treat, diagnose or prescribe. Pregnant or nursing women should consult their doctor before using herbal therapy.

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