The popular Christmas spice has been used to treat gastrointestinal illnesses in traditional Chinese medicine for centuries.
Now scientists have found it boosts other organs – especially the liver.
This is thanks to it being rich in plant chemicals known as lignans that reduce inflammation.
The discovery comes as Britain faces a liver disease ‘timebomb’ fuelled by obesity and binge drinking.
In experiments a nutmeg extract protected mice after they were injected with a chemical called thioacetamide that causes liver disease.
Levels of an enzyme called transaminase that is released into the bloodstream when the organ is damaged returned to normal.
In particular, a specific lignan called myrislignan was identified as being the most important.
Dr Xiu-Wei Yang, a pharmaceutical scientist at Peking University in China, said: “The results indicated recovery of increased serum transaminases, decrease in liver oxidative stress and lower liver inflammation.”
Lignans are antioxidants that are known to boost the immune system. They are also found in the Indian spice turmeric that has been linked with a host of health benefits.
As well as being used in mulled wine at Christmas, nutmeg can be added to a range of puddings and sauces.
The study, published in the journal Proteome Research, suggested it protected the liver by restoring blood fats, or lipids, and other chemicals to healthy levels.
Further analysis found it also improved expression of a gene called PPARA. When mice were genetically engineered to lack the protein the spice did not prevent liver damage.
Dr Yang said: “These data demonstrate that nutmeg alleviates liver injury through the modulation of PPARA and the lignan compounds such as myrislignan partly contributed to this action.”
According to the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations, the world consumes 9,000 tons annually.
Spice up your life
Nutmeg is the seed of the Myristica fragrans tree – commonly found on the fabled ‘Spice Islands’ of Indonesia.
It has also been used in Chinese medicine to treat asthma, rheumatic pain, toothaches and infections.
In the laboratory researchers have shown nutmeg can combat high cholesterol, high blood sugar and heart damage.
Last year a study warned liver disease will overtake heart disease as the biggest cause of early death in the UK by 2020.
Alcohol and obesity are the main causes of liver issues and many of those dying are young or in middle-age.
The research estimated how many ‘years of working life’ would be lost to the two illnesses.
This is a measure of early death, likely to be pre-retirement age, and states the total number of years lost by adults who die early.
The study predicted that by 2020, liver disease will have overtaken heart disease with 80,000 working years lost annually.
By comparison there will be fewer than 76,000 working years lost to heart disease, and the number will continue to fall.
Professor Nick Sheron, a liver expert from the University of Southampton involved in the research, said many deaths occurred in middle-aged adults.