Are Hot Dogs & Bacon Actually Bad for Your Mental Health?

We may have just celebrated National Hot Dog Day, but lovers of frankfurters and other delicious processed meats may have cause for concern. According to new research out of Johns Hopkins University, nitrates — the chemical used to cure meats — may contribute to mania.

Now, I know what you're thinking, and yes, I too get very excited when I see/smell/eat bacon, but that's not what they're referring to here — that would be mania, an abnormal mood state characterized by hyperactivity, euphoria and insomnia, typically associated with bipolar disorder.

But before you panic and clean out the meat drawer in the fridge, let's take a closer look at the research. Published in the journal Molecular Psychiatryit found that people who had been hospitalized for a manic episode were more than three times more likely of having eaten processed meats cured with nitrate than those without a history of a serious psychiatric condition.

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It's important to note, however, that the study was not designed to establish a cause and effect relationship between cured meats and mania but did note the link between the two as a potential indication that environmental factors, like diet, may impact mental health. Given that bipolar disorder affects an estimated 1 to 3 percent of Americans and costs an estimated $25 billion each year in direct health care costs, according to a study in the Journal of Affective Disorders, this is a link worth exploring further. 

“Future work on this association could lead to dietary interventions to help reduce the risk of manic episodes in those who have bipolar disorder or who are otherwise vulnerable to mania,” lead author Dr. Robert Yolken, the Theodore and Vada Stanley distinguished professor of neurovirology in pediatrics at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, said in a statement

Initially, Yolken and his colleagues attempted to examine whether viruses transmitted through food might have an impact on mental health conditions, and in the process came across the connection between people who eat processed meats and those who have experienced mania.

“We looked at a number of different dietary exposures and cured meat really stood out,” Yolken said. “It wasn’t just that people with mania have an abnormal diet.” He added that past research has linked nitrates to some cancers and neurodegenerative conditions, which might explain the connection with mania.

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The researchers tested their hypothesis by feeding rats beef jerky with nitrates, and found that the rats started exhibiting irregular sleeping patterns and hyperactivity within two weeks. But of course, there are crucial differences between rats and humans, so more research in the area is needed.

In the meantime, Yolken and his colleagues said that it's too early to take any clinical messages from the results of the study, and moderate, occasional consumption of processed meats is probably not going to trigger manic episodes in most people. So, while we may not have to totally go cold turkey on bacon and hot dogs, it's always helpful to have a better idea of how food impacts our physical and mental health.

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