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Study Finds an Association Between Cured Meat and Mania

There could be a link between consuming cured meat like beef jerky and experiencing mania. In a study analyzing over a 1,000 people, researchers at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine found that people hospitalized for manic symptoms were more than three times as likely to have eaten nitrate-cured meats.

Manic symptoms include euphoria, decreased need for sleep, racing thoughts, impulsive or risky behaviors and more. Mania is mostly found in individuals with bipolar 1 disorder, though people with schizoaffective disorder can experience it as well. People with bipolar 2 disorder experience hypomania, which is similar to mania, but is usually not treated in the hospital and does not include delusions or hallucinations.

The study, which was published in Molecular Psychiatry, was not designed to identify cause and effect. Researchers said the study adds to evidence that diet and gut bacteria can contribute to disorders that affect the brain.

“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,” Dr. Robert Yolken, lead author of the study, said in a statement.

At first, Yolken and his colleagues were looking for a link between infections like viruses that are transmitted through food and psychiatric conditions. The researchers “unexpectedly” found an association between nitrate-cured meats and hospitalization for mania. Nitrates are commonly found in processed meats like beef jerky, hot dogs, and meat sticks, also known as Slim Jims.

Nitrates are used in cured meat as a preservative to prevent harmful bacteria from growing. Nitrates have been linked to an increased likelihood of developing certain cancers and other medical issues. The researchers said it is plausible that the nitrates impact the microbiome, or the bacteria, of the gut, which then influences the central nervous system, including the brain.

This study did not, however, include data regarding the amount of food consumed or when the food was consumed. Therefore, it’s unclear the amount of cured meat you’d have to eat to increase your risk of experiencing mania. Researchers noted that individuals at risk of mania should consider limiting how much nitrates they consume. They found no association between foods like fish and meat cured through dehydration and mania.

To test that eating nitrate-cured meat was associated with mania, the researchers used rats. The rats were fed nitrate cured meat products with their normal rat food. The cured meat given to the rats was relative to the amount a person would eat as a snack. Rats who ate the cured meat exhibited hyperactivity “reminiscent” of mania in humans. The brains of the rats also showed changes in pathways of the brain associated with bipolar disorder in humans.

While eating nitrate-cured meats was associated with increased odds of being hospitalized for acute mania, researchers said a diet comprising cured meats was not significantly associated with other psychiatric diagnoses or symptoms, such as schizophrenia, schizoaffective disorder, bipolar disorder, bipolar depression or major depressive disorder. The Mighty asked researchers how eating cured meats can increase mania, a symptom of bipolar disorder and schizoaffective disorder, without increasing the likelihood of having either condition, and has yet to hear back.

Photo via Getty Images/Boltenkoff