By Menaka Sanjay Gandhi
Is someone known to you going “crazy”? Suspicious, swings from being extremely happy to morose, hyperactive, insomniac, angry without reason. Check to see how much meat he is eating. Specially pre-packaged or restaurant meat, like ham, sausages, hot dogs, dried beef or turkey jerky, salami.
Cohort studies follow groups of individuals over time to investigate the causes of disease, establishing links between risk factors and outcomes. Many major findings about the health effects of lifestyle come from cohort studies. Johns Hopkins, founded in 1876 in Baltimore, is America’s first research university and its research is considered world class. A detailed cohort study done by Johns Hopkins, evaluating diet in people with mania, has been published in the journal Molecular Psychiatry.
Mania is a serious state of abnormally elevated arousal characterised by lack of inhibitions, racing thoughts, diminished need for sleep. It ranges from euphoric to irritable and, as the mania intensifies, violence or extreme anxiety. Fancy, irrational ideas, delusions, disorientation, incoherence, catatonia and finally death. What is it caused by? Genetics, drugs, certain diseases like multiple sclerosis, hormone imbalances, have been the standard diagnosis. But experts have veered to the opinion that it could also be food.
Johns Hopkins scientists studied diet and its role in a cohort of individuals with mania and other psychiatric disorders, as well as individuals without them. They found that a history of eating nitrated dry cured meat was strongly and independently associated with mania.
Are nitrates harmful?
The study done by scientists at John Hopkins Medicine was led by Dr. Robert Yolken, a professor of Neurovirology. Yolken was originally interested in studying the effect foods may have on mental illness, and conducted a demographic study of 1,101 people, both with and without mental disorders, from 2007 to 2017. It was from that pool of data that Yolken noticed the association between mania and nitrate consumption. It was found that people who had been in hospital for mania were about 3.5 times as likely to have eaten nitrates, as people who were with no history of a serious mental disorder.
The addition of chemical nitrogen compounds in the form of sodium nitrite, or potassium nitrate, is used to preserve processed meats, preventing decay and bacterial growth, adding colour and reducing oxidation.
This is called “curing” meats. They are commonly found in processed meat products such as hot dogs, beef jerky, ham, sausages and salami. Nitrates have been linked to cancer and neurodegenerative disease as well
Once the scientists had isolated nitrates, they experimented on rats. They found that the feeding of meat preparations with added nitrate to rats, resulted in hyperactivity and irregular sleep, reminiscent of human mania, within two weeks. These rats also showed changes in their intestinal microbiota, as well as changes in their brain pathways, similar to what is seen in humans with bipolar disorder. These changes were not seen in the group of rats whose food did not contain any nitrates.
Mania and other brain disorders
The rats, who were fed the meat daily, were given an amount equivalent of what a typical person would eat: one hot dog per day. “We tried to make sure the amount of nitrate used in the experiment was in the range of what people might reasonably be eating,” says Yolken.
Experts are increasingly of the belief that, in addition to genetic circumstances, diet plays a role in causing mental health issues. The theory, according to Johns Hopkins researchers, is that gut bacteria may be one contributing cause to mania and other brain disorders – which would mean that people with mania could reduce their problem by changing their diet. Dr Yolken surmises that the reason is probably inflammation of the gut.
Nitrates in food are linked with cancer, which is in turn linked with inflammation. Other studies have shown that people who have manic episodes show signs of inflammation in their bodies. A previous study from Yolken’s group showed that mania patients are less likely to be re-hospitalized if they are given probiotics, which can affect gut bacteria. “There’s growing evidence that germs in the intestines can influence the brain,” Yolken said. That evidence includes a 2016 study which found that people with migraine headaches have higher levels of a bacterium that causes the absorption of nitrates. Nitrogen compounds affect the bacteria in the gut. The changed bacteria now allows for a larger amount of nitrates to be digested, causing their blood vessels to dilate more than usual and cause intense pain in the form of a migraine.
How food affects your moods
In another study done, by Djordjevic VV, Stojanovic et al (2010), on plasma nitrite/nitrate concentrations in 40 patients with schizophrenia and 36 persons without it, it was discovered that the schizophrenics had a significantly higher concentration, almost double. And women had higher levels than men.
Another study, done by Dr Valerie Taylor of the Women’s College Hospital in Toronto, showed that people with severe bipolar problems improved after antibiotics were given to flush out their gut bacteria – a clear connection between gut bacteria and mental health issues
What Johns Hopkins has proven through science, a parent instinctively knows – that food can impact on their child’s behaviour and mood. Sugar can cause bouts of hyperactivity, depression, cognitive delay and sleep problems. Any form of milk can make a child irritable, cranky or aggressive. Artificial colouring has been linked to ADHD, anxiety, hyperactivity, and headaches in children. Because artificial colouring is found in many sugary foods, parents often blame behavioural changes on sugar. Artificial colouring is also often hidden in unexpected foods, like bread and yogurt. Avoid products with yellow No. 5, red No. 40, and blue No. 1 if you’re concerned about your child’s mood swings. Preservatives like nitrates, nitrites, sodium benzoate (found in children’s juice products) cause behavioural problems in children. Monosodium glutamate (MSG) is a flavour enhancer that also causes mood and behaviour changes, including headaches and hyperactivity. If you notice behaviour changes, or mood swings, in your child, consider keeping a food journal. Track what they eat and when they exhibit “bad” behaviour.
Preventing mania could be as simple as not eating processed meat – or any meat at all.