It’s no secret that processed foods are major contributors to unhealthy environments in our bodies, from poor gut health and inflammation to organ and bone damage. This, in turn, results in a myriad of serious health issues including cancer, weakened bones, infertility, kidney failure…the list goes on and on.
But many times, the term “processed food” is thought of as frozen meals and pizzas or canned and prepared foods down the central aisles of the supermarket—these are only part of the picture. Deli meats, jerky, bacon, hot dogs, sausage and the like are also heavily processed foods containing added chemical nitrates, and studies are now showing a connection between these processed meats and brain health.
A Johns Hopkins School of Medicine study (conducted on over 1,000 people with no history of psychiatric disorders) published in Molecular Psychiatry stated that “nitrated meats are associated with mania in humans and altered behavior and brain gene expression in rats.” Previously, environmental toxins were more highly associated with the onset of mania and other psychological disorders, but researchers have now shown that a history of eating processed meats with nitrates is strongly associated with mania in humans at a “95 percent confidence” level. The study examined a variety of “dietary exposures”, but the study’s lead author, Robert Yolken, said that “cured meat really stood out.” Yolken went on to say that “the key is probably inflammation.”
To a lesser degree, but still significant, human consumption of processed meats containing nitrates were associated with other mental health disorders, including schizoaffective disorder, attention deficit, and delusional thinking. Rats that were fed meats with added nitrates showed changes in both brain pathways and in intestinal microbiota, which were equivalent to those associated with bipolar disorder and hyperactivity in humans. Researchers also found that people admitted to the hospital with episodes of mania—such as insomnia, hyperactivity and euphoria—were more than three and a half times more likely to have eaten meats containing nitrates than those who had no psychiatric issues.
The nitrates referred to in this study are the chemicals that are added to processed meats to preserve color and inhibit the growth of bacteria, not those that are naturally occurring in fruits and vegetables. These added chemicals negatively alter gut bacteria—which are directly connected to the brain and have a profound effect on overall health—and have previously been connected to neurodegenerative diseases.
Not only are added nitrates in foods potential links to psychiatric disorders and episodes, processed foods of all kinds contain added sugars, sodium, bad fats and other chemicals that contribute to an unhealthy microbiome and disease. What’s worse is that the added sugars and sodium have an addictive effect, creating cravings that can make people dependent on them for brief bursts of energy (followed by an energy drop) and taste satisfaction.
As opposed to the chemical nitrates added to processed meat products, the naturally occurring nitrates in fruits and vegetables are actually good for you. Plant nitrates are balanced by antioxidants within the plant that convert nitrates into beneficial nitric oxide, which promotes heart health, lowers blood pressure, decreases plaque in the arteries, and improves systemic blood flow. By improving blood flow in the brain, plant nitrates can improve mental function and may help to reduce age-related cognitive decline. And because people with type 2 diabetes also have impaired nitric oxide production, it may also help to manage, treat, or prevent the disease.
The takeaway from all this is that while added chemical nitrates work against you by harming your overall health as well as brain function, natural plant nitrates work for you by improving brain function and overall health.
Exchanging processed meats for unprocessed, natural meats is a good first step toward better health; you can take it one step further by switching to grass-fed organic meats. To increase your body’s nitric oxide levels, look to fresh organic fruits and vegetables that are high in naturally occurring nitrates, including root vegetables (carrots, beets, etc.), dark leafy greens, garlic, green beans, strawberries, cherries, raspberries, and more. A general rule of thumb is that the closer to the soil a vegetable or fruit grows, the higher it will be in natural nitrates.