Nitrates in cured and processed meats such as beef jerky, bacon and hotdogs are known to be carcinogenic and have also been implicated in neurodegenerative diseases. The nitrates in processed meats are turned into nitrites by bacteria in your mouth, and then into carcinogenic nitrosamines when they reach your stomach.

As explained by Gunter Kuhnle, professor of food and nutritional sciences at the University of Reading, U.K., “What makes processed meats so ideal for forming N-nitroso compounds is that they have a combination of nitrite and proteins from the meat. And the meat’s heme seems to help convert them into N-nitroso compounds.”

“Nitrosamines mediate their mutagenic effects by causing DNA damage, oxidative stress, lipid peroxidation and proinflammatory cytokine activation, which lead to increased cellular degeneration and death,” researchers wrote in the Journal of Alzheimer’s disease. These same processes also contribute to neurodegeneration that could influence your mental health. Nitrosamines are also linked to inflammation, a key player in cancer and other diseases that has also been implicated in manic episodes.

“We think the key is probably inflammation,” Yolken said in a news release. Gut microbiota is another primary suspect, as the rats that ate nitrates had different bacterial strains in their guts than the other animals. “There’s growing evidence that germs in the intestines can influence the brain,” says Yolken. “And this work on nitrates opens the door for future studies on how that may be happening.”

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