To Your Health: Alcohol May Reduce Rheumatoid Arthritis Risk and Symptoms

It turns out alcohol might not only reduce the risk of developing rheumatoid arthritis, but also relieve the symptoms once patients have the disease.A British study gave barflies another reason to raise their glasses this week. The study, released Tuesday, suggests that drinking alcohol may reduce the severity of rheumatoid arthritis. It's the first study to show that alcohol reduces the symptoms of rheumatoid arthritis in humans. Even better for those who like to drink, the study found that patients' risk of developing the disease decreased as the frequency of their alcohol consumption increased -- in other words, those who drank most often were least likely to get the arthritis.

Rheumatoid arthritis causes painful swelling in the lining of the joints, typically the small joints in the hands and feet, and can eventually result in bone erosion and joint deformity. It's an autoimmune disorder, meaning the immune system mistakenly attacks the body's own tissues. The reasons for the disorder remain unknown, but genetics are believed to play a role, as well as lifestyle. (Previous studies in mice have suggested that smoking increases the risk, while alcohol lowers it.) Rheumatoid arthritis affects 1.3 million Americans -- and two to three times more women than men -- and there's no cure, although there are several treatment options.

The study, published in Rheumatology, compared 873 patients with rheumatoid arthritis to 1,004 people without it. The researchers, led by Gerry Wilson, a rheumatology professor at the University of Sheffield in the U.K., further divided the two groups according to how often the participants had drunk alcohol in the previous month: nondrinkers, those who drank during one to five days, those who drank during six to 10 days and those who drank more frequently. The participants completed a questionnaire and got X-rays, blood tests and joint examinations.

More Alcohol, Less Severe Symptoms

The researchers found that the arthritis was progressively less severe as alcohol frequency increased. Patients who had drunk alcohol most frequently reported less severe symptoms -- including less joint pain, swelling and movement problems -- than those who drank less frequently; and the less frequent drinkers reported less severe symptoms than the nondrinkers. The patients' X-rays, blood tests and joint exams confirmed their questionnaires, showing less damage to joints and lower levels of inflammation among drinkers.

The study also found that nondrinkers were four times more likely to develop the arthritis than people who drank alcohol on more than 10 days per month. "This finding agrees with the results from previous studies that have shown a decreased susceptibility to developing [rheumatoid arthritis] among alcohol drinkers," says Dr. James Maxwell, a study author, in a press release.

Scientists don't yet know for sure why more frequent drinkers suffer less from the disease. But oddly enough, it could be thanks to alcohol's immune-system-suppressing effect. There's some evidence that alcohol suppresses immune-system activity, which might in turn block the disease's pathway and slow its development, Maxwell explains in the release. Once a patient has the arthritis, he added, the anti-inflammatory and analgesic effects of alcohol might help reduce the severity of the symptoms.

Time for a Drink?

Still, a spokeswoman for Arthritis Research U.K. was quick to warn that patients shouldn't start drinking excessively because of the study, a statement with which the study authors fully agree. Excessive drinking can be damaging in general, but especially for rheumatoid-arthritis patients taking the immuno-suppressant drug methotrexate. In the study, these patients did not drink more than the recommended amount.

The study has many limitations, which the authors themselves note. For one, the researchers only recorded how often participants drank alcohol, not how much. The study also only considered alcohol consumption for one month, instead of over a longer period, and relied on self-reporting. In addition, there were marked differences in the age and gender mix between the group of arthritis patients and the group without arthritis.

Despite those limitations, "the results do suggest that the consumption of alcohol may modify [rheumatoid arthritis], influencing both risk and severity," the authors conclude. But more research is needed to confirm the results and to investigate the reasons behind them, Maxwell said. "It is also possible that different types of alcoholic drinks may have different effects on [rheumatoid arthritis]."

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