Drinking Alcohol Regularly Reduces Risk of Rheumatoid Arthritis in Study

By Iona Craig

Regular alcohol consumption provided protection against rheumatoid arthritis and its painful effects, U.K. researchers found in the first study to show the link in humans.


Non-drinkers were four times more likely to develop rheumatoid arthritis than people who drank alcohol on more than 10 days a month, according to the research published online today by the U.K. journal Rheumatology. Arthritis patients who drank regularly had less severe symptoms than non-drinkers, the study found.

There is no known cause or cure for rheumatoid arthritis, known as RA, which affects more than 500,000 people in the U.K., according to the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence. The disease occurs when the immune system attacks the joints, causing pain and swelling and potentially leading to severe disability and early death. Alcohol blunts the activity of the immune system, and more research is needed to determine how that process works, the researchers said.

“We know that alcohol reduces immune activity at least to some extent, and suspect that this is the main reason that alcohol consumption is associated with a reduction in severity of RA,” said James Maxwell, a rheumatologist at the Rotherham Foundation NHS Trust and author of the study, in an e-mailed statement. “Alcohol may also have a mild pain-killing effect.”


“X-rays showed there was less damage to joints, blood tests showed lower levels of inflammation and there was less joint pain, swelling and disability among drinkers”, Maxwell said.

His report cited previous research using ethanol and mice which pointed to testosterone as a potential link to the inflammation-fighting effects, as levels of the hormone rose in line with increased ethanol consumption. Ethanol is the intoxicating component of alcoholic beverages.

“The effects on the immune system may be influenced by testosterone, but we didn’t investigate that specifically in our patients, and we found similar effects in both men and women,” Maxwell said.

Today’s findings supported Scandinavian research published in June 2008 showing that alcohol consumption reduced the risk of rheumatoid arthritis by 40 to 50 percent. Maxwell suggested a further study should be done with a larger group, recording alcohol intake over a prolonged period before any recommendations could be made to doctors or patients about alcohol consumption.

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