Rheumatoid arthritis (RA) is a chronic auto-immune disease that primarily causes painful inflammation around synovial joints (e.g. knees, fingers, elbows). Previous research has suggested that alcohol consumption could have a beneficial effect on the risk of developing RA, whilst studies in mice have suggested that alcohol could help reduce inflammation by modulating NFkB signaling pathways that are key in the inflammatory response.
“Once someone has developed rheumatoid arthritis, it is possible that the anti-inflammatory and analgesic effects of alcohol may play a role in reducing the severity of symptoms” said Dr. James Maxwell, of the University of Sheffield (UK).
The new study, led by Dr Maxwell, aimed to confirm the findings of previous research into alcohol and rheumatoid arthritis by assessing the associations between the frequency of alcohol consumption and the risk and severity of RA. The findings of the new research suggest that alcohol consumption may be suitable as a dietary control for arthritis, but with many countries fighting to reduce alcohol consumption in the population, it is important to know more about potential beneficial effects that alcohol consumption may have.
The research found a dose-dependent relationship between alcohol consumption and the severity of rheumatoid arthritis. The reduction in severity of the disease was measured using a range of clinical and laboratory methods, and is the first time that such a relationship has been observed in humans. Dr. Maxwell said: “Patients who had drunk alcohol most frequently had symptoms that were less severe than those who had never drunk alcohol or only drunk it infrequently. 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”.
The study also echoed the findings of previous research by observing that the risk of developing rheumatoid arthritis decreased in line with the frequency of alcohol consumed. Non-drinkers were found to be four times more likely to develop the disease than people who drank more then ten times a month. "This finding agrees with the results from previous studies that have shown a decreased susceptibility to developing RA among alcohol drinkers," said Dr Maxwell.
The research observed a stronger association between alcohol consumption frequency and RA severity in men than women, but the association between RA severity and alcohol consumption was classed as significant in both sexes.
A possible drawback in how precisely the findings of this study can be interpreted is that the research only measured the frequency of alcohol consumption and did not measure the amount of alcohol consumed. It is not clear on how the volume of alcohol consumed may affect RA sufferers: Would drinking a larger amount often have more or less effect on RA severity than drinking smaller amounts but equally as often?
The study concludes: "While there are a number of limitations to the methodology of this study, the results do suggest that the consumption of alcohol may modify RA, influencing both risk and severity."
Dr. Maxwell added: "Further research is needed to confirm the results of our study and to investigate the mechanisms by which alcohol influences people's susceptibility to rheumatoid arthritis and the severity of symptoms"
Alcohol consumption is inversely associated with risk and severity of rheumatoid arthritis.
Authors: James R. Maxwell, Isobel R. Gowers, David J. Moore, and Anthony G. Wilson