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Alcohol linked to reduced risk of rheumatoid arthritis

Alcohol linked to reduced risk of rheumatoid arthritis Also helps to reduce the severity of the disease

A new study has found evidence that drinking alcohol can help reduce the severity of rheumatoid arthritis (RA). It also confirmed previous studies that suggested alcohol consumption can protect against the disease developing in the first place.

Over 800 RA sufferers were questioned about their drinking habits. They were also subjected to a series of tests and examinations, including x-rays of their joints. Another group of 1000 people who did not have RA were also given the tests and questionnaire to act as a control group.

RA patients who drank alcohol more than 10 times each month had symptoms which were less severe than those who never drank alcohol or only drank it infrequently, as one of the study authors, James Maxwell, explained: "We found that 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."

Non-drinkers were found to be 4 times more likely than drinkers to develop RA. In fact the risk of developing RA decreased as the amount of alcohol drank increased. "This finding agrees with the results from previous studies that have shown a decreased susceptibility to developing RA among alcohol drinkers," said Maxwell.

It is not clear why increased drinking should have this effect, but there is evidence that alcohol can reduce the strength of the body's immune system. As RA is caused by the immune system attacking the body, this could explain the effect seen in the study.

Dr Maxwell commented that "There is some evidence to show that alcohol suppresses the activity of the immune system, and that this may influence the pathways by which RA develops. We do know that the changes in the immune system that lead to RA happen months and maybe even years before the arthritis actually develops. Once someone has developed RA, it's possible that the anti-inflammatory and analgesic effects of alcohol may play a role in reducing the severity of symptoms."

Maxwell accepts that there are some limitations in the study, which was published in the journal Rheumatology. For instance they only recorded the frequency rather than the amount of alcohol consumed, and there was a marked difference in age and gender between the control group and the RA sufferers. But they conclude that there is still enough evidence to suggest that the link between alcohol and protection against RA is real - "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."

This article was published on Wed 28 July 2010

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