TUESDAY, July 27 (Health.com) — Moderate drinking has been linked to a variety of health benefits, including a reduced risk of heart disease, stroke, and diabetes. According to a new study, drinking alcohol may also ease the pain of—and lower the risk of developing—rheumatoid arthritis, a potentially crippling autoimmune disorder.
People who don’t drink alcohol are roughly four times more likely to have rheumatoid arthritis than people who have at least one drink three or more days per week, the study found.
The researchers also found that rheumatoid arthritis patients who drink alcohol tend to have less severe symptoms than their nondrinking counterparts. And the more often they drink, the milder their symptoms are.
An estimated 1.3 million adults in the U.S. have rheumatoid arthritis, a disorder in which the body’s immune system inappropriately attacks the joints, causing inflammation, pain, and swelling. Some people experience temporary or intermittent symptoms, but severe cases of the disorder can be disabling.
“Alcohol reduces immune activity, at least to some extent, and [we] suspect that this is the main reason that alcohol consumption is associated with a reduction in severity of rheumatoid arthritis,” says the lead author of the study, James Maxwell, a rheumatologist at Rotherham Hospital, in the U.K. “Alcohol may also have a mild painkilling effect.”
This doesn’t mean that rheumatoid arthritis patients should head for the nearest bar or liquor store. Maxwell and his colleagues looked only at how many days per month the participants drank, not how much they downed at each sitting or what they filled their glasses with, so the link between overall alcohol use and rheumatoid arthritis remains a bit fuzzy.
In addition, some rheumatoid arthritis drugs—such as methotrexate—can cause liver damage if consumed with alcohol, says Martin Bergman, MD, chief of rheumatology at Taylor Hospital, in Ridley Park, Pa.
“Moderation is the key,” says Dr. Bergman. “This [study] is by no means encouraging people to go out and get hammered, but as long as there are no [drug] contraindications, there may be some benefits to moderate alcohol consumption if you have [rheumatoid arthritis] or are at increased risk for it.”
Next page: First study of its kind