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Wine Consumption May Not Lead to Gout, Study Finds

Spirits and beer are linked to a significantly higher risk of gout, but drinking wine is not.

Jacob Gaffney
Posted: July 8, 2004

Overindulgence in alcohol is a usual suspect for those who suffer through bouts of gout. However, researchers at Harvard Medical School found that drinking wine in moderation may not lead to these arthritic flare-ups in the joints, unlike beer or spirits.

"Wine consumption of two 4-ounce glasses per day was not associated with an increased risk of gout," the researchers wrote. "Two or more beers per day increased the risk of gout 2.5-fold, compared with no beer intake, whereas the same frequency of spirits intake increased the risk by 1.6 times compared with no spirits intake," they added.

According to the study, published in the April 17 issue of The Lancet medical journal, gout affects more than 5 million people in the United States. Gout is attributed to a buildup of uric acid crystals in the joints. While the attacks of pain and swelling (typically in the toes, feet, ankles or knees) may subside after a few days, repeated cases may lead to permanent damage. Gout is typically treated with medications designed to lower uric acid in the blood.

"It is well-known that alcohol can raise levels of uric acid in the blood, but its role in actually increasing the risk of gout had never been confirmed," said lead author Hyon Choi, a rheumatologist at Massachusetts General Hospital, in a statement. "This is the first study to confirm what we have long suspected."

The scientists examined data from more than 50,000 male workers in the medical field, who took part in the larger Health Professionals Follow-up Study from 1986 to 1998. The researchers excluded men who had a history of gout prior to the study, leaving them with 47,150 subjects. The health professionals, who were mainly white, were asked to fill out health and lifestyle questionnaires every two years.

The volunteers were asked about their smoking, exercise and drinking habits, among other topics. Their drinking levels were divided into seven categories, according to grams of alcohol consumed in a typical day. (The categories were 0 grams per day, 0.1 to 4.9, 5 to 9.9, 10 to 14.9, 15 to 29.9, 30 to 49.9 and more than 50 grams.)

According to the study, a 4-ounce glass of wine contains around 11 grams of alcohol, a 12-ounce beer has 12.8 grams and 1.5-ounce shot of spirits contains 14 grams.

During the 12-year span of the study, 730 confirmed cases of gout occurred. By comparing the incidence of gout to the men's drinking habits, the researchers were able to determine the risk levels in those who hadn't experienced inflammation.

Choi and his team found that the risk of gout increased with each serving of alcohol per day. However, the results changed dramatically when broken down by the type of beverage each man preferred.

Wine drinkers showed no greater or lesser chance of developing gout compared with nondrinkers. Spirits drinkers, however, showed a 15 percent greater chance with each shot they drank per day. Beer drinkers were at the highest risk, with a 49 percent greater risk with each bottle of beer they drank per day. When adjusted to include other factors, such as consumption of foods containing chemicals linked to gout, the risk may increase to 1.6 times greater for moderate spirits drinkers and 2.5 times greater for moderate beer drinkers.

According to the researchers, certain chemicals abundant in beer, such as purine, may be the culprits. There is also the possibility that some nonalcoholic compounds in wine may offer a protective effect. However, the exact biological mechanisms that link alcohol to gout remains unknown.

"It certainly suggests that individuals with gout should try to limit or even cut out their beer consumption," Choi said, "whereas wine may be allowed, given other health benefits associated with moderate alcohol consumption."

The study adds that men working in the medical field do not represent the general population, therefore, a similar study using members of the general public could yield different results.

# # #

For a comprehensive look at the potential health benefits of drinking wine, check out senior editor Per-Henrik Mansson's feature Eat Well, Drink Wisely, Live Longer: The Science Behind A Healthy Life With Wine

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