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Medicine for the Outdoors

Dr. Paul Auerbach is the world's leading outdoor health expert. His blog offers tips on outdoor safety and advice on how to handle wilderness emergencies.

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Vitamin C and Gout

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This past month, I saw a couple of patients in the emergency department who suffered from gout. When I was a medical student at Duke in the early 1970s, we commonly encountered patients with this disease, because of epidemiological factors that clustered in the southeastern U.S. Today on the west coast, we don't encounter it as commonly. However, for those persons who suffer from gout, it's a big deal. An acute attack of gout, caused by uric acid crystal formation and the attendant inflammation and pain, can ruin a few days of activity, or even cause a trip to be terminated.

There are a few approaches to treating a person with an acute flare of gout. The current mainstays are administration of nonsteroidal antiinflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), such as naproxyn, or antiinflammatory drugs in the form of corticosteroids. Colchicine is less commonly used.

How does a person prevent gout? The basic tenet is to minimize uric acid production in the body, and/or to prevent its precipitation into crystals within the body's tissues and fluids. There are risk factors associated with suffering from gout, so doing one's best to mitigate these is the proper approach. Here are some of the commonly accepted risk factors:

1. Being obese or overweight
2. Eating purine-rich foods, although there is some controversy about this, since some researchers have identified certain purine-rich foods that, in their assessment, did not seem to be associated with an increased propensity to gout.
3. Drinking excessive quantities of alcohol. This has been recognized for centuries.
4. Elevated blood pressure
5. Lead poisoning. This is one of the reasons that we saw a certain form of gout, known as saturnine gout, when I was a medical student. Persons in the North Carolina region who manufactured moonshine whiskey using an apparatus (still) that included leaded radiators from cars suffered from gouty attacks.
6. Genetics - not much you can do about selecting your parents...
7. Kidney insufficiency or failure
8. Medication use that promotes increased uric acid in the bloodstream
9. Certain blood disorders, such as leukemia or lymphoma
10. Low thyroid function

There was recently a very interesting article that appeared in the Archives of Internal Medicine, entitled "Vitamin C Intake and the Risk of Gout in Men. A Prospective Study," authored by Hyon K. Choi and colleagues (Arch Intern Med 2009;169(5):502-507). They sought to determine whether or not higher vitamin C intake significantly reduces serum uric acid levels, and therefore the risk of suffering from gout.

Adapted from the abstract to the article: We prospectively examined, from 1986 through 2006, the relation between vitamin C intake and risk of incidents of gout in 46,994 male participants with no history of gout at baseline. We used a supplementary questionnaire to ascertain the American College of Rheumatology criteria for gout. Vitamin C intake was assessed every 4 years through validated questionnaires. During the 20 years of follow-up, we documented 1317 confirmed incident cases of gout. Compared with men with vitamin C intake less than 250 milligrams per day (mg/d), the multivariate relative risk (RR) of gout was 0.83 for total vitamin C intake of 500 to 999 mg/d, 0.66 for 1000 to 1499 mg/d, and 0.55 for 1500 mg/d or greater.

The conclusion is that higher vitamin C intake is independently associated with a lower risk of gout. Supplemental vitamin C intake may be beneficial in the prevention of gout. This is, of course, only a single analysis, so warrants further investigation by others before the assumption can be completely made that this will bear out across a larger population. Vitamin C may not really do anything to prevent a "cold," but perhaps it is useful to prevent gout.

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About the Author

Dr. Paul S. Auerbach is the world’s leading authority on wilderness medicine.

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