Risk of Rheumatoid Arthritis

Knocking back a few beers could reduce your risk of developing rheumatoid arthritis. That's according to a new study published in Arthritis & Rheumatology.

Bing Lu, Dr.PH, an assistant professor at Brigham and Women's Hospital and Harvard Medical School in Boston, looked at the drinking habits of women in the Nurses' Health Study (NHS) and the Nurses' Health Study II (NHSII). Combined, the studies contain data from approximately 238,000 people.

He found that moderate alcohol use lowered the risk of rheumatoid arthritis (RA) by 21 percent, while beer drinking reduced the women’s risk of the disease by 31 percent. He says that moderate alcohol drinking over an extended period of time seemed to reduce the risk of getting RA—though he’s not sure if the same applies to men.

How many beers qualify as "moderate consumption"? Two to four a week, according to the study.

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Studying the Health Impacts of Beer

The researchers looked at data from women who reported consuming various forms of alcohol. Participants estimated their consumption over a year. The researchers also had 173 additional study participants complete a weekly dietary record every three months for a year. Women who were diagnosed with RA completed a connective tissue disease screening questionnaire. From 1980 to 2008, 580 RA cases were diagnosed in the NHS database, and from 1989 to 2009, 323 cases were diagnosed in the NHSII.

“In this large prospective cohort study, we observed a modest association between moderate alcohol intake and risk of developing RA,” the authors wrote.

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Lu cannot explain the mechanism that causes beer (and other alcohols) to lower a woman’s risk for developing the disease. Alcohol is thought to affect the hormonal and immunologic systems, but some theories about these processes are contradictory, the study states. It has been shown that alcohol can eliminate the body’s response to immunogens in animals as well as in humans. It also suppresses the synthesis of proinflammatory cytokines and chemokines.

Lu was not available for additional comment.

“Our findings have implications for RA prevention and could have large potential public health implications,” the authors wrote.

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Don’t Race to the Keg Just Yet

The study found that moderate—not excessive—alcohol consumption may help, but the researchers want to confirm how this works in future studies. In the meantime, they do not necessarily suggest that you should start drinking more beer

“Although these results are intriguing and will need to be examined in additional studies, I certainly wouldn't suggest that patients consume alcohol for this reason,” said Paul Sufka, M.D., a rheumatologist based in Minnesota. “If these results are confirmed, we might instead take a closer look at the mechanism by which this occurs, and use it to guide future therapies.”

Yousaf Ali, M.D., a rheumatologist at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York, notes that methotrexate is the gold standard drug to treat RA and is metabolized in the liver. This study could be confusing for existing RA patients who think beer may help them.

"I would be very cautious with anyone who already has RA to misinterpret this data," he said. "Modest ingestion of beer may decrease the risk of RA, but does not ameliorate the disease progression or prognosis once the diagnosis has been established."

Beer might not be the next superfood, but it's getting a positive reputation lately.

Another recent study found that adding beer to barbecue marinades can decrease the formation of polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, which develop when meats are cooked at high temperatures—such as on a grill. The study was published in the Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry.

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