Gout Steps Out
Gout used to seem like a quaint disease of yesteryear, an affliction commonly associated with kings and nobles of the olden days, usually pictured sitting back with one of their feet wrapped thickly in white cloth and propped on a footstool.
What the heck is going on? Gout Solutions wants to know.
One clue is that while gout has been spreading in the U.S. population, so has obesity: the median percentage of the U.S. population that is obese increased by 74 percent from 1995 to 2010, according to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC). More than 80 percent of people with gout are overweight or obese.
In those olden-days images of the upper class suffering from gout, poor people tended to be thin and rich people tended to be fat. “Gout, unlike any other disease, kills more rich men than poor…” said Thomas Sydenham, a 17th Century physician who has been called “the father of English medicine.”
Not any more. Nowadays, in fact, the richer you are, the thinner you are likely to be. A 2004 study out of Ohio State University indicated that on average the net worth of obese people was about half what it was for people with what the Center for Disease Control calls “healthy weight.” “More and more,” as they say, gout is attacking those who can least afford the fancy medicines and treatments to control it.
“I would say that the first priority would be to moderate all alcohol comsumption for gout patients and especially minimize or eliminate beer,” says Dr. Theodore Fields, Professor of Clinical Medicine at Weill Cornell Medical College in New York. “All types of alcohol decrease people’s ability to get rid of uric acid in the urine, but beer also has a high purine content.”
Purine is natural in the body as well as in many foods, and the natural metabolic breakdown of purine produces uric acid. It has been estimated that a heavy beer drinker might get gout significantly sooner than he might if he wasn’t a drinker, says Dr. Fields.
Even moderate consumption of beer is associated with a high risk of developing gout, according to a Harvard Medical School study. Alcohol “spirit beverages” have a significant but lower risk, according to the study and – joy to all vinophiles – moderate wine consumption, 1-2 glasses per day, showed no significant effect on gout incidence.
Beer purines may be a significant source of uric acid in the body, but beer is not the only high-purine drink or food to avoid. Gout Solutions also include cutting back on red meat; shell fish and sea food such as anchovies, sardines in oil and caviar; organ meats like liver; and regular (not diet) sweetened sodas. There is some controversy about the effect of vegetables on gout, but in a study looking at first attacks of gout, intake of vegetables of any kind was not a factor.
“The regularly sweetened sodas increase uric acid because of the effect of their large content of high-fructose corn syrup,” says Fields. Fructose is the only carbohydrate known to increase uric acid levels, according to the British Medical Journal, which reported a study in the U.S. and Canada showing that the risk of gout in men was 85 percent higher among those who sucked down two or more sugar-sweetened soft drinks per day – compared to those who drank less than one per month.
In women, reports the ACR, a similar study found those drinking two or more sugary soft drinks per day 2.4 times more likely to have gout. Interestingly, the same risk factor accompanied the drinking of orange juice, the study found.
Adolescents are the largest consumers of sugar-sweetened sodas and other beverages, including many fruit juices we think are healthy alternatives. Of adolescents, 62 percent drink at least one sugary beverage per day, representing 39 pounds of sugar per year.
They may be kids now, but uric acid can build up in the joints for years. Men can start having gout in their 20s, says Fields, although women usually don’t get gout until after menopause (estrogen increases the excretion of uric acid).
The aging of the population, of course, is an additional reason why gout incidence has increased. Part of that is the decline with age of kidney function, and the resulting decline in the body’s ability to get rid of uric acid, says Dr. Eric Matteson, rheumatology chair at the Mayo Clinic. High blood pressure medications also affect the way the body gets ride of uric acid.
Just as many pathologies affect the ability to control uric acid, uric acid also promotes many pathologies. Evidence suggests that uric acid can contribute to cardiovascular disease, high blood pressure and kidney disease, for example. Johns Hopkins researchers have found that high uric acid in the blood may cause the “barely detectable mini strokes that potentially contribute to mental decline in aging adults.”
Besides lifestyle changes, a host of other approaches to preventing or reducing the incidence and severity of gout attacks are bandied about. Simply drinking more water can help prevent gout attacks, according to studies reported by the ACR. Drinking skim milk, in one study, reduced serum uric acid by 10 percent, while drinking soy milk increased it by 10 percent. Vitamin C intake is also associated with lower risk of gout in men.
“It has been found that some types of cherries lower the uric acid more than others and that it appears to relate to the vitamin C content of the cherries,” says Dr. Fields. “We already have studies showing a similar level of lowering of uric acid by taking 500 mg of vitamin C. I don’t routinely advise this to patients before they see their physician, because 10 percent of gout patients are at risk of kidney stone, and increasing the uric acid in the urine could increase the kidney stone risk.” Furthermore, the weak effect that has been reported for Vitamin C as gout therapy may not even be significant, according to new research reported in May by the University of Otago, Christchurch, New Zealand. According to Otago professor Lisa Stamp, “Though vitamin C may reduce risk of developing gout, our data does not support using Vitamin C as a therapy to lower uric acid levels in patients with established gout.” For more details, see: Vitamin C does not alleviate gout as previously thought.
While lifestyle and diet changes and self-administered therapies such as water sipping may have value, once gout attacks and hits hard, modern doctors can hit back with a number of medicines: Allopurinal and Uloric, for example, which help reduce production of uric acid; Probenecid, which increases the kidney’s ability to excrete uric acid; and Colchicine, aimed mainly at preventing the inflammation that results from gout.
Certainly, not everybody will get gout. “People need to understand that gout is a genetic disease,” says Dr. Fields. “Ninety percent of people with gout have a genetic defect which causes them to be unable to put enough uric acid into the urine, so it builds up in the body. Ten percent have a genetic defect that causes them to make too much uric acid, with the same end effect. If someone doesn’t have either of those defects, they will generally not get gout, regardless of what they eat.”
The trouble is, of course, that our genetic propensity for getting gout is not something any of us know up front. Healthy living is not a bad idea for everyone, and for those who begin to experience gout symptoms or have gout running in the family, what we know about gout-averse lifestyle and diet is a good place to start. And of course, sigh, the always-important battle of the bulge.
A lot more has been learned about the effects of what we eat and drink on giving us gout, “but those things are so tied in with obesity that you can’t separate those things out,” says Dr. Matteson.
“If there’s one single thing we can concentrate on,” he says, “it would be reducing obesity.”
And hey, one of the best ways to reduce obesity is to make healthy recipes, and there is a horde of great gout cookbooks out there that not only help one eat healthy but also specifically to manage gout. Check out this Amazon page, wow! Of course, a gout-recipes search on the Web turns up plenty of recipes, but it’s nice to have a cook book and, each time you do a recipe, write on the page the date you had it and how good it was (or wasn’t). Fun to just work your way through a cookbook. Keeps you going.