Beer Drinkers at Greater Risk for Knee and Hip Arthritis

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Barley, hops, and yeast—these are the main ingredients that are processed to create that perfect bottle of beer, but there’s one problem: when you take a drink of beer, you’re basically taking a drink of liquid white bread and all the processed carbohydrates that entails. A typical 12-ounce bottle of beer has 10–15 carbohydrates or more depending on the amount of barley grain used to make the beer. And with 99 bottles of beer on the wall, who stops at just 1 beer? Now there’s another reason to think twice before popping the cap off that beer and taking a swig—beer drinkers are at a greater risk for knee and hip arthritis.

But I Thought Grains Were Good for Me

If you haven’t already heard, in recent years many studies have debunked the flawed 1950s study by Ancel Keys that led the American Heart Association to recommend low-fat, high-grain diets for decades. As Americans have become more obese and developed more heart disease since this recommendation was made, we now know the truth: saturated fats are a necessary dietary component, and processed carbohydrates are what really lead to many health problems, including heart disease, weight gain, and type-2 diabetes.

So this newest connection between arthritis and beer consumption isn’t surprising. The average American sugar-based diet wreaks havoc on joints. You’ve no doubt heard the phrase “beer belly,” and it’s the carbohydrates that create it. The extra weight, whether it settles in the belly or anywhere else, places more pressure on joints. When carbohydrates are consumed, this can also lead to a loss of blood-sugar control, which causes metabolic changes that chew up cartilage. This “metabolic syndrome” (weight gain, high blood pressure, poor blood-sugar control) is an independent predictor for arthritis due to obesity.

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A Case-Control Study Looks at Arthritis in Beer and Wine Drinkers

This case-control study looked at about two thousand UK patients with knee and hip arthritis and then another thousand control patients. They found that increasing beer consumption was tied to a corresponding increase in knee and hip arthritis. Patients who had five or more beers a week were about twice as likely to end up with arthritis in these joints.

Increasing wine consumption, on the other hand, was associated with less arthritis (a protective effect). For example, in patients who had 4–6 glasses of wine a week versus 7+ there was a 45% and 52% reduced risk of knee or hip osteoarthritis. Incidentally, researchers also noted that spirits, such as gin, vodka, and whiskey had no correlation with arthritis. Why is this happening with beer but no other alcohol source? The report recommended further study to research the why, but since the level of alcohol consumed is associated with disparate outcomes (i.e., more beer equals more arthritis, more wine equals less arthritis, and spirits show no connection one way or the other), beer’s connection to arthritis doesn’t seem to be an alcohol effect.

The leads us back to beer and the metabolic syndrome.

Beer and Metabolic Syndrome: A Vicious Cycle

One of the biggest causes of arthritis in modern industrialized society is metabolic syndrome. Metabolic syndrome occurs in many Americans as they hit middle age because they exercise too little and eat too much starchy and sugar-laden food, causing them to gain weight. Blood pressure creeps upward, and triglycerides in the blood skyrocket. All of this increases the risk for both heart disease and arthritis. While weight gain puts more pressure on the joints, more important is the fact that metabolic syndrome causes whole body inflammation and other chemical changes that react toward arthritis like throwing gasoline on a fire. Unfortunately, beer, that “liquid bread,” does nothing to douse the flames, and in fact can make the volatile concoction downright explosive.

Regular beer drinkers likely have more metabolic syndrome than nonbeer drinkers as the unstable blood sugar and resulting extra blood sugar spikes that accompany beer consumption, leads patients to crave more carbs, like more beer. So the more beer you drink, the more beer and potato chips you crave, and you can see the vicious cycle created; hence, the 99 bottles of beer don’t stay on the wall very long. If you’re naturally drawn to wine, which has far fewer carbs, assuming you have a healthy diet in addition, you likely don’t have metabolic syndrome because this craving for carbohydrates doesn’t kick in.

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Arthritis and Metabolic Syndrome

Metabolic syndrome, which, as mentioned earlier, is defined by obesity (apple or pear body), high blood pressure, and early diabetes. This syndrome itself dramatically destabilizes the chemical matrix (structure) of cartilage, leading to arthritis.

The solution here would be to not only lose weight, which will reduce the pressure on your joints, but to reduce your carbohydrate and sugar load to reduce spikes in blood sugar and insulin release. If you are a heavy beer drinker sporting that telltale beer belly, cutting out the beer will remove a significant amount of carbs and start you on the right track. To further tackle metabolic syndrome and lessen the pressure on your joints, you can also cut or limit the following: soda, sugar, whole grains, caffeine (it will spike your blood sugar), fruit drinks, baked goods, and so on. Some low-glycemic diets you can consider include Zone , Atkins, and SouthBeach.

The upshot? If you’re concerned about knee and hip arthritis and metabolic syndrome (weight gain, poor blood-sugar control, high blood pressure, etc.), eliminating beer consumption is a good idea, especially if you already have a beer belly you can rest your bottle on. While beer drinkers are at a greater risk for knee and hip arthritis, wine drinkers show a reduced risk for knee and hip arthritis. So leave the bottles of beer on the wall and uncork a bottle of wine instead.

Chris Centeno, MD is a specialist in regenerative medicine and the new field of Interventional Orthopedics. Centeno pioneered orthopedic stem cell procedures in 2005 and is responsible for a large amount of the published research on stem cell use for orthopedic applications. View Profile

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