Gout is a painful reminder that the good life can take its toll, writes Elizabeth King.
Think back to June 2006. Australia had just fought off Croatia to qualify for the final 16 In the FIFA World Cup in Germany. Then came a bigger shock than the elimination of the Socceroos by a lacklustre Italy In the next round. Harry Kewell, Australia’s most valuable player was ruled unfit to play. The cause? Gout.
Far from being a thing of the past gout is on the rise. The reason isn’t hard to trace: more of us can afford to live like the rich. Medical research has not established why, but gout is more common in people who also have high blood pressure, type 2 diabetes, a high cholesterol level and are obese. What isn’t in any doubt is that 90 per cent of gout sufferers are men and it’s the most common form of inflammatory arthritis in men aged between 40 and 50. More than 75,000 Australians are thought to suffer from gout.
What is gout?
Gout is caused by tiny crystals of the organic compound urate collecting in the fluid in the joints of the toes, feet, ankles, knees, hands and wrists. These crystals form when there is too much uric acid in the blood, a by-product of the breakdown of purines, a chemical found naturally in the body and in many foods including offal meats and vegetables. In 2004 a US study proved the long-held view that alcohol, particularly beer, caused an increased production of uric acid. Beer is the only alcoholic beverage with a high purine count. Researchers found the risk of developing gout doubled for anyone who drinks 30g to 50g of alcohol a day and increased 25-fold for a daily consumption of more than 50g. A can of beer contains about 14g of alcohol.
Causes and effects
The pain of gout has been rated as worse than that of childbirth. Many sufferers have a genetic flaw in the body’s chemical processing system which allows uric acid build-up, but gout is almost always aggravated by lifestyle factors such as drinking, eating the wrong foods and stress. So what caused Harry Kewell’s bout of gout? Research has fingered high-protein diets, common among sportsmen, weightlifters and dieters, which also increase uric acid levels.
In more than 70 per cent of cases gout strikes in the big toe, making it so swollen and tender that even a bed sheet feels as heavy as a Mack truck. Prompt treatment with a prescription only anti-inflammatory drug generally stops the pain within 24 hours, so see your doctor. Cut out offal meats like fiver and kidney, venison and too much red meat. Shellfish, sardines and anchovies should also be off the menu. Asparagus, mushrooms, cauliflower, peas and spinach also contain high levels of purines. Drinking plenty of water helps to flush uric acid through your kidneys.
New from the lab
A Canadian study found those who upped their intake of vitamin C to between 500mg and 1,000mg a day reduced their risk of gout by 17 per cent. Vitamin C reduces the level of uric acid in the blood by stimulating the kidneys to flush it out. Some researchers have found that vitamin B5 has the same sluicing effect. Coffee used to be a no-no for gout sufferers but a US study of men discovered that drinking four cups of coffee a day reduced the risk of developing gout by up to 40 per cent—and decaf’s fine.