There is a lot of information out there about rheumatoid arthritis (RA) and drinking alcohol — and much of it seems contradictory. For example, one study has suggested that moderate drinking over a long period of time may reduce a person’s chances of developing RA. But another study seemed to show that alcohol could cause higher levels of key inflammatory markers in people who later developed RA but did not yet have it. So, is alcohol harmful if you have RA? In short: It depends.
Given all the information out there, deciding how and when (or if) to drink alcohol with RA can be a challenge. When you add in the ways that alcohol can interact with the various medications used to treat rheumatoid arthritis, this decision can become even more complicated.
If you or someone you love is trying to decide whether or not to drink after a diagnosis of rheumatoid arthritis, here’s what you need to know.
Researchers suggest people with less severe symptoms drink more because they’re healthier and feel good, and those who are dealing with more active disease progression stop drinking or don’t start. In other words, when people diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis don’t feel well, they don’t drink nearly as much.
These drinking trends as they relate to disease severity can make it appear that moderate alcohol consumption has positive effects on the disease. But in reality, the amount of alcohol a person consumes may not be responsible for the severity of a person’s symptoms.
Alcohol may not have a considerable effect on rheumatoid arthritis at all, experts say. If it does, the effects may vary from person to person. Thus, it’s important to note how you feel after you drink. If your joints feel more swollen and sore than usual, you may want to avoid alcohol in the future.
As one myRAteam member wrote, “I would say alcohol affects my joints.” Another agreed: “I woke up this morning, and my hands were so swollen and painful. I think it’s because I had alcohol last night.” However, other members find that alcohol seems to help them. As one member explained, “I’ve been so sore: hands, wrists, knees. Alcohol helps.”
Ultimately, one of the best things you can do is to pay attention to your body. Take note of whether your symptoms change after drinking — and, if they do, how they change. If they become more severe or persistent, you may want to reduce or eliminate alcohol.
Even if you feel fine after drinking or if your rheumatologist doesn’t give specific recommendations when it comes to alcohol, your RA medications may determine whether alcoholic beverages are safe for you. That’s because alcohol may interact with certain RA medications to cause risky side effects.
If you take nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) such as Advil (ibuprofen) or Aleve (naproxen) to help with your RA symptoms, be careful when drinking alcohol. Even in people without RA, NSAIDs can cause bleeding in the gastrointestinal tract, especially when used over an extended length of time. This bleeding can be severe and can be a major health complication.
The more alcohol you drink, the higher your risk of bleeding in the gastrointestinal tract if you are taking NSAIDs. If you would like to drink alcohol while taking NSAIDs, talk to your doctor. Ask how much you can drink based on the particular NSAID you are taking, your dose, and how long you have been or plan on taking it.
Some people with rheumatoid arthritis take antirheumatic drugs called biologics or disease-modifying antirheumatic drugs (DMARDs). For example, methotrexate can be used to find symptom relief. For years, people have been advised to avoid drinking alcohol almost entirely while taking either of these classes of medications.
The main concern with drinking while on these medications is liver damage. These medications are already hard on the liver, as is alcohol. When you combine the two, you can accelerate the risk of liver damage. The combination can lead to elevated liver enzyme numbers, fibrosis, and even permanent liver damage.
Our members have heard caution from their doctors, too. One member wrote, “My new rheumatologist does not want me to have ANY alcoholic beverages while on methotrexate.” Yet another shared, “Every time I go to the rheumatologist, he reminds me, ‘No alcohol!’ He said that most RA meds can harm the liver over time and, if one drinks alcohol, you can double your chances of liver problems.”
Many people find it hard to cut out alcohol entirely, however. As one member lamented, “The worst part about taking methotrexate is NO alcohol! I'm German, and I miss my beer! I think I'd rather have the joint pain!”
If you want to drink, there are some medications that you might be a candidate for, such as Plaquenil (hydroxychloroquine) and Azulfidine (sulfasalazine). Talk to your doctor to find the right rheumatoid arthritis medication for your situation. Be honest with your rheumatologist about your alcohol use. They will tailor your medication regimen to account for your alcohol use.
If you don’t drink now, it’s wise not to start. Although moderate alcohol consumption may lower your risk of heart disease and may be associated with a reduced risk of RA, you shouldn’t start drinking to improve your health because of its other risks. If you have RA and choose to drink alcohol, consider these steps to reduce your risk of complications.
Your rheumatologist’s job is to keep you as healthy as possible — not to be judgmental about your drinking choices — so be honest. Your doctors need to know the types and amounts of alcohol you drink so they can determine what dosages of medication will minimize potential health risks.
It’s recommended that you undergo regular liver enzyme checks if you take a medication metabolized by the liver, such as methotrexate — especially if you drink alcohol. Being mindful of your blood work can help your doctor spot potential liver issues early on. If your doctor notices any changes, they’ll likely ask about your alcohol consumption and may advise that you cut back or stop drinking.
As one myRAteam member advised, “Apparently, alcohol use is a big problem that is getting worse. Be careful … with all of our meds, I don’t think it is wise to add alcohol to the mix.”
Blood work can’t reveal the problematic effects of NSAIDs and alcohol on the digestive system if they start to occur. Let your doctor know if you experience any heartburn or stomach pain, which may indicate irritation in the lining of the digestive tract.
It’s easy to underestimate how much you’re drinking. Remember that it’s healthier to limit yourself to one drink a day, if any — that’s 12 ounces of beer, 5 ounces of wine, or 1.5 ounces of liquor.
Many myRAteam members take care to monitor their alcohol consumption, like one who wrote, “I do drink. My rheumatologist said just to keep the amount low, so I watch my intake.” As another myRAteam member shared, “I have a beer whenever I feel like it. Sometimes, it just relaxes me to sit on the deck and sip a cold one.”
Being diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis can pose many new, confusing questions. Although your health care team can help answer many of them, you may want insights from others who are living with RA.
On myRAteam, more than 144,000 people understand the challenges of life with rheumatoid arthritis. Members ask and answer questions, offer support, and share stories of daily life with RA. If you are feeling alone or have questions that need answers, reach out today.
How has choosing to drink — or not drink — affected your RA? Share your experiences in the comments below or by posting on myRAteam.