The teetotalers had quadruple the risk of having rheumatoid arthritis compared with those who drank in the highest category.
And the more often one drank, the less damaging the rheumatoid arthritis tended to be, including healthier joints as shown on X-rays and less inflammation.
The association was seen in both men and women, though it was stronger in males.
Although no one can pinpoint a reason for the link with certainty, "essentially we think that alcohol may be having an effect by reducing the immune response, which leads to joint inflammation, and also that it may have a mild pain-killing effect," said Maxwell.
"There's a little information that alcohol can suppress the immune system," added Fiocco. "What's been reported is that people who drink excessive alcohol actually have higher levels of the cytokines that lead to the inflammation and moderate amounts of alcohol actually may lower these levels."
This finding is slightly different than what is reported in the current study (that the severity of the disease decreased with more alcohol).
Because the researchers assessed drinking frequency, rather than the amount of alcohol consumed, it is not clear how much alcohol might be helpful, they said.
And Maxwell stressed that their preliminary findings need to be replicated in the future.
"There are limitations to any research which asks patients to report their exposure to something (such as alcohol) over a period of time," Maxwell added. "We would therefore recommend that a future prospective study should be performed to further assess the impact of alcohol consumption on rheumatoid arthritis, a study recording alcohol consumption at the time rather than asking about it later."
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