Gout is the only disease in all of medicine that has been correctly identified as a unique disease throughout all of recorded medical history. For over four thousand years doctors and healers have recognized pain and swelling of the big toe as most likely being gout. People often ask me what the “scientific name” for gout is. It’s just ‘gout’ – there has never been any need to rename it. Things like heart attacks where given more specific names like, myocardial infarction, when our understanding increased, but there has never been any need to rename gout.
In the past, gout was a disease that doctors and healers obsessed over. The disease tended to affected mostly kings and noblemen because they had the means to live a lifestyle that made gout more prevalent - peasants rarely developed gout, even if they where genetically predisposed to gout because their sparse diet and over all fitness (from really hard work) cancelled out this predisposition.
This meant that anyone that came up with an effective treatment, or better yet, a cure for gout would be on the fast track to riches as the wealthy would be willing to pay handsomely for a solution to their gout pain. This resulted in a myriad of claims about gout treatments and cures, many of which not only still exist today but are widely believed as being helpful for gout. Of course, some of these ancient doctors actually did stumble on substances that have proven to be helpful for gout, but most just do not work.
In this article I will look at some of these treatments and look at which have scientific backing, which do not and which are potentially dangerous.
One of the remedies that has been used since the very earliest of times to treat gout is garlic. Garlic is indeed a very healthy in a lot of ways. It can fight infection, cancer and heart disease to name a few, but gout is not on the list. In fact, using garlic to treat gout in modern times can actually be dangerous if used with Non-Steroidal Anti-Inflammatory Drugs (NSAIDs) such as Indomethicin, a commonly prescribed drug to treat gout attacks (see, How to Stop an Attack).
Garlic has been shown to block blood clotting agents in the body which makes it harder for bleeding to stop if you are injured. NSAIDs are powerful medications that block the inflammation of gout but have a bad habit of causing peptic ulcers (ulcers of the gastrointestinal tract). If the bleeding of an ulcer does not stop, it could become a very dangerous, even life threatening problem. Besides this risks, garlic does nothing to lower uric acid levels or block the inflammation of gout so you should not use garlic to treat gout.
I have written about Vitamin C in a previous post (See, Vitamin C and Gout) so I will just mention it here. Vitamin C is a powerful uricosuric substance, meaning that it helps the kidneys eliminate uric acid in much the same way as the medication probenecid. It too has risks though, as your kidneys filter more uric acid out of your body, there is an increased risk of uric acid based kidney stones as uric acid crystalizes in the kidneys.
Cherry juice is probably one of the most commonly mentioned natural remedies for gout. The good news is this one seems to work. The flavonoids in cherry juice, as well as other juices made from dark colored berries, have a strong anti-inflammatory effect that has been scientifically proven. It has also been shown that these flavonoids also lower uric acid levels. Unfortunately, the sugars, both naturally occurring and those added in the form of high-fructose corn syrup, have been shown to increase uric acid production. Most experts recommend taking cherry juice extract to avoid this problem.
Devil’s claw is another commonly mentioned treatment for gout. Devil’s claw has been touted as a natural remedy for a long list of ailments including: liver problems, kidney problems, gallbladder and bladder problems and arthritis but little scientific evidence exists to prove any of these claims, and none exists to show if it is effective in treating gout. Regardless, one small study did find that it was as effective at treating back pain as the prescription drug Vioxx®. This shows that there is some anti-inflammatory effect, however, we have no idea how effective it is against gout or what the risks are.
Burdock root is another remedy that has a very long history for treating a long list of ailments again, with little to no scientific evidence to back it up. In the case of gout however, I was able to find a study that showed that burdock root is a fairly powerful xanthine oxidase inhibitor. Xanthine Oxidase is an enzyme in the body that produces uric acid. Blocking this enzyme is how medications like allopurinol and febuxostat (brand name Uloric®) lower uric acid levels. However, this study only looked at the chemistry of burdock root and the xanthine oxidase enzyme to see if burdock root would block this the enzyme. It did not actually see if people who took burdock root actually lowered their uric acid levels. If you do take burdock root however, keep in mind that it is a diuretic (causes the body to lose water) so keep well hydrated. Burdock can be taken in tablet form or as a tea.
The research gives burdock root some validity and I started taking it personally. I have asked my doctor to measure my uric acid levels before I starting taking it and will have her measure it again in a few weeks to see if there is a difference. This would be a research study with only one subject which would not give it much weight as science but it would be more research then currently exists on how well burdock root actually works against uric acid in people. I’ll keep you up to date.
Celery Seed is also commonly referenced as an alternative medicine for gout and has been used for over two thousand years. However, I could not find any evidence that it lower uric acid or reduces inflammation. Also celery seed in a diuretic which can increase the concentration of uric acid in the body if you do not keep well hydrated.
Ice or cold compresses have been shown to reduce the swelling and elevate some of the pain of gout. Personally, this treatment bothers me. We know that uric acid is highly sensitive the temperature and crystalizes more readily in colder environments which is why gout tends to come on in the middle of the night (see, Gout Basics) so it would stand to reason that putting ice on an affected joint would cause more crystals to form and prolong the attack. I am not sure that the scientists that conducted the study that looked at ice as a treatment took this into account. Also, this will do nothing for uric acid levels.
There are many other alternatives. I mention many of them in my book, Beating Gout, but if you know of any, please leave me a comment. And if you know of any research backing up the alternative, that would be even more interesting.
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