My first encounters with gout came from the novels of Georgette Heyer, that prolific writer of Regency romantic tales. My history O-Levels demanded a wide extra-curricular knowledge of the period and I read her books comprehensively. Every single one of them. And so good was her background historical research that I was awarded an A grade by the examiners for my efforts!
It was in the court of the Prince Regent, Queen Victoria's sybaritic son, that I learnt much of what I know about gout. It affected those that ate and drunk to excess (and goodness how those Regency bucks ate and drank if Miss Heyers descriptions of a standard night's banqueting are to be believed!). It came upon them savagely, almost always at around the age of 50. It affected the roisterers and the best of men indiscriminately, and made their lives a misery. Their feet and legs were frequently bandaged, raised on velvet footstools and the slightest touch afflicted them with unbearable shooting pains. They hobbled everywhere on a cane, made bad tempered by their agony. The images were vivid and have remained with me.
Looking at gout through today's lens, the picture remains very much the same. Fewer velvet britches and powdered wigs, but just as debilitating.
What is gout?
It's an incredibly painful condition where the joints swell and go bright red, usually in your feet, and particularly at the base of the big toe. Whether you will suffer or not is all down to how much uric acid your body produces and how efficiently you excrete it in your urine.
If you are not getting rid of it fast enough, your uric acid levels can build up, creating tiny sharp crystals around your joints, triggering swelling and agonising pain. It's a sexist disease too, affecting men more than women and usually flaring up between the ages of 40-60. Your toe joints will begin to ache, getting hotter and hotter, looking red, swollen and shiny. A gout attack can flare up for the odd day, or for more than a week, before subsiding and then sometimes not returning for years at a time. Or it can come back with a vengeance a few weeks later. Post menopausal women come second on the list, so take action now and head off the problem.
Can you treat or cure gout?
Your doctor will prescribe you a range of pharmaceutical options. Uric acid lowering drugs will bring down your acid levels; over the counter NSAIDs (Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs) will reduce the inflammation round the joints, or if none of these work, you may be offered steroids. Thank goodness for modern medicine.
These work to a certain degree, though several can trigger side effects. They are extremely helpful when you are in the throes of a savage attack, but not particularly useful at preventing the gout returning.
So, what else can you do about it?
How to change your lifestyle to improve gout symptoms
1. Lose weight
Not everyone with high levels of uric acid develops gout, and it's not really clear why one person suffers and another doesn't. But if you are overweight your chances of developing it are considerably higher. Lose weight gradually and symptoms usually ease or vanish entirely.
Regular exercise keeps your uric acid levels under control, and keep your joints flexible.
3. Cut out alcohol
This was the main issue for those Regency Bucks who consumed vast vats of Bordeaux and Burgundy. Their toes were soon the same colour as the wine they drank. Beer and wine seem to flare the gout attacks. Reduce your consumption and your gout will calm.
4. Drink more water
Drinking water helps flush out your kidneys. Double whatever you are currently drinking daily. Excess uric acid can create kidney stones, which are often more painful than the gout itself. Sip continually through the day and aim for 8 glasses at least.
5. Drink more coffee
This goes against the grain, because coffee is dehydrating. Drinking more than 5 cups a day, however, has been shown to increase uric acid excretion. So in this case - a rare exception - up your levels.
6. Stop eating processed foods
Processed foods are full of white flour and sugar. Sugar increases your uric acid levels and is present, though often disguised, in almost everything. Check the labels, and bin anything that contains high fructose corn syrup. Be aware that grains turn into sugar too, so it's incredibly easy to overload your body in no time at all. Alcohol turns into sugar, and fizzy drinks are full of it. In one research paper, men who drank just two sodas a day were found to have an 85% higher chance of developing gout than men who didn't.
7. Cut out foods high in purines
Purines are amino acids that turn into uric acid. Although 90% of purines are made in the body, 10% come from foods, so best to cut these out to reduce your uric acid loads. Stop eating liver, oily fish, mushrooms, peas, lentils, shellfish, spinach and offal. Every little will help.
Natural, holistic anti-gout remedies that work
Science has recently proven that black cherries can stop gout in its tracks. A study published in Arthritis & Rheumatism in 2012 analysed the effects of cherry extract on the symptoms of 633 gout sufferers over a two-day period. The results showed that irrespective of sex, weight, alcohol intake, purine food consumption or diuretics, their chances of a recurrence were lowered by 35%. When cherry extract was combined with a standard pharmaceutical gout treatment, allopurinol, their likelihood of suffering a further attack was reduced by 75%.
Swop your daily fizzy drink for a celery rich green juice and watch your gout disappear. Include a banana and you speed the process further. Bananas are full of potassium which converts uric acid crystals into a more easily flushed out liquid form. Celery is an alkaliser, reducing the acid environment that triggers inflammation, and flushing out the uric acid build up that creates the pain. And not just the plant, buy celery seeds and add them to everything. Put them in your salad, or spice up soups and curries. They will stimulate your kidneys, helping to flush out excess uric acid along with the sharp crystals that cause the pain. They have also been shown to lessen inflammation.
3. Activated charcoal
Mix it with water into a paste and applied to the swollen joints of your ankle or big toe. Activated charcoal will absorb excess uric acid and reduce both pain and inflammation. Leave it on for 30 minutes and then wash off with warm water.
In 2014, a small study showed remarkable improvement in 10 gout patients when they had ozone injected into their blood samples, and then had their blood transfused back. The results showed marked reductions in uric acid and in inflammation levels. Perhaps the gout treatment of the future...?
Written by health advocate Sara Davenport, founder of one of the UK's leading breast cancer charities, Breast Cancer Haven. With over twenty years' experience in holistic health, Sara's digital dose of wellness teaches you to listen to your body, tweak your lifestyle and improve your health.
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