Gout, Part 2
This is part 2 of an unpublished chapter from the book, Good Calories, Bad Calories by Gary Taubes. This material was made available for me to post for your information; however, you must realize that this information was not as thoroughly checked and referenced as the rest of the book. That said, if you read this book and followed the articles on my blog, then you will quickly understand that Gout is also a disease of civilization and the evidence strongly suggests that carbohydrate-restriction would likely keep a person from this condition and improve the lot of those who suffer from it:
Gout has also been linked to obesity since the Hippocratic era, CKTK and this association is the origin of the assumption that high-living and excessive appetites are the cause. Gouty men have long been reported to suffer higher rates of atherosclerosis and hypertension, while stroke and coronary heart disease are common causes of death. Diabetes is also commonly associated with gout. These observations would suggest that anything that raised insulin levels would in turn raise uric acid levels and might cause gout, which would implicate any high carbohydrate diet with sufficient calories. But this neglects the unique contribution of fructose. The evidence arguing for sugar or fructose as the primary cause of gout is two-fold. First, the distribution of gout in western populations has paralleled the availability of sugar for centuries, and not all refined carbohydrates in this case. It was in the mid-17th century, that gout went from being exclusively a disease of the rich and the nobility to spread downward and outward through British society, reaching near epidemic proportions by the 18th century. Historians refer to this as the “gout wave,” and it coincides precisely with the birth and explosive growth of the British sugar industry and the transformation of sugar, in the words of the anthropologist Sydney Mintz, from “a luxury of kings into the kingly luxury of commoners.” British per capita sugar consumption in the 17th century was remarkably low by modern standards, a few pounds per capita per year at the turn of the century, but the change in consumption over the next century and a half was unprecedented: between 1650 and 1800, following the British acquisition of Barbados, Jamaica and other “sugar islands”, total sugar consumption in England and Wales increased 20- to 25-fold.∗
The second piece of evidence is much less circumstantial: simply put, fructose increases serum levels of uric acid. The “striking increase” in uric acid levels with an infusion of fructose was first reported in the Lancet in the late 1960s by clinicians from Helsinki, Finland, who referred to it as fructose-induced hyperuricemia. This was followed by a series of studies through the late 1980s confirming the existence of the effect and reporting on the variety of mechanisms by which it came about. Fructose, for instance, accelerates the breakdown of a molecule known as ATP, which is the primary source of energy for cellular reactions and is loaded with purines. (ATP stands for adenosine triphosphate; adenosine is a form of adenine, and adenine is a purine.) And so this in turn increases formation of uric acid. Alcohol apparently raises uric acid levels through the same mechanism, although beer also has purines in it. Fructose also stimulates the synthesis of purines directly, and the metabolism of fructose leads to the production of lactic acid, which in turn reduces the excretion of uric acid by the kidney and so raises uric acid concentrations indirectly by that mechanism.
These mechanistic explanations of how fructose raises uric acid levels were then supported by a genetic connection between fructose metabolism and gout itself. Gout often runs in families, so much so that those clinicians studying gout have always assumed the disease has a strong hereditary component. In 1990, Edwin Seegmiller, one of the few veteran gout researchers in the U.S., and the British geneticist George Radda, who would go onto become director of the Medical Research Counsel, reported that the explanation for this familial association seemed to be a very specific defect in the genes that regulate fructose metabolism. Thus, individuals who inherit this defect will have trouble metabolizing fructose and so will be born with a predisposition to gout. This suggested the possibility, Seegmiller and Radda concluded, that this defect in fructose metabolism was “a fairly common cause of gout.”
As these observations appeared in the literature, the relevant investigators were reasonably clear about the implications: “since serum-uric-acid levels are critical in individuals with gout, fructose might deserve consideration in their diet,” noted the Helsinki clinicians in The Lancet in 1967, and so the chronic consequences of high-fructose diets on healthy individuals required further evaluation. Gouty patients should avoid high-fructose or high-sucrose diets, explained Irving Fox in 1984, because “fructose can accelerate rates of uric acid synthesis as well as lead to increased triglyceride production.” Although none of these investigators seemed willing to define what precisely constituted a high-fructose or a high-sucrose diet. Was it 50 pounds of sugar a year? 100 pounds? 150 pounds? 300 pounds? And would high-fructose diets induce gout in healthy individuals or would they only exacerbate the problem in those already afflicted? In 1993, the British biochemist Peter Mayes published an article on fructose metabolism in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition that is now considered the seminal article in the field. (This was in the special issue of the AJCN dedicated to the health effects of fructose.) Mayes reviewed the literature and concluded that high-fructose diets in healthy individuals were indeed likely to cause hyperuricemia, and he implied that gout could be a result, as well, but the studies to address that possibility had simply never been done. “It is clear,” Mayes concluded, “that systematic
investigations in humans are needed to ascertain the precise amounts, both of fructose consumption and of its concentration in the blood, at which deleterious effects such as hyperlipidemia and hyperuricemia occur.” Add to this Reaven’s research reporting that high insulin levels and insulin resistance will increase uric acid levels, and it suggests, as Mayes had remarked about triglycerides, that sugar (sucrose) and high fructose corn syrup would constitute the worst of all carbohydrates when it comes to uric acid and gout. The fructose would increase uric acid production and decrease uric acid excretion, while the glucose, though its effect on insulin, would also decrease uric acid excretion. Thus, it would be reasonable to assume or at least to speculate that sugar is a likely cause of gout, and that the patterns of sugar consumption explain the appearance and distribution of the disease.
Maybe so, but this hypothesis has never been seriously considered. Those investigators interested in gout have focused almost exclusively on alcohol and meat consumption, in part because these have historical precedents and because the implication that gouty individuals and particularly obese gouty individuals shy away from meat and alcohol fit in well with the dietary prescriptions of the 1970s onward.
Tune in Wednesday for the conclusion of our series on Gout.Share on Twitter