Drinking alcohol may be associated with a lower risk of developing MS. The implications for those who already have MS are unclear.
Multiple sclerosis (MS), in which the body’s immune system mistakenly attacks the myelin cells that normally protect nerve fibers in the brain and spinal cord, is thought to be caused by a combination of genetic and environmental factors.
Since alcohol is known to suppress certain immune responses, might it have an effect on the development of MS?
A few studies have investigated this question.
Research on MS Risk and Alcohol
Researchers in Sweden analyzed data from two case-control studies of the Swedish population and found that participants who reported consuming more alcohol were less likely to have developed multiple sclerosis. The results appeared in a review published in March 2014 in the journal JAMA Neurology.
In a case-control study, people who have a specific condition — in this case MS — are compared with people who don’t have the condition, and the researchers look for factors that might be associated with the condition.
While “most people do not think about their MS risk,” notes Anna Hedström, MD, researcher at the Karolinska Institutet in Solna, Sweden, and coauthor of the study, “They might if the disease runs in the family.” This study provides some reassurance that drinking alcohol is unlikely to raise that risk.
The Swedish study also found that drinking alcohol appeared to reduce the increased risk of MS associated with smoking for people who both smoked and drank.
In a study published in September 2015 in the journal Neurological Sciences, researchers in China conducted a meta-analysis of 10 studies on alcohol consumption and multiple sclerosis risk. They concluded that while there’s no evidence that drinking alcohol is associated with a higher risk of MS, further research is needed to determine whether it’s associated with a lower risk.
It should be noted that neither study showed cause and effect, nor should either be construed as advice to drink alcohol in hopes of reducing risk of MS.
Alcohol and Inflammation
The Swedish research was based on studies that used questionnaires to gather information about the drinking habits of people with MS and similar people who don’t have MS, controlling for age, gender, and residential area at the time of diagnosis for those who had MS.
Both studies found that women and men who reported “high alcohol consumption” — defined as more than 112 grams (g) of pure alcohol per week for women, and more than 168 g of pure alcohol per week for men — had a lower risk of MS.
Why would alcohol have this effect?
“MS is an inflammatory disorder,” Dr. Hedström says. “There is extensive evidence that moderate alcohol consumption exerts anti-inflammatory effects.”
This may be why moderate alcohol consumption has been found to reduce the risk for developing some other diseases in which inflammation plays a role, such as rheumatoid arthritis, some forms of hypothyroidism, lupus, and cardiovascular disease.
Heavy drinking, on the other hand, promotes inflammation in the liver and elsewhere in the body and suppresses the immune system, making it harder to fight off infections.
Most experts in the United States define moderate alcohol consumption as:
- For men, up to two drinks per day
- For women, up to one drink per day
A “drink,” in this case, contains 14 grams of pure alcohol, roughly the amount found in:
- 12 ounces (oz) of regular beer
- 5 oz of wine
- 1.5 oz of distilled spirits
Is Alcohol Safe if You Already Have MS?
Little research has been conducted on the safety of alcohol for persons diagnosed with MS.
But in a study published in August 2016 in the journal PloS One, which used data on lifestyle and level of disability collected from nearly 2,500 people with MS from 57 countries, researchers concluded that “At the least, our data suggest that people with MS can be reasonably reassured that moderate alcohol consumption is unlikely to be harmful.”
That being said, tolerance for alcohol varies. Some people feel dizzy and uncoordinated after one drink, while others can drink more than that without experiencing side effects.
Knowing how alcohol affects you and whether it worsens MS symptoms, such as balance, speech, and cognitive problems, should inform your decision on whether and how much to drink.
You should also ask your doctor or a pharmacist whether it’s safe to drink alcohol with any of the drugs you take for MS or any other condition.
Depending on the drug, combining it with alcohol may interfere with the drug’s desired effects, increase its effects or side effects, or increase the intoxicating effects of the alcohol.
According to the National Multiple Sclerosis Society, alcohol may have an additive effect with certain drugs commonly prescribed to people with MS, including baclofen, Valium (diazepam), Klonopin (clonazepam), and some antidepressants.
Drug interactions can be dangerous, so avoid them if you can.