A study says a long-term, daily coffee habit could translate to a lower risk of gout in women.

Previous research has suggested that male coffee drinkers may be protected against developing gout. But the 2010 study was the first to show that coffee could also benefit women.

“Coffee is helpful, not hurtful. I can say that,” says study author Hyon Choi, MD, DrPH, a professor of medicine at Boston University School of Medicine.

Gout is a type of inflammatory arthritis that occurs when uric acid builds up in the body and crystallizes in the joints causing intense pain, inflammation, stiffness and swelling.

More than six million people have the condition, which is more common among men. But researchers say gout cases among postmenopausal women are on the rise although there’s less research about how the condition affects them.

In a article published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, researchers analyzed 26 years worth of data collected in a study of nearly 90,000 female nurses between the ages of 30 and 55. Scientists compared the number of gout cases among participants with the amount of tea and caffeinated and decaffeinated coffee the women drank. The information was gleaned from questionnaires the female participants filled out every two to four years.

Researchers discovered 896 confirmed cases of gout among participants. They also found that the more coffee a woman drank, the more her risk for gout declined. The risk of gout dropped 57 percent when women drank more than four cups of caffeinated coffee a day and decreased 22 percent when they drank one to three cups each day, compared to those who drank no coffee at all.

Dr. Choi says decaffeinated coffee is not consumed at the same rate as the caffeinated version, so his research team could only assess the effects of one cup of decaf a day. He says they found the daily intake of that beverage gave women a 23 percent lower risk of gout compared to no consumption of coffee.

He says tea consumption had a neutral effect and showed no association with gout risk. All of these results are similar to findings of a study Dr. Choi published in 2007 looking at coffee intake and gout risk in men.

Dr. Choi says coffee has antioxidant properties which may help decrease insulin concentrations in the body, helping to lower uric acid levels and decrease the gout risk. But he says it’s still not totally clear exactly what’s causing the protective effect and if it’s coming from elements in coffee or caffeine.

“My best interpretation is caffeine is involved but other components in coffee –regular and decaffeinated – might be operating as well,” Dr. Choi says.

While there is a protective effect in the long term, Dr. Choi says people need to know it appears starting to drink coffee can cause a worsening of uric acid and gout in the short term.

“Once you start lowering uric acid level, people for a few months or a few weeks at least, they start developing gout,” Dr. Choi explains. “Although long term this is helpful, in the short term it may not be the same effect.”

Dr. Choi says it typically takes six months for gout drugs to take effect, but he’s not sure how long it takes for the positive effects of coffee drinking to kick in.

“Coffee would probably be less effective in terms of lowering uric acid levels (than a drug) so maybe it’s a shorter time, like three months. But this is a guess,” he says.

The bottom line, according to Dr. Choi - whatever your current coffee habits are, feel comfortable sticking with them.

“There’s no point in stopping it. If they want to start it, let them do it too,” Dr. Choi says. “It needs to be individualized. If you feel like drinking coffee, do it.”

David S. Goldfarb, MD, chief of Nephrology at NYU Langone Medical Center in New York, Professor of Medicine & Physiology at NYU School of Medicine and a consultant for Takeda Pharmaceutical, the company that makes the gout febuxostat (Uloric), says it’s important for patients to realize that this research isn’t saying that coffee is a magic elixir for gout.

“If you want to know if you should drink coffee if you have gout, they didn’t look at that. They simply looked at whether the first episode you get is related to coffee,” Dr. Goldfarb explained. “I would not conclude that drinking coffee helps gout. I wouldn’t be surprised if it’s true. It’s possible coffee might have a good effect. But I wouldn’t be able to prescribe coffee to patients with gout and say this will help you. I’ll say it’s probably safe and won’t hurt you, but it wasn’t tested.”

Dr. Goldfarb says this study is a good one because it followed a lot of patients for a long time and also because it answers an important question about gender and gout.

“It’s not completely new because it’s similar to the finding in men, but it’s a legitimate question because gout is so much more common in men than women,” Dr. Goldfarb says. “So I think if you have something in men you need to validate it in women.”