Globally speaking, tea rules: Not counting water, it’s the most popular beverage in the world. Even in coffee-loving America, 80 percent of households have some tea on hand, whether it’s served over ice or in a piping hot mug.
And though most people who drink tea do so because they enjoy it, some may sip on this beverage for the health perks, which may include reducing risk of cancer and cardiovascular disease. Now research suggests that tea might also reduce the risk of rheumatoid arthritis (RA), especially among people who smoke.
The exact cause of RA is not known, but experts believe that certain risk factors increase a person’s chances of developing it. One well-known risk factor is smoking; it might trigger rheumatoid arthritis in people who have an underlying genetic susceptibility. But could drinking lots of tea somehow counteract the damaging effects of cigarette smoke?
A new study published in the journal Arthritis Research & Therapy lends some credence to this notion. Researchers used data from the ongoing Sweden-based Epidemiological Investigation of RA (EIRA) study to learn about the tea-drinking habits of 2,237 people with RA. They also gathered information on tea consumption for 4,661 “matched” people who didn’t have RA, but were similar in terms of age, sex, and location.
According to their results, smokers who consumed at least two cups of tea per day were significantly less likely to have RA compared to smokers who rarely sipped tea. “This association was strongest among current smokers, for whom high tea consumption reduced the odds of developing RA by almost half compared to irregular tea drinkers,” the researchers wrote.
The same study also found that people with RA who drank a lot of tea were less likely than other RA patients to have antibodies that are associated with more severe RA.
Although these findings are interesting, they don’t quite prove that drinking tea lowers RA risk since other factors might be at play. For instance, the authors also found that tea drinkers drank less alcohol and less coffee compared to non-tea drinkers.
It’s also worth noting that this study contradicts earlier research. The Nurses’ Health Study, for instance, found “no association between consumption of more than three cups a day compared to no tea consumption,” the authors explained. They noted, however, that there were only 480 RA cases in the Nurses’ Health Study; this new study contained more than 2,200 RA cases.
The mechanism that could explain the potential protective effect of tea with regard to RA isn’t clear. The author speculated that such a benefit might come thanks to tea’s flavonoids (antioxidants), and that these compounds might have a “preferential effect on the adaptive immune response.”
That said, drinking more tea will not negate the risks of smoking. In order to keep your body safe from any smoke-related health risks, the best think you can do it work with your doctor to give up the habit for good.
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Karlson EW. Coffee consumption and risk of rheumatoid arthritis. Arthritis & Rheumatology. November 4, 2003. https://doi.org/10.1002/art.11306.
Tea Fact Sheet — 2019-2020. Tea Association of the U.S.A. Inc. http://www.teausa.com/teausa/images/Tea_Fact_Sheet_2019_-_2020._PCI_update_3.12.2020.pdf.
The Hidden Health Benefits of Tea. Penn Medicine. December 9, 2019. https://www.pennmedicine.org/updates/blogs/health-and-wellness/2019/december/health-benefits-of-tea.
Westerlind H, et al. Is tea consumption associated with reduction of risk of rheumatoid arthritis? A Swedish case-control study. Arthritis & Research Therapy. August 7, 2021. doi: https://doi.org/10.1186/s13075-021-02583-y.