Gout: it’s not just for Henry VIII and Leonardo da Vinci anymore

Woman cradling painful foot
Photo: Peter Dazeley (Getty Images)

What do Alexander the Great, Charlemagne, Leonardo da Vinci, Henry VIII, and Isaac Newton all have in common? Greatness, yes. Bravery, to be sure. Also, uncomfortably inflamed big toes. In other words: they all suffered from gout. And you can, too: A recent article in The New York Times explains that gout, an affliction once thought to primarily impact aristocracy, may actually be 2020's most worrying ailment. Er, second-most.


Gout occurs when the body produces more uric acid than the kidneys can filter out, creating tiny, dagger-shaped crystals that stiffen in the joints and trigger inflammation, swelling, and redness, often near the joint at the base of the big toe. The Times reports that it’s making a pretty serious comeback with U.S. cases more than doubling from the 1960s to the 1990s.

Those numbers are disconcerting, but no one knows the exact cause of the spike. It’s known to be exacerbated by foods that contain the chemical compound purine, but the Times reports no corresponding increase in sales of “historically gouty” foods like veal and foie gras. Red meat consumption in the United States also continues to decline. And while some traditionally swanky eats do contain high levels of purine, proletariat pleasures like high-fructose corn syrup, beans, and brewer’s yeast can also elevate uric acid levels. (It’s worth noting that gout does still has a crafty way with the elite. You may recall that Paul Manafort, Donald Trump’s former campaign chairman, suffered from “severe gout” during his financial fraud trial in 2018.)

If you have a family history of gout and find yourself worried about your personal toe comfort (as you should be!), chat with your doctor about ways to reduce your own purine intake. And if you do contract the condition, rest easy: you’re in good (historical) company.

Staff writer @ The Takeout, joke writer elsewhere. Wrangling dogs and pork shoulder in Chicago.



Gout is the second worst pain I’ve ever had. The worst being a herniated disk in my neck. I get gout in my big toe, either foot but thankfully never both at the same time. It literally feels like there is ground glass in the joint, it gets hot and the lightest cotton sheets feel like someone is jabbing hot needles in my toe. I take colchicine but that sometimes takes a few days to stop a flare. I only get one or two minor flares a year and have only ever had one debilitating flare where I missed a week of work. From the stories I’ve heard and read I feel a bit “lucky” that my gout isn’t as bad as others.

My issue is I’m overweight and I like beer.  I’m active but not to the point that the excess weight is going anywhere, just maintaining without getting bigger, and most beers don’t set it off.  One of my triggers is impacts such as jamming my toe or playing soccer and toeing the ball by mistake or in some cases doing planks have set it off.  Suffice it to say, gout sucks.