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Alcohol and Fertility

Alcohol has played its part in many a pregnancy, but when a couple really wants a baby, it’s not that helpful! Alcohol reduces inhibitions and can make people impulsive, but it harms fertility and health. Unfortunately, alcohol affects eggs and sperm, and this can have long-term consequences for the children.

The impact of small amounts of alcohol on fertility isn’t known, and it probably varies with personal tolerance to alcohol. However, the official advice is it’s best for women to avoid alcohol if they’re trying to conceive as: i

  • 1-5 drinks a week reduce the chances of pregnancy by 39%
  • Over 10 drinks a week reduce the chances of pregnancy by 66%

Alcohol also makes it more likely to have problems in pregnancy. Women who drink ten or more drinks a week are 2-3 times more likely to have a miscarriage.

The effect of alcohol on men’s role in the “baby-making process” is rather more surprising:

  • When men drink over ten units a week, their partner is 2-5 times more likely to miscarry
  • This increased risk is more than if women drank the same amount
  • Sperm are tiny and have little protection from toxins in the environment, and sperm health has a significant impact on pregnancies and a baby’s health ii

Heavy drinking

Drinking too much alcohol, particularly early on in the pregnancy (weeks six to nine), can cause lasting damage to the developing foetus, as organs, including the brain, heart and kidneys, start developing at this time. High alcohol levels can endanger the unborn child and, in extremes, lead to Fetal Alcohol Syndrome (FAS) or Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder (FASD), which are physical and developmental disorders that have serious lifelong consequences for the child. iii

Some measures have been done on the long-term development of children following moderate maternal drinking during pregnancy. The sons of women who drank 4½ or more alcoholic drinks a week during their pregnancy have less sexual vitality at the age of 20, with lower sperm counts, semen concentrations and volumes. iv

Our ability to cope with alcohol changes as we age, with associations to fertility:

  • The fertility of women over 29 is affected almost twice as much in comparison to being under 24 v
  • This significant difference indicates we get less tolerant to toxins and more prone to oxidative stress as we get older
  • It’s clear even moderate levels of alcohol increase oxidative stress damage to eggs and their DNA vi

Male fertility and alcohol

The “manly” drinking of alcohol has several unwanted and unsexy side effects:

  • Testicular atrophy (wasting of the testes)
  • Decreased libido (low sex drive)
  • Erectile dysfunction
  • Decreased sperm counts, volume, motility and shape
  • Lower testosterone (male) and higher estrogen (female) hormone levels
  • The development of breasts
  • Higher miscarriage rates for their partners

The chances of these increase relative to the quantity and frequency of alcohol consumption, and heavy alcoholics are unable to produce normal semen samples. vii

When trying for a baby, cutting down or stopping alcohol reduces damage to the delicate DNA in eggs and sperm and increases the chances of a healthy pregnancy and baby. The good news for men is that their sperm quality usually improves dramatically after three months of abstinence. It takes three months for sperm to grow, and testes recover pretty quickly from alcohol exposure.

Egg recruitment takes longer for women, so the full benefits probably take 3-6 months to kick in fully and improve a woman’s eggs quality, ovarian function, and chances of implantation.