Alcohol isn’t the most inexpensive way to enjoy a night out, and it can motivate even the most mature person to make bad decisions, but still, most adults probably wouldn’t give it up unless there was a particularly good reason. And there is – the connection between alcohol consumption and both female and male fertility isn’t widely discussed, but it’s critical to bettering our chances of conception.
Bear in mind that we’re not just discussing limiting or minimizing alcohol intake, but talking about giving up alcohol entirely. Drinking in moderation severely inhibits your chances of conceiving, even in healthy women and men with no history of fertility problems.
The Disadvantages of Alcohol for Female Fertility
It’s not enough to say that alcohol is “bad” for us while we’re trying to get pregnant. Any substance on earth could be labeled bad or good for us, and we’d never know why. And if we’re taking the issue seriously (as we should), we have to understand how alcohol specifically affects us, especially when it comes to our fertility and the critical functions of our body.
On a very basic level, alcohol as a chemical compound interacts with our hormone function. When you’re trying to conceive, your hormones should be at ideal levels to support egg fertilization and implantation, in order to maintain a healthy pregnancy. A 2013 study using animals from Rutgers University discovered that alcohol use directly impacts the endocrine system. Your endocrine system is responsible for maintaining a stable internal system (homeostasis) in your body, and helps to metabolize and secrete hormones into your bloodstream. Researchers published the following conclusion with their findings: “Chronic consumption of a large amount of alcohol disrupts the communication between nervous, endocrine, and immune system and causes hormonal disturbances that lead to profound and serious consequences at physiologic and behavioral levels.”
These disruptions include an absence of menstrual cycles and absence of ovulation in women, and lowered testosterone and ineffective sperm structure in men, to name a few. Additional studies have found that there are also consequences related to consuming moderate amounts of alcohol and not just binge drinking.
Binge drinking, by definition, is drinking in excess of four drinks for women and five drinks for men in the span of a few hours. Binge drinking obviously can have harmful effects on your overall health, not just your fertility. Moderate drinking for women is defined as having two drinks or less on one occasion, or three to six drinks per week. One four-year study from 1990 to 1994 followed over 400 women with preexisting fertility complications and found that while binge drinking hindered their chances at conceiving, 44% who were moderate drinkers during their luteal phase (the last phase of the menstrual cycle and ideally when an embryo would implant in the uterine wall) were “less likely to conceive” than study participants who didn’t drink at all.
Moderate drinkers during their luteal phase were “less likely to conceive” than study participants who didn’t drink at all.
Epidemiology and population health researcher Dr. Kira Taylor of the University of Louisville, who analyzed and interpreted the study findings, has this to say: “If we assume that a typical, healthy, non-drinking woman in the general population who is trying to conceive has approximately a 25% chance of conceiving during one menstrual cycle, then out of 100 women approximately 25 non-drinkers would conceive in a particular cycle, about 20 moderate drinkers would conceive and only about 11 heavy drinkers would conceive," she explains. “But the effect of moderate drinking during the luteal phase is more pronounced, and only about 16 moderate drinkers would conceive.”
A separate investigation found that women undergoing in vitro fertilization who drank four or more drinks per week were “16% less likely to have a live birth” than women who drank less or completely abstained from alcohol. This data is particularly important for us to understand now, as many women continue to delay having kids until their thirties or even beyond and must then turn to artificial means to both create and maintain a viable pregnancy.
Alcohol Impacts Male Fertility Too
Pregnancy is a woman’s domain, but male fertility is just as crucial to the possibility of conception. Male fertility is under-discussed and often misunderstood, and hormone balance in men is essential for both the quality and quantity of the sperm which fertilize an egg to create an embryo.
Alcohol consumption has just as serious an impact on male fertility as it does on female fertility, especially for habitual male drinkers. Alcohol interferes with the three endocrine glands that are responsible for producing testosterone, and a 2019 study found that testosterone levels in men start to decrease within 30 minutes of consuming alcohol, whether you seldom drink or are a habitual drinker. The same study also gave men with healthy, ideal levels of testosterone whiskey once a day for 30 days, and in a month’s time, their testosterone matched the levels of an alcoholic.
Alcohol also stimulates male breast development, weight gain, and mood changes in men, in addition to issues like low libido, erectile dysfunction, and low sperm count. Because sperm quality is essential to the health of an embryo, and even if a couple can conceive relatively easily, it’s imperative to understand how alcohol directly affects sperm.
From 2008 to 2012, over 1,200 Danish men were given a compulsory physical exam in order to test their readiness for military service. Men with even moderate drinking habits (about three beers per week) were found to have poor semen quality, specifically in the volume, motility, and structure of their sperm. That decrease in quality was even more pronounced in men with excessive drinking habits (about 10 beers per week). Lead researchers of this study advised young men not to engage in habitual drinking, and even to avoid drinking while trying to conceive.
We tend to conceptualize fertility solely within female health because it’s most obviously related to pregnancy. But male fertility, which is impacted by everything from alcohol intake to clothing material to wearing boxers instead of briefs, plays just as large a role in healthy conception as female fertility. And male fertility, like female fertility, should be taken into serious consideration long before the topic of pregnancy is ever introduced.
Think About Your "Why"
Habitual, regular drinking, or even binge drinking, may be the go-to pastime of your young adult years, and there are all sorts of reasons why you might choose to quit entirely or at least slow down. You’ve heard them all before, from your parents or after-school specials. Wanting to have kids in the future and setting yourself up for success fertility-wise is just as good (if not better) a reason as any other.
If the thought of quitting or abstaining for nine months fills you with dread, you likely have an alcohol dependence you may not even fully realize.
It can be hard to quit cold turkey, but the science is clear. Not only does it harm your chances of conceiving, but also your man’s contribution to the mix, so to speak. First, think about your reasons for drinking, whether you do it once a week or every night. For some of us, quitting is a non-issue, but it can be harder for other individuals who started drinking young or have a genetic predisposition to drink. If the thought of quitting or at least abstaining for nine months or more fills you with dread, you likely have a dependence on alcohol you may not even fully realize. Write down the reasons that you drink and your reasons for quitting. Explore your thoughts on the matter and come back to them regularly.
Consider when, where, and with whom you drink. If you know that you don’t drink except for office happy hours, you might try to avoid them. If you know that you always go way beyond what’s healthy and good for you with that one specific friend, explain to them why you’re stopping or suggest a sober activity. Sobriety doesn’t have to be boring, and your friends don't have to fully understand it for you to maintain it.
Change your environment. Instead of beelining for the bar every Friday night, join a gym or a running group. Sign up for painting lessons, or take up other hobbies. Better yet, do all the things you would normally do, minus the alcohol. Remember why you’re doing it, and get your husband involved too. Keep each other accountable, and remember that it’s completely worth it.
Admittedly, there’s already a long list of do’s and don’ts when it comes to pregnancy, but quitting alcohol before you even begin trying to get pregnant should be at the top of that list. You might feel better and even sleep deeper after stopping, not to mention you’ll have plenty of time to dedicate to babymaking-related activities…
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