Alcohol has played its part in many a pregnancy, but when a couple really wants a baby, it’s not helpful as it affects eggs and sperm health, which can have long-term consequences for children.
The impact of small amounts of alcohol on fertility isn’t known and probably varies with personal tolerance to alcohol, and 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, with women who drink ten or more drinks a week being 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, which is more than if the woman 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 fetal health. ii
Drinking excess alcohol, particularly early in the pregnancy (weeks six to nine), can cause lasting damage to a foetus, as crucial 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
The sons of women who drank moderately during pregnancy (4½ or more alcoholic drinks a week) experience altered sexual development, with less sexual vitality at the age of 20, and lower sperm counts, semen concentrations and volumes. iv It’s clear even moderate levels of alcohol increase oxidative stress damage to eggs and their DNA. v
Alcohol and age
Our ability to cope with alcohol changes as we age, which has associations for fertility:
- The fertility of women over 29 is affected almost twice as much in comparison to being under 24. vi
- This significant difference indicates less tolerance to toxins and more prone to oxidative stress as we age.
- How genetic predispositions to alcohol tolerance affect this is unknown.
Male fertility and alcohol
The “manly” drinking of alcohol has several unwanted and “unmanly” 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 Reducing or stopping alcohol limits damage to the delicate DNA in eggs and sperm and increases the chances of a healthy pregnancy and baby.
Sperm quality usually improves dramatically after three months of abstinence, as testes recover quickly from alcohol exposure, and it takes three months for sperm to grow.
Egg recruitment takes longer, with the full benefits probably taking 3-6 months before improvements in egg quality, ovarian function, and chances of implantation are seen.