Alcohol and infertility

Trying for a baby can be stressful, especially if you’ve been trying to get pregnant for a while. It can be tempting to reach for a glass of wine as a way to cope with the disappointment of not being pregnant each month. However, drinking alcohol could actually be lowering your chance of conception. Drinking alcohol can reduce fertility in both men and women and could make your fertility journey much longer than it needs to be. In men, alcohol can affect the quality of sperm and although it’s not certain how alcohol affects fertility in women, it has been shown to reduce the chance of conception in a number of studies.


Alcohol and fertility in women

One theory of how alcohol can impact on fertility in women is that it can have a detrimental affect on normal egg development. In a Danish study in the 1990s, researchers studied 430 couples who were trying to conceive their first child over a six month period. The research showed that during the six months, 64% of women with a weekly alcohol intake of five drinks or less conceived, compared to 55% of women who drank a higher level of alcohol.

If you decide to cut down rather than abstain from alcohol whilst trying to conceive, try to avoid alcohol in the second half of your cycle. If you have conceived, your baby will be in the very early stages of its development.

Mr Sachchidananda Maiti, a Consultant Gynaecologist and Obstetrician at Pall Mall Medical adds, “Interestingly, the findings of several studies and information from the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists suggest that low level of drinking even during pregnancy after 12 weeks is not associated with delivery before your expected date or a small baby. It is important to bear in mind though that levels of alcohol can differ from country to country, for example, 1 unit of alcohol in the UK is 8gm compared to 1 unit in Canada being 13.6gms.”


Men, alcohol and sperm quality

Excessive alcohol intake in men can lower testosterone levels, lower sperm quality and cause impotence. Although excessive alcohol clearly has a negative impact on fertility, the effects of moderate alcohol intake are uncertain. In 2012, a study by researchers at the Universities of Sheffield and Manchester revealed that smoking, drinking and obesity didn’t affect semen quality. However, the NHS warned against taking this headline-grabbing story at face-value:

“The news is based on research looking at the lifestyles and medical histories of only men with fertility problems, who had sperm with either normal or reduced motility (movement). As such, it was only in a specific group with fertility problems and tells us very little about the general population or the effects of these vices. Also, the study has not explored the reasons the men were experiencing fertility problems.”

It is generally believed that even if a man isn’t drinking excessively, the effects of just a small amount of alcohol can impact fertility through reducing the quality of sperm. Men who go to see an expert about fertility issues are likely to be advised to stop smoking, reduce their alcohol intake and improve their diet.

Mr Maiti advises that your partner should also embrace a reduced alcohol intake for their fertility as well as for support, “From my experience, women are more likely to stick to regime of reduced alcohol intake during this stressful time only if supported by their partners drinking less themselves.”


Increasing IVF success by reducing alcohol intake

In 2009 Harvard University released the results of a study which showed the alarming effect drinking alcohol could have on the chances of conceiving through IVF. Doctors at Harvard University surveyed over 2,500 couple about their drinking habits prior to starting a round of IVF.

The survey showed that the men and women who each drank six or more units of alcohol a week reduced their likelihood of pregnancy by a significant amount. By drinking at this level, women were 18% less likely to conceive through IVF, while men reduced their chances of fatherhood by 14%.

In another study on fertility, diet and alcohol by fertility expert Dr Emma Derbyshire, cutting out alcohol and caffeine was almost as effective as IVF in resulting in pregnancies in women who were struggling to conceive. The research showed that 32% of women having trouble conceiving became pregnant by giving up alcohol and caffeine, compared to 33% after IVF treatment. The study also revealed that the odds of conceiving fall from 60% in women who drink five or less alcoholic drinks a week to 30% for those consuming ten or more alcoholic drinks a week.


How much alcohol is OK to drink?

If you’re trying to get pregnant then the best option is to drink no alcohol at all. This is because sperm and eggs take around 3 months to mature so by cutting out alcohol now, you will have a better chance of producing higher quality sperm and eggs in future months of trying for a baby.

For some couples trying to conceive can be a long term journey and giving up alcohol for many months or even years can be a big commitment. According to the charity Drink Aware couples trying to conceive should limit their alcohol intake to 1-2 units of alcohol a week for women and to drink no more than 3-4 units a day for men and try to include alcohol free days in a week.


Sarah Stewart is a lifestyle blogger with 8 years writing experience. She writes on a range of topics including health, families and parenting.

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