Is alcohol harming your fertility?
Drinking even moderately can make it more difficult to conceive.
Alcohol stops you conceiving? Those who’ve found themselves pregnant after having sex at the end of an alcohol-fuelled night might find that hard to believe. But it’s true – there is good scientific evidence that alcohol can reduce fertility in both men and women. So why does alcohol cut your chances of having a baby? And how much is too much to drink when you’re trying to conceive?
Official advice issued via the Department of Health is that women trying to conceive should avoid alcohol altogether. If a woman trying to conceive does choose to drink, the government’s advice is not to have more than one to two units of alcohol once or twice a week (two units is the equivalent to a 175 ml glass of wine), and not to get drunk.
The National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence (NICE) is the independent organisation responsible for providing national guidance on promoting good health and preventing and treating ill health. NICE additionally advises that the risks of miscarriage in the first three months of pregnancy mean that it is particularly important for women not to drink alcohol at all during that period.
Female fertility and alcohol
However, alcohol doesn’t cause problems only after you’re pregnant. It can make women less fertile too. “There is a link between drinking and fertility, although exactly how alcohol makes women less fertile isn’t understood clearly,” says Dr Anthony Rutherford, a consultant in reproductive medicine and Chairman of the British Fertility Society. “Many studies have shown that even drinking lightly can have an effect.” These include a Danish study that showed drinking between one and five drinks a week can reduce a women’s chances of conceiving, and 10 drinks or more decreases the likelihood of conception even further (1).
Men, alcohol and conception
It isn’t just female fertility that’s affected by alcohol. Dr Patrick O’Brien, spokesperson for the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists, says: “Excessive alcohol lowers testosterone levels and sperm quality and quantity in men. It can also reduce libido, and cause impotence.
If a man drinks heavily it can really reduce a couple’s chances of conceiving. However, if you reduce what you drink, these effects can be quickly reversed. "I would recommend that men definitely stay within the government's daily unit guidelines (3-4 units - equivalent to a pint and a half of 4% beer) if they’re trying for children with their partners,” says Dr O’Brien.
Deirdre Armstrong is a conception coach at the Edinburgh Natural Fertility Clinic, which gives couples extra help to conceive using treatments like acupuncture, herbal medicine and by advising them on nutrition. The impact of alcohol on men’s fertility is something she sees daily. “Men absolutely can’t get away with drinking heavily when they’re trying for children with their partner,” she says. “Recently a couple trying to conceive came to see us. We took a sperm sample from the man, and then another three months later. In the intervening time, the couple had got married and been on their honeymoon – the three months had been a giant, alcohol-fuelled party for them. It was shocking how much his sperm count had dropped.”
A healthy lifestyle in general is key to making sure your fertility is in tip top shape. That includes eating well and exercising to make sure you’re a healthy weight. And of course, drinking within the government's daily unit guidelines – or stopping altogether – is part of this.
“The importance of a healthy lifestyle can’t be overstated,” says Deidre. “We help couples get their bodies in balance at the clinic – and that makes a real difference to fertility.”
Health effects of alcohol
From the second you take your first sip, alcohol starts affecting your body and mind. Some of alcohol’s effects disappear overnight – while others can stay with you a lot longer, or indeed become permanent.
The effects of alcohol on your body
Use our interactive infographic to find out what effect alcohol has on your body.Health Effects
1.) T Koldjensen, NHI Hjollund, TB Henriksen, T Scheike, H Kolstad, A Giwercman, E Ernst, JP Bonde, NE Skakkebaek & J Olsen, “Does moderate alcohol consumption affect fertility? Follow up study among couples planning first pregnancy”, BMJ 1998; 317:505-510. Available at:http://www.bmj.com/cgi/content/abstract/317/7157/505
2.) Harvard University website. Alcohol hinders having a baby through IVF, couples warnedhttp://news.harvard.edu/gazette/story/2009/10/alcohol-hinders-having-a-baby-through-ivf-couples-warned/
Page updated: May 2013
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