How alcohol affects your fertility

Couples trying to improve fertility
Letting your hair down can be conflicting when trying to conceive - Getty

Thinking about having a baby and wondering whether you can still enjoy a glass of rosé at book club or a beer after work? Maybe you’re already trying to conceive but you have a big birthday coming up and want to know if letting your hair down for a night will make any difference. If you’ve been on the fertility roller coaster for a while, could a drink on date night help you relax – or hinder your chances? You may come across conflicting advice on alcohol and fertility, so we’ve spoken to leading experts for the lowdown on drinking when you’re part of a couple who’s trying to get pregnant.

Alcohol and fertility

We’re learning more all the time about the links between diet, lifestyle and fertility, says Dr Gareth Nye, a lecturer in physiology at Chester Medical School and a specialist in maternal and foetal health. “In 10–20 per cent of infertility cases, no cause is found so the issues are often attributed to diet and lifestyle, which includes alcohol intake.”

Is it okay to drink alcohol while you’re trying to conceive?

NHS guidance states you should avoid alcohol completely when you’re trying to conceive, which is partly because of the risks in very early pregnancy. “You need to stop as soon as you’re pregnant as alcohol can be harmful to a developing baby, and you won’t know that if you are in the two weeks between conception and the time your period should show up,” says Joyce Harper, a professor of reproductive science at the Institute for Women’s Health, University College London. “But on top of that, we know that drinking can affect fertility in both men and women.”

How alcohol impacts female fertility

Alcohol can disrupt the delicate balance of hormones that runs your menstrual cycle, explains Nye. “It affects the way your liver breaks down the hormone oestrogen, leaving higher levels circulating in your body. It can also affect the amount of progesterone you produce. Taken together, this can have a number of different effects. It impacts egg development and release, and disrupts the growth of the uterus wall. Alcohol can also slow egg movement into the uterus, reducing the chances of fertilisation. The knock-on effect can be irregular or missed periods, which results in huge reductions in your ability to conceive.”

Does alcohol affect male fertility too?

Yes – drinking too much has been shown to affect the production of healthy sperm. “Research found men who drank either occasionally or not at all had higher semen volume and a higher percentage of normal sperm than men who reported drinking daily,” says Nye. “It’s thought alcohol processing by the liver limits the production of the hormone testosterone, and that in turn reduces sperm development.”

How much alcohol is too much?

While you should cut out alcohol completely when you’re actively trying to conceive, most research has found that heavy drinking has the biggest impact. “Good-quality studies show the effect is dose dependent – the more you drink, the more likely your fertility will be impacted,” says Harper.

Studies looking at the effects of light to moderate drinking on fertility have reported more mixed results, says Nye. “One study reported that women who had more than seven drinks a week took longer to get pregnant, although others show no significant difference,” he says. But he points out that it’s hard to draw conclusions as definitions of light, moderate and heavy drinking have varied in studies.

And here’s the thorny issue: “heavy drinking” is almost certainly a lot less than you think – in some fertility research, it’s been defined as just six drinks a week. “And moderate drinking means a glass of wine every other night,” says Harper. “The general guidance is that men and women should stick to a maximum of 14 units (with one unit equivalent to a small glass of wine or single measure of spirits), spread throughout the week, with some days off and no bingeing. If you’re even thinking about having a baby, you should at least come in under that – but cutting alcohol out completely is the best advice, especially if you’re having IVF or either of you have issues with your fertility, including being over 35 if you’re a woman. It makes sense to try to be as healthy as possible.”

I’ve read that drinking some alcohol can help conception…

Yes, we all know someone who conceived on a boozy holiday. “Many pregnancies are unplanned so we know this happens, but it’s not ideal,” says Harper. “There are always those who don’t look after themselves and get pregnant easily, but you shouldn’t compare yourself to someone else as it may be very different for you.” Seen people on forums sharing studies that seem to show a couple of glasses of red a night can give your fertility a boost? “Those studies were very small and didn’t actually look at having a baby,” points out Harper. “They just looked at fertility signs like hormone profile, sperm counts and quality, and the number of follicles on the ovaries. But this doesn’t equate to actually having a baby, so these studies aren’t helpful.”

Can I drink during the ‘two-week wait’?

The time between ovulation and the date your period should turn up can be stressful, especially if you’ve been trying to conceive for a while – no wonder you may be tempted to have a tipple. Don’t risk it, say the experts. A study published in the American Journal of Obstetrics and Gynecology found even small amounts of alcohol in those early weeks raises your risk of miscarriage. And think about it this way: that earliest stage of pregnancy lays the foundation for your baby’s health. “By the time you miss a period, around two to four weeks of crucial growth and development has already occurred,” points out Nye.

I had a few drinks before I realised I was pregnant – have I harmed my baby?

“Don’t panic,” says Karen Tyrell, the CEO of charity Drinkaware. “While this isn’t ideal, it does happen a lot. Stop drinking now, and talk to your GP or midwife if you have any concerns.”

When do couples need to start avoiding alcohol?

In a nutshell, it’s never too soon. “We’re learning a lot more about the long-term health of parents and how it affects later pregnancy and the health of the child,” says Harper. “For example, we know that having an obese father or mother affects a child’s health. It’s probably the same with alcohol. It’s not just about cutting down when you decide to start trying for a baby – ideally, if you want to have a baby one day, you should be looking after your body from a young age, and that includes keeping alcohol to a minimum.” And if you’re actively trying to get pregnant, quit booze now.

Tips for avoiding alcohol when you’re trying to conceive

“Couples tend to share drinking patterns, so one of the best tips is to cut down together,” says Tyrell. “Make a plan. Try social activities that don’t revolve around drinking – you could take up a new hobby together instead. Find non-alcoholic drinks you enjoy and stock up on those rather than keeping beer and wine at home.”

What if you’re committed to cutting down but your partner isn’t? The first step is helping them to understand their patterns, says Tyrell – try Drinkaware’s Drinking Check calculator. The Drinkaware website has lots of tips for cutting down or stopping, and your GP may also be able to help. “If avoiding alcohol gets tricky, remember your goal: having a healthy baby,” says Tyrell. “It may also be helpful to focus on the more immediate benefits – improved sleep and mood, for example.” Another bonus of avoiding alcohol? Better sex – and that can only be good news when you’re trying to conceive.


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