As widely publicized, drinking alcohol during pregnancy can lead to a variety of potential problems, from birth defects and developmental disorders in the baby, to premature birth, stillbirth, and miscarriage, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) warns. The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) publishes that alcohol can disrupt the onset of puberty in women, interfere with normal menstruation and reproductive functions, and disrupt hormonal levels in women who are postmenopausal. The exact effect alcohol has on a woman’s fertility itself, though, is not fully understood or appreciated.
Alcohol can and does make changes to how the brain works, and it can also influence bodily functions. There are many factors that can play a role in how much alcohol will impact a person, such as personal biology, genetics, metabolism, and environmental aspects. Alcohol will therefore have a different effect on each individual. As a general rule, alcohol is not recommended if a person is trying to get pregnant; however, prior drinking is not expected to be a significant deterrent to conception later in life.
Research on Alcohol and Female Fertility
In general, most medical professionals will recommend against drinking, even in moderation, while trying to conceive. For one thing, it can be difficult to know exactly when conception takes place, and alcohol is known to harm a growing fetus.
A study published in the journal Obstetrics and Gynecology found that women beginning an in vitro fertilization (IVF) treatment who drank four or more drinks per week were 16 percent less likely to have a live birth than those who drank less than that or not at all. When both partners drank at least four drinks a week, the rate of live birth was reduced even further, down to a 21 percent less chance of having a live birth when compared to couples who didn’t drink or drank less than four drinks per week.
Another study published by Medical News Today reports that studied women who recorded the highest alcohol consumption conceived 18 percent less frequently than other groups who didn’t drink. Results in the moderate drinking groups were inconclusive, however.
The New York Times publishes results of studies indicating that moderate alcohol consumption does not seem to impact a woman’s fertility, although it is known to decrease sperm count in a man. Overall, evidence is unclear on whether or not alcohol will disrupt fertility in women.
Alcohol’s Impact on the Female Reproductive Functions and Body
What is clear is that alcohol can have an impact on the female body, potentially leading to repercussions, such as:
- Unhealthy body weight
- Contraction of a sexually transmitted disease
- Irregular menstruation
- Potential menstrual and reproductive disorders
- Damage to internal organs
Each of these issues can possibly interfere with a woman’s fertility rate and her ability to conceive children. Alcohol contains empty calories, and can contribute to a person being overweight. Also, when a person regularly drinks alcohol to excess, they may develop unhealthy eating habits and begin to replace alcohol with food or meals. As published by Nutrition Care Systems, people who struggle with alcohol addiction may ingest about half of their daily calories in the form of alcohol. Alcohol may also interfere with the way nutrients are absorbed into the stomach and used by the body.
Obesity and infertility may be linked, as the National Institutes of Health (NIH) publishes that obesity can cause irregular menstrual periods, ovulation problems, more difficulties conceiving when using fertility treatments, and miscarriage. Alcohol abuse can lead to poor eating habits and malnutrition, which may then impact female reproduction and fertility.
Alcohol also lowers a person’s inhibitions and can play a role in individuals acting in ways they normally wouldn’t (e.g., taking bigger risks, becoming more social, or putting themselves into situations that may be potentially hazardous or dangerous). When under the influence of alcohol, a person may be more inclined to engage in sexual activities that can be considered potentially risky and unsafe. Unprotected sex can lead to the contraction of a sexually transmitted disease (STD), which may interfere with future fertility and the ability for a woman to conceive. For example, the CDC warns that untreated gonorrhea or chlamydia, both of which are STDs, can contribute to future infertility.
Alcohol can cause damage to internal organs, when it is consumed heavily for a long time. NIAAA publishes that alcohol can damage the heart, liver, pancreas, immune system, and brain, and alcohol abuse is even linked to increasing vulnerabilities to certain types of cancer. All of these possible ramifications may make it more difficult for a woman to conceive and carry a child safely to term.
Drinking alcohol may cause problems with menstruation and ovulation, which can then impact fertility. Getting pregnant depends on the timing of the menstrual cycle as well as successful ovulation, and disruption of either of these things can make it difficult to conceive.
Alcohol has been shown to cause amenorrhea, which is a menstrual disorder that can lead to delayed, or the disruption of, menstruation; this can obviously impact fertility. Alcohol can change the brain’s chemistry, which may alter levels of hormones in the body; these may be involved in delaying menstruation, making it more difficult to conceive.
Alcohol may temporarily inhibit the production of estrogen and increase levels of testosterone, which can interfere with normal menstruation, NIAAA reports. Just like chronic stress, regular alcohol abuse is also involved in changing some of the body’s natural chemical messengers and hormone levels, which can have many negative psychical and emotional ramifications. Alcohol may also contribute to a reduction in the weight of the ovaries, which can impact reproduction and fertility as well.
The full effects of alcohol on the female reproductive system are not completely understood; however, alcohol may be involved with conception difficulties.
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Playing It Safe
Moderate consumption of alcohol is not likely to impact future conception or fertility for a woman who drinks responsibly. NIAAA defines low-risk drinking as no more than three drinks per day for a woman and no more than seven drinks per week. More than that can increase the odds that a women will suffer from alcohol dependence and addiction, and can lead to additional physical problems, which may contribute to fertility issues. A standard drink, as defined by the Dietary Guidelines 2015-2020, is as follows:
- One glass of wine (5 ounces containing 12% alcohol)
- One beer (12 ounces containing 5% alcohol)
- One serving of malt liquor (8 ounces containing 7% alcohol)
- One shot of distilled spirits (1.5 ounces of 80 proof liquor containing 40% alcohol)
It is not recommended to start drinking alcohol if a person is not already doing so, but if someone is already consuming alcohol, it is generally considered safe to do so in a limited fashion and in moderation. Alcoholic drinks often contain a lot of sugar and empty calories, and offer no nutritional value, so they should be consumed on occasion and not included as part of a normal, everyday diet.
Women who are pregnant, or trying to become pregnant, should focus on a healthy diet and exclude alcohol in order to enhance their nutrition. This may bolster the odds of conception and carrying a healthy baby all the way to term.