Fertility can be a touchy subject. Some couples get pregnant without even trying, while others might try for months or years. Add to that the fact that there are seemingly infinite factors that can affect fertility for both men and women, and that many are out of our control, and it’s no wonder that planning and trying for pregnancy can be so, so stressful.
That said, there are certain lifestyle choices that contribute to fertility (and infertility) that are within our control. Generally, things that contribute to health overall are also likely to contribute to fertility — getting regular exercise, eating a balanced diet, and not smoking are all important.
But, what about alcohol consumption? Is it OK to drink while you’re trying to conceive? If so, how much? And, does heavy drinking in your past mess with your fertility in the present? We asked a fertility specialist to weigh in.
There is some evidence that heavy drinking might negatively affect fertility in the short and long term.
No surprise here: If you and your partner are trying to get pregnant, or if you hope to conceive someday, you should avoid heavy drinking. (Really, everyone should avoid heavy drinking.)
To clarify, the Dietary Guidelines for Americans defines moderate drinking as up to one drink a day for women and up to two drinks a day for men, and the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism defines heavy alcohol use as binge drinking (around four drinks for women and five drinks for men in about a two-hour period) five or more times per month.
For women, “there is some evidence that alcohol can cause changes in cycle regulation and ovulation in the setting of heavy, chronic use,” according to Ryan Martin, a reproductive endocrinologist at Shady Grove Fertility in Warrington, Pennsylvania. And, “some studies suggest that chronic, heavy drinking can lead to diminished ovarian reserve (low quantity of eggs).”
Heavy alcohol use has a similar effect on male fertility. “With heavy use, some studies have shown a decrease in the hormones that lead to testosterone and sperm production,” Martin said.
All of this said, if you’ve been a heavy drinker in the past, you probably don’t need to go into panic mode. Theoretically, this could contribute to infertility, Martin said, but he added that he doesn’t see this happening with his patients and that it would only occur in rare and very extreme cases.
Here’s the good news: Moderate drinking likely doesn’t affect your fertility long-term.
The truth is, we still have a lot to learn about how alcohol affects the reproductive system over the course of a lifetime.
“There are not a lot of studies evaluating the physiologic effects of alcohol consumption on reproductive physiology,” Martin said. But, he added, there isn’t a strong association between light to moderate drinking and infertility for most people ― in other words, a history of moderate alcohol consumption isn’t likely to mess with your chances of getting pregnant.
You might want to cut out alcohol while trying to conceive, but light consumption is probably OK.
That said, it’s a good idea to cut back on booze while you’re trying to conceive. “I counsel patients that alcohol consumption is OK, but to keep it to a minimum,” Martin said.
There’s also research that makes a case for cutting it out altogether. The authors of a 2017 review study in the journal Fertility Research and Practice looked at the effect of alcohol on rates of Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder, risk of fetal loss and risk of stillbirth. In their conclusion, they recommend that women avoid alcohol altogether while trying to conceive, and during pregnancy, “as no ‘safe dose’ has been identified, and effects to the fetus may begin as early as immediately after implantation.” (It’s worth noting that this study isn’t looking specifically at the effect of alcohol on a woman’s ability to get pregnant, but rather the effect of alcohol on a healthy pregnancy.)
Don’t forget that alcohol is one of many factors that affect fertility.
The one lifestyle factor that we know for certain has an effect on fertility is smoking, Martin said. But, the impact of other factors isn’t as cut-and-dried.
“Diet and exercise are always important when trying to conceive,” Martin said. “However, there is a misperception that if you are exercising and eating well, you are less likely to have infertility. I tell my patients that reproductive health is not always synonymous with overall health.” In other words, you could be doing everything “right,” and still have trouble getting pregnant.
Back to booze, though. The bottom line is that we’re just not sure exactly how alcohol affects fertility. It’s unlikely that past alcohol use will have a huge impact on your fertility, and even light drinking while trying to conceive is probably OK. But, If you’ve been trying to get pregnant for several months or years without success, you might want to try cutting it out in addition to speaking to your doctor.