Monitoring your ovulation, reducing your caffeine intake, taking folic acid… If you are currently actively trying to conceive these recommendations will most likely sound familiar. Chances are you will also have been recommended to stop drinking alcohol. But how are alcohol and fertility linked, and can drinking impair your chances of conceiving? In short, yes. However, new research has now indicated that both the timing in your cycle at which alcohol is consumed and the quantity one drinks will play a role in this effect. And, women are not the only ones to be affected, male sperm quality is also susceptible.
What do we know about alcohol and fertility?
While the harmful effects of alcohol consumption on a developing embryo are well established, less is known about the effects of alcohol on your fertility and chances of conception. Some studies investigating the effect of a woman’s alcohol intake and their likelihood to conceive have suggested that low to moderate alcohol consumption is associated with reduced fertility. However, these studies did not rule out other factors such as age, smoking and age so it is not certain if the effects were caused by alcohol alone.
A recently published study by the University of Louisville, Kentucky reviewed data from 413 participants who reported their daily alcohol intake for up to 19 months, specifying both the number and type of drink. The researchers classified an alcoholic drink as 335ml of beer (a small bottle), 148ml of wine (a medium glass) or 44ml of spirits (just under a double shot). This was the first study of its kind to investigate this according to the different phases of the menstrual cycle.
Alcohol and your cycle
The menstrual cycle is divided into four phases:
- The menstrual phase: Otherwise known as the ‘period’. This phase represents the period of time the lining of the uterus (endometrium) sheds
- The follicular phase: Overlaps with the menstrual phase, starting from the first day of the period and ends with ovulation
- The ovulation phase: The ovary releases a mature egg into the fallopian tube
- The luteal phase: Takes place during the second half of the menstrual cycle and describes the time from ovulation until the start of menstruation.
During the luteal phase, your luteinising hormone (LH) and follicle-stimulating hormone (FSH) levels decrease whilst levels of progesterone increase, and oestrogen levels remain high. These hormones cause the lining of your uterus to thicken which prepares it for the implantation of a possible fertilised egg. (You can read more about your menstrual cycle stages here)
This study found that when participants drank 3-6 alcoholic drinks per week (moderate drinking) during the luteal phase, it resulted in a 44% reduction in the chance of conceiving compared to non-drinkers. Whereas, when participants drank more than 6 alcoholic drinks per week (one drink a day) (considered heavy drinking) the chance of conceiving was reduced by 61%. Each additional day of binge drinking (more than 4 alcoholic drinks in a day) led to a further 19% decrease in the chance of conceiving.
In contrast, the researchers found that only heavy drinking during both the ovulatory phase and the follicular phase was associated with a reduced likelihood of conceiving compared to non-drinkers. Additionally, when the cycle was considered in its entirety, the researchers too observed a significant association between heavy drinking and a reduced likelihood of conceiving.
Alcohol disrupts your hormone levels
Although the researchers did not investigate how alcohol intake during the luteal phase may reduce the likelihood of conception, it has been suggested that alcohol disrupts hormonal levels which could affect the likelihood of conception during the implantation phase. Studies have shown that alcohol intake is associated with an increase in levels of oestrogen, FSH and LH and a decrease in the level of progesterone. Oestrogen concentration is suggested to affect how the embryo attaches to the lining of your uterus (endometrium), such that an abnormally high level could lower the chance of implantation.
However, for those who may now be considering avoiding alcohol just during the luteal phase, the answer may not be that simple. The researchers of the study relied on the assumption that ovulation took place 14 days before menstruation. In reality, the luteal phase can last between 7 and 19 days and this can vary between cycles. It is also important to note that the results of this study do not mean that drinking excessively during the second half of the cycle will also prevent pregnancy.
It affects men too!
It’s important to remember that it isn’t just female fertility that is affected by alcohol – and male partners must also take responsibility. A study of 1221 men in Denmark found that sperm quality decreased in men who reported drinking more than 5 units (around 3 small beers) of alcohol a week. This decrease in sperm quality became even more pronounced in men who reported drinking over 25 units of alcohol in a typical week.
Like females, alcohol also disrupts the normal balance of hormones in men. Alcohol is known to reduce levels of testosterone in men and this becomes more pronounced with heavy drinking over a longer period. So if you have a male partner – have them join you on your journey to alcohol-free life!
What are the take-home messages?
There are two take-home messages here, one is that a single drink a day is considered heavy drinking, and for many who like to indulge in their habitual daily glass of wine, you must understand the risk this can cause to your chances of pregnancy. The second is that our bodies are more susceptible to the harm of alcohol depending on what day of our cycle we are in.
If you are planning to get pregnant or are actively trying to conceive, try to give your body a break from alcohol and give your hormones a chance to do their job.
The NHS currently recommends that alcohol should be avoided by women who are actively trying to conceive to keep risks to the baby at a minimum. It is important to consider that you may not know that you are pregnant until a few (or maybe more) weeks into the pregnancy. This means that if you are still drinking whilst trying to conceive, and you do become pregnant, you may risk unintentionally exposing the baby to alcohol. Since there is no known safe level of alcohol for a developing fetus, the safest approach is to avoid it.
Tips for reducing your alcohol intake
We understand cutting out alcohol can be a challenge for many, so here are some of our top tips to get you started:
- Don’t do it alone! – Cutting down your alcohol intake can be difficult, especially if you are doing it alone. Taking the pledge to stop drinking with your partner (or a friend!) is a great way for you both to contribute to your own and your future baby’s health.
- Learn your triggers – Whether it’s a glass of wine to take the edge off after a stressful day or peer pressure to drink at social gatherings, we all have situations that may increase our urges to drink. Consider monitoring your urges to drink, to help you avoid or control them.
- Reward yourself – Keep yourself motivated whilst cutting back on alcohol. Why not set aside the money that you would normally spend on alcohol on a treat for yourself.
You can find more great advice for reducing your alcohol intake here.
Support networks if you’re struggling
If you feel like you need some help regarding alcohol, here are some networks and resources to support you:
Need some guidance on your fertility journey? Our clinically validated at-home hormone and fertility tests are tailored to you and your health needs, to get you the answers you deserve. Discuss your results with our expert team, who are here to answer your questions and support you, no matter what the results.