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Alcohol and Health

How Does Alcohol Affect Sperm and Male Fertility?

Published:
August 6, 2023
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10 min read
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Reframe Content Team
A team of researchers and psychologists who specialize in behavioral health and neuroscience. This group collaborates to produce insightful and evidence-based content.
August 6, 2023
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10 min read
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Certified recovery coach specialized in helping everyone redefine their relationship with alcohol. His approach in coaching focuses on habit formation and addressing the stress in our lives.
August 6, 2023
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10 min read
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Recognized by Fortune and Fast Company as a top innovator shaping the future of health and known for his pivotal role in helping individuals change their relationship with alcohol.
August 6, 2023
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10 min read
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Reframe Content Team
August 6, 2023
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10 min read

When it comes to fertility and alcohol, we usually think about women. Many of us know that drinking alcohol while pregnant can be incredibly risky, increasing the risk of miscarriage, stillbirth, premature birth, and fetal alcohol syndrome.

What’s less widely discussed, however, is how alcohol affects sperm and male fertility.

Understanding Male Fertility

Before we explore how alcohol affects male fertility, it’s helpful to look at the male reproductive system, which is specifically designed to produce, store, and transport sperm.

In order for men to produce sperm — a process referred to as “spermatogenesis” — three main hormones are needed: follicle-stimulating hormone (FSH), luteinizing hormone (LH), and testosterone.

Both FSH and LH are made by our pituitary gland, located at the base of our brain. LH promotes testosterone production in the testicles, and FSH stimulates testicular growth and helps sperm mature. Testosterone, on the other hand, is made in our testicles and is responsible for developing and maintaining masculine characteristics (such as deeper voices and facial hair).

These three hormones — FSH, LH, and testosterone — work together to help our body continuously produce sperm. Changes in hormones due to the aging process or health conditions, such as diabetes and testicular disease, can prevent our body from producing as much sperm.

How Alcohol’s Effect on Sperm and Male Fertility

Research suggests that alcohol can significantly affect male fertility, depending on how much we drink. While the occasional drink is unlikely to affect male fertility, research shows that regular alcohol consumption may lower men’s sperm count.

Several studies have noted that female partners of men who drink heavily are less likely to become pregnant. This is because heavy, consistent drinking can destroy sperm-producing cells in the testicles, affecting the quality and number of sperm.

More specifically, research has found that heavy drinking affects fertility in these ways:

  • Lowering levels of testosterone, FSH, and LSH, and raising estrogen levels, which reduce sperm production
  • Shrinking the testes, which can cause impotence or infertility
  • Changing FSH and LSH release, which impacts sperm production
  • Causing early or decreased ejaculation
  • Changing the shape, size, and movement of healthy sperm

Along with affecting hormone levels, alcohol can also inhibit the function of the testes, preventing sperm from developing properly and reducing the sperm’s ability to move towards an egg. This happens because alcohol stops the liver from properly metabolizing vitamin A, which is needed for sperm development.

These effects are further exacerbated if we combine alcohol with drugs like marijuana or opioids. Additionally, studies show that liver disease caused by excessive drinking can also change sperm quality.

How Much Alcohol Affects Male Fertility?

As noted above, the amount of alcohol we consume plays a role in how severely male fertility is affected. Habitual, excessive alcohol consumption has a detrimental impact on both the male reproductive hormones and semen quality. In fact, more than 14 mixed drinks in a week can lower testosterone levels and affect sperm count.

One study found that sperm count in men who consumed 40 units or more of alcohol per week (which translates to 24 beers, 15 mixed drinks, or 4-5 bottles of wine) were approximately 33% lower than those who drank between 1 and 5 units per week. Similarly, the size and shape of sperm — referred to as sperm morphology — was also altered in 51% of the heavy drinkers.

In general, the higher the number of weekly units of alcohol consumed, the lower the sperm quality. One study noted that while negative effects can be seen in men who drink five or more drinks a week, it’s most apparent in men who drink 25 units of alcohol — the equivalent of 15 pints of beer — or more each week.

The good news is that the effects of alcohol can be reversed by quitting drinking. One study showed that it took three months for the return of healthy sperm production once alcohol consumption stops.

Other Ways Alcohol Can Affect Male Fertility

Alongside the effects on hormone levels, sperm quality, and sperm quantity, alcohol can affect male fertility in several other ways:

  • Lower sex drive. Alcohol can affect our desire to have sex in the first place. Studies indicate that alcohol can lead to a lower libido (sex drive) due to decreased levels of testosterone.
  • Erectile dysfunction. Alcohol can also make it difficult to have sex. It depresses our central nervous system and impacts the signals between our brain and penis, making it difficult to get or maintain an erection.
  • Dehydration. As a diuretic, alcohol causes us to urinate more frequently than usual, which can lead to dehydration. Dehydration can affect semen volume, or the amount of semen that we ejaculate.
  • Sugar. A lot of alcoholic beverages are high in sugar content. Multiple studies show a correlation between diets rich in sugar-sweetened beverages and impaired sperm motility (how well the sperm swims). Excess sugar can also lead to weight gain, which is also associated with reduced sperm count and quality.

Tips To Support the Male Reproductive System

In addition to reducing our alcohol intake, there are several other things we can do to produce healthy sperm and promote fertility. Here are some:

  • Exercise: Physical activity can help our body boost levels of sperm-healthy antioxidant enzymes. It can also help us manage our weight, another important factor for fertility. Men with higher body mass indexes (BMI) might make fewer or less active sperm than men with healthier BMIs.
  • Eat healthy: Eating healthy foods can help promote the production of healthy sperm. Antioxidants found in fruits and vegetables have been found to be particularly vital for producing and protecting healthy sperm. Also be mindful of eating too many soy products, as some research suggests components in soy may cause DNA in sperm cells.
  • Manage stress: Stress can affect our hormones and make it more difficult to produce sperm. Try incorporating relaxation techniques — such as deep breathing exercises, mindful meditation, or progressive muscle relaxation — into your daily routine.

The Bottom Line

While the occasional drink here and there isn’t likely to affect male fertility, regular and heavy consumption of alcohol can lower testosterone levels, sperm count, and sperm quality. The more alcohol we drink, the more severe the effects.

Cutting back on alcohol is not only beneficial for our fertility, but our overall health and well-being. If you want to reduce your alcohol consumption, but don’t know where or how to start, Reframe can help.

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