Drinking: Male fertility and your drinking habits

Men who habitually drink alcohol – even those who do so responsibly -- run the risk of compromising their fertility. In fact, at least one governmental institution’s definition of “habitual use” might not fall in line with commonly held views of safe alcohol limits.

In 2016, the U.K.’s Department of Health issued new guidelines to replace previous ones that had been handed out 21 years earlier. The new suggestions were significantly lower than the old ones, which had stated that women should consume no more than 2 to 3 units of alcohol per day and men no more than 3 to 4.

Instead, the government said, neither men nor women should drink more than 14 units of alcohol per week – which translates into 7 glasses of wine or 6 pints of average-strength beer. Or about a bottle-and-a-half of wine per week.

Professor Matt Field, a lecturer in addiction at the University of Liverpool went even further, telling BBC News, "Any amount of drinking is associated with increased risk of a number of diseases….So, any amount of alcohol consumption carries some risk."

But when it comes to alcohol’s possible impact on male fertility, the lower U.K. government numbers are nowhere near those suggested by a 2014 study from the journal BMJ (British Medical Journal) Open, the Guardian newspaper reported.

Turns out that consuming a mere 5 units of alcohol per week could lower the quality of a man’s sperm. Even worse, the more alcohol a man drinks, the study suggested, the less potent his sperm.

The study surveyed 1,200 Danish military prospects ranging in age from 18 to 28 who were each provided with a medical exam between 2008 and 2012. Each subject was interviewed regarding his drinking habits and was also asked to provide blood and sperm samples.

The soldiers who regularly consumed 40 units of alcohol every week showed sperm counts that were about a third lower than those who drank between 1 and 5 units per week; these heavier drinkers also had sperm that were 51% less “normal looking.”

The study authors further cautioned, “Our study suggests that even modest habitual alcohol consumption of more than 5 units per week had adverse effects on semen quality.”

The authors’ conclusion rang clear: “Young men should be advised to avoid habitual alcohol intake.” Although like most men, we find that statement easier in principle than in practice. 

Alarmingly, a study from the Middle East Fertility Society Journal found that alcohol use did more than simply reduce the potency and number of sperm – it wound up shrinking the size of the testicles themselves. In lab experiments conducted on rats, researchers discovered that alcohol was responsible for alterations to Leydig cell shape and function. These cells are located next to the seminiferous tubules where sperm are produced.

The tubules eventually shrank, Medical Daily reported, causing nearby cells to die. This combination effect resulted in shrinking testicles in rats; researchers theorize that this may also be the case for humans. (One bit of good news: Stop drinking, and the testicles will probably return to their formerly normal sizes.)

Finally, according to the National Institutes of Health (NIH), alcohol use has an impact on all three elements of the hypothalamic-pituitary-gonadal (HPG) axis, a collection of hormones and endocrine glands that contribute to male reproduction. A key finding: “Chronic alcohol use in male rats also has been shown to affect their reproductive ability and the health of their offspring.”

The NIH also cited a study that attempted to determine the effects of alcohol on the reproductive potential of teenagers. After two months of steadily providing alcohol to pre-pubescent laboratory rats, the animals had lower body weights and lower testosterone levels than rats that weren’t exposed to alcohol.

And even though the rats that consumed alcohol were able to mate after essentially being given a week off from drinking, “successful mating resulting in conception was significantly reduced and the number of successful pregnancies was diminished.”

Back to the BMJ study for a sobering warning: Professor Chris Barratt, professor of reproductive medicine at the University of Dundee, concluded that, while some men who didn’t drink experienced reduced semen quality, “high levels of alcohol intake do appear to be associated with changes in sperm and semen that may affect fertility.”

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