Most women know that the use of alcohol during pregnancy can damage the baby, causing low birth weight, diminished ability to thrive, and a set of symptoms collectively called fetal alcohol syndrome. The government recommends that women who are pregnant avoid all alcohol. Still, many women wonder whether alcohol use affects their ability to conceive a child. It turns out that alcohol has a number of effects upon conception.
As taboo as it seems to encourage moderate alcohol consumption in conjunction with the topics of conception and pregnancy, a 2001 BBC News report notes that there is some scientific evidence that women who drink moderate amounts of alcohol conceive more easily and frequently than women who don’t drink. This, it seems, is not a physiological effect, but a psychological one--women who drink moderate amounts of alcohol are more likely to be relaxed and have more frequent intercourse, both of which are prerequisites to successful conception.
Many women worry about the effects of alcohol very early in pregnancy, but in fact the fertilized egg is not dependent upon the mother for nutrition until the time of implantation, which occurs seven to 10 days after ovulation, according to Lauralee Sherwood, Ph.D. She notes in her textbook, “Human Physiology,” that until implantation--after which an organ called the placenta allows the transfer of nutrients, oxygen, and toxins to the fetus--there is no physical connection between mother and baby. Theoretically, toxins in the mother’s body should be unable to hurt a newly fertilized egg.
A 2004 study published in the “American Journal of Epidemiology” notes that alcohol, while it can’t damage a baby until after implantation, may increase a woman’s risk of spontaneous abortion. Interestingly enough, this study showed similar effects for both male and female alcohol consumption--women who consumed alcohol increased their risk of spontaneous abortion by two to three times, while men who consumed alcohol, thus affecting the quality of the sperm, increased their partner’s risk of spontaneous abortion by two to five times.
In the book, “Before Your Pregnancy,” authors Amy Ogle, M.S., R.D., and Lisa Mazzullo, M.D., note that the major effect of alcohol on conception is a result of the availability of sex hormones--alcohol decreases the sex hormone quantity and availability in the female body. This can make ovulation less likely, and can also result in a non-optimal uterine environment that makes implantation less likely.
Many birth and fertility experts recommend that couples trying to conceive reduce their alcohol consumption, or quit altogether, in the months prior to conception. This eliminates the possibility of a woman consuming alcohol before she knows she’s pregnant, and reduces the likelihood of damage to the embryo. Ms. Ogle and Dr. Mazzullo suggest that women should quit drinking entirely at least two weeks prior to trying to conceive, and that men should limit drinks to two or fewer per day.
- BBC News: Alcohol and Conception
- “Human Physiology”; Lauralee Sherwood, Ph.D.; 2004
- “American Journal of Epidemiology”; Alcohol Consumption at the Time of Conception and Spontaneous Abortion; Tine Henriksen, et al; April, 2004
- "Before Your Pregnancy"; Amy Ogle, M.S., R.D., and Lisa Mazzullo, M.D.; 2002