A recent study concluded that moderate alcohol intake of as little as five drinks every week is linked to poorer sperm quality in otherwise healthy young men. And the more drinks consumed weekly, the worse the sperm quality seems to be, the findings indicate.
The results have prompted the researchers to suggest that young men should consider cutting back on regular drinking.
Their findings were based on 1,221 Danish men between the ages of 18 and 28, all of whom underwent a medical examination to assess their fitness for military service, (compulsory in Denmark), between 2008 and 2012.
As part of their assessment, the military recruits were asked how much alcohol they drank in the week before their medical exam (recent drinking); whether this was typical (habitual); and how often they binge drank, defined as more than 5 drinks in one sitting, and had they been drunk in the preceding month.
They also provided a semen sample to check on the quality of their sperm, and a blood sample to check on their levels of reproductive hormones.
The average number of alcoholic drinks consumed in the preceding week was 11. Almost two-thirds (64%) had binge drunk, while around six out of 10 (59%) said they had been drunk more than twice during the preceding month.
The analysis showed that after considering various influential factors, there was no definite link between sperm quality and either recent alcohol consumption or binge drinking in the preceding month.
But drinking alcohol in the prior week was related to changes in reproductive hormone levels, with the effects increasingly more noticeable the more alcohol was consumed.
Testosterone levels rose, while sex hormone-binding globulin (SHBG) fell; similar associations were also evident for the number of times an individual had been drunk or had binge drunk in the preceding month.
Almost half (45%, 553) of the men said that the amount of alcohol they drank in the prior week was typical of their weekly intake.
Also in this group, the higher the amount of alcohol consumption, the lower the sperm quality. This included both total sperm count and the proportion of sperm that were of average size and shape, after taking account of all other relevant factors.
The effects were evident from 5 or more drinks a week, but most apparent among those who drank 25 or more alcoholic beverages every week.
More alarming, total sperm counts were 33% lower, and the proportion of normal-looking sperm 51% lower, among those gulping down 40 alcoholic drinks a week compared with those drinking 1-5.
Habitual drinking was associated with changes in reproductive hormone levels, although not as strong as recent drinking. Surprisingly, abstinence was also linked to more reduced sperm quality.
This is an observational study only so that no definitive conclusions can be drawn about cause and effect. Additionally, the researchers mentioned that the findings could be the result of reverse causation consumption whereby men with poor quality sperm have an unhealthier lifestyle and behaviors, to begin with.
But animal studies suggest that alcohol may have a direct impact on sperm quality, they say.
"This is, to our knowledge, the first study among healthy young men with detailed information on alcohol intake, and given the fact that young men in the western world [drink a lot], this is of public health concern, and could be a contributing factor to the low sperm count reported among [them]," they suggest.
And they conclude: "It remains to be seen whether semen quality is restored if alcohol intake is reduced, but young men should be advised that high habitual alcohol intake may affect not only their general health but also their reproductive health."
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