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Alcohol and Fertility

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Can you drink alcohol when trying to get pregnant? The safe answer is: "No."

Alcohol During Pregnancy

The dangers of drinking once you are pregnant are quite clear. Heavy drinking can cause a wide range of physical and mental birth defects in the fetus, including intellectual disability; learning, emotional and behavioral problems; and defects involving the heart, face and other organs. The most severe effect is fetal alcohol syndrome, a combination of physical and mental birth defects.

Heavy drinking increases the risk of miscarriage, premature birth and stillbirth. One 2008 study published in Alcohol found that women who had five or more drinks a week were 70 percent more likely to have a stillborn baby than non-drinking women.

Even much lighter drinking has been found to have negative effects. For example, a 2007 study published in Pediatrics suggested that girl children of women who drank less than one drink a week during the first trimester were more likely to have behavioral and emotional problems at 4 years old and persisting until 8 years old. The study also found similar effects in boys, but at higher levels of drinking.

Alcohol when Trying to Conceive

It is best to stay away from alcohol when you are trying to conceive, too. One of the most important reasons is because you could go for several months without knowing you are pregnant, and this could have a detrimental effect on the fetus.

But can alcohol affect your fertility and impair your chances of conceiving? There have not been many studies that demonstrated the effect, but a 1998 study published in Fertility and Sterility found that likelihood of conception dropped by more than 50 percent during a menstrual cycle in which women reported drinking alcohol in any amount. The study authors encouraged women trying to conceive to abstain from alcohol altogether.

The same advice goes if you are undergoing fertility treatment. A recent study from January 2011, which was published in Obsetrics and Gynecology set out to discover whether drinking alcohol had an effect on success rates with in vitro fertilization (IVF). The researchers found that women drinking at least four drinks per week had a 16 percent decreased chance of a live birth rate compared with those who drank fewer than four drinks per week. And even more interesting, in couples in which both partners drank at least four drinks per week, the odds of a live birth were 21 percent lower compared with couples in which both drank fewer than four drinks per week.

Men trying to conceive should avoid alcohol, too. Excessive alcohol intake in men has been associated with decreased sperm count and motility, as well as sperm morphologic abnormalities.

The takeaway: There is simply not enough research to determine if there is any "safe" level of alcohol that will not impair your chances of conceiving and carrying a healthy baby to term. The best thing to do is stop drinking as soon as you start trying.

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