When it comes to alcohol and health, you hear a lot of different opinions:
- “Any alcohol at all harms mental and physical wellness.”
- “Alcohol in moderation does no harm.”
- “Daily alcohol helps many aspects of health.”
- “Drinking is okay if you don’t drink to drunkenness.”
- “I love you guys! Let’s do more shots!”
The thing about opinions is they’re just like testicles….
Every man has them, and it would probably be best if they were less eager to show them off to everybody.
Instead of listening to opinions, let’s take a look at what the research has found, and what conclusions we can draw from those findings.
This will tell us better whose opinions to listen to, and who’s to ignore.
The Danish Military Study
A recent Danish study looked at 1,221 men between the ages of 18-28. This was a (mostly) random selection taken from men who underwent the medical exam for national military service.
Military service is mandatory in Denmark, so the breadth of subjects was greater than would be found in a similar study conducted in the United States or another country without compulsory military service.
During the assessment, researchers asked how much alcohol each subject drank on average.
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They then analyzed hormone levels in semen and blood for each subject and compared them to the self-reporting on drinking.
Although self-reported studies are usually a problem, the study used a battery of questions to get the most accurate possible picture of each subject’s drinking habits.
The questions included:
- How much alcohol did you drink the week before this exam?
- Is this a typical amount of drinking for you? (Important, since many of the subjects were reporting on how much they drank in the week immediately before joining the military.)
- How often do you drink more than five drinks in one sitting?
- Have you been drunk in the past month?
The results were telling.
The researchers didn’t find any direct correlation between drinking more than 2-3 times per week and sperm production. However, they did find that drinking in the preceding week had a significant impact on levels of sex hormones in both blood and semen.
Levels of testosterone and SHBG (sex hormone binding globulin) decreased, and the more the men drank the lower the levels became.
Both testosterone and SHBG are directly related to sperm health and production, which makes the study’s second finding less than shocking.
At the highest levels of drinking, sperm quality and production also were significantly reduced:
- Men who had more than 25 drinks per week had significantly reduced counts of sperm, and higher percentages of abnormal-looking sperm.
- Men who had more than 50 drinks per week (that’s a little more than seven a day); sperm counts were reduced by 33 percent and counts of normal-looking sperm were 51 percent lower.
- Those who abstained entirely from alcohol also has significantly reduced sperm count and quality; but not as much reduced as those who drank more than 25 drinks per week.
- Although men who drank moderately (under 25 drinks per week); also saw reduced sperm counts, the amount of reduction was not enough to cause concern.
It should be noted that this study was observational and self-reported.
Self-reporting isn’t always truthful, and observational studies can only show correlation without giving strong insights into what causes the problem.
With that caveat, it was a healthy sample size taken from a varied population; which means it’s more likely to be generalizable than many other studies.
Alcohol’s Mechanical Effects
While the Danish military study didn’t study the causes for the reduced testicular health, a variety of other researchers has looked at the impacts of alcohol on the physiological mechanisms responsible for sperm production and health.
A few of the most important include:
- Too much alcohol adversely affects the Leydig cells, making them deteriorate prematurely. Leydig cells produce and secrete testosterone, which directly impacts your production of sperm
- Too much alcohol decreases how well your Sertoli cells work. Sertoli cells, also located in the testicles, play a role in sperm maturation…and thus the quality of your sperm.
It’s possible other processes involving testicular health may be a direct impact of taking in too much alcohol.
The research into whether too much booze hurts your sperm is well-established, but the investigation into how it hurts is very much ongoing.
For example, testicular atrophy (which results from loss of sperm cells and a decrease in the diameter of your vas deferens) has long been found in higher frequency among alcoholics, but the specific reason for this has yet to be discovered.
Although not related directly to testicular health; numerous other studies have found that alcohol reduces the pituitary gland’s ability to produce luteinizing hormone and follicle-stimulating hormone; as well as the hypothalamus’s ability to produce a variety of sex hormones.
The Danish study found no link between light-to-moderate drinking (say, 3-5 drinks per week) and sperm quality; so don’t worry about having the occasional beer with dinner or sharing a bottle of wine with your partner as a celebration.
Since the study actually found some reduced sperm health as a result of not drinking at all; my recommendation is Bottoms Up.
But don’t drink too much or too soon. Too much alcohol definitely decreases testicular and sperm health.
Bottom line: if you’re capable of drinking in moderation, go for it. If not, you’re better off not drinking at all.
The occasional serious night on the town is okay, too; if you remember that it will have a temporary impact on your sperm’s health — so save it for seriously special occasions like celebrating the pregnancy your healthy sperm just made happen.