The dangers associated with alcohol use and particularly misuse is well known in pregnancy. Not only does it jeopardize the pregnancy, but also the health of the fetus contributing to a host of congenital disorders and defects beyond fetal alcohol syndrome (FAS). However, many women are unaware of the impact of alcohol use on reproductive health. This is not isolated to women – excessive alcohol consumption can have far reaching effects on both genders. With women, alcohol misuse may lead to disturbances in the menstrual cycle, affect fertility and possibly contribute to permanent damage of the reproductive organs.
Infertility and Alcohol
The menstrual cycle is a hormonally coordinated process that spans approximately 28 days. Two key events during this cycle is ovulation and menstruation. Any disturbance to the physical and mental health can disrupt the process, even a severe bout of the flu (seasonal influenza). Moderate alcohol consumption, which for women is drinking no more than one unit of alcohol per day, is unlikely to severely impact on the body and therefore disrupt the menstrual cycle. However, many women are drinking more than this and therefore risk disrupting the cycle. This not only includes women who drink more than one unit of alcohol per day, but also women who binge drink even just once a week.
If the menstrual process is disrupted then processes such as ovulation may also be affected. The effects of excessive alcohol consumption are more likely to have an impact on the menstrual cycle and fertility is there is an underlying gynecological or hormonal disorder. Apart from the effects of alcohol on the female body, alcohol misuse can also lead to risky sexual behavior. This increases the chances of contracting sexually transmitted infections which could damage the reproductive organs and further contribute to infertility. Abusing alcohol may also lead to nutritional deficiencies – another possible contributing factor in difficulty conceiving.
Safe Levels of Alcohol Intake for Women
For women who are trying to fall pregnant, abstaining from alcohol may be the best bet. However, safe levels for alcohol consumption in women is about one unit of alcohol per day. Women have a lower body weight than men and this is one reason for the difference between the safe levels in women and men (2 alcoholic units per day). Individual body weight is also a factor and therefore for women with lower body weights, one unit of alcohol may already be a bit high.
Not all alcohol is made equally and a accurate information about the quantities of different alcoholic drinks that constitute one unit needs to be clearly understood. Binge drinking, a more common practice among younger women, is the consumption of three or more drinks at one sitting. Many women are under the misconception that abstaining the entire week allows for additional consumption on the weekend. This is untrue and binge drinking can be as detrimental, if not more so, than drinking slightly more than the recommended daily intake.