Much has been made of the effects a pregnant woman’s drinking could have on the health of her unborn child.
But alcohol consumption by men also increases the risk of birth defects in newborns – and a new study shows that guys who want to avoid this will have to cut out the booze as much as three months before they try to conceive.
Semen from men who regularly consume alcohol has been linked to brain and facial defects associated with fetal alcohol syndrome and other pregnancy complications, researchers said.
Now, they say it takes much longer than previously estimated — more than a month — for the effects of alcohol consumption to leave the father’s sperm.
“When someone is consuming alcohol on a regular basis and then stops, their body goes through withdrawal, where it has to learn how to operate without the chemical present,” said researcher Dr. Michael Golding, a professor at Texas A&M University’s School of Veterinary Medicine & Biomedical Sciences.
“What we discovered is that a father’s sperm are still negatively impacted by drinking even during the withdrawal process, meaning it takes much longer than we previously thought for the sperm to return to normal,” Golding said in a university news release.
To play it safe, Golding suggests that fathers abstain from alcohol at least three months prior to conception.
“There’s still a lot of work to be done to get a hard answer, but we know that sperm are made over the course of 60 days, and the withdrawal process takes at least one month,” Golding said. “So, my estimate would be to wait at least three months.”
Fetal alcohol syndrome is a major risk in pregnancy, and can lead to abnormal facial features, low birth weight, attention and hyperactivity issues, and poor coordination.
Currently, a diagnosis of fetal alcohol syndrome requires that doctors confirm the mother drank during pregnancy, but not the father, researchers said.
“For years, there’s really been no consideration of male alcohol use whatsoever,” Golding said. “Within the last five to eight years, we’ve started to notice that there are certain conditions where there’s a very strong paternal influence when it comes to alcohol exposure and fetal development.”
Drinking alcohol stresses a person’s liver, causing the body to overproduce certain chemicals. Golding and his colleagues discovered that withdrawal also causes the same sort of stress, effectively lengthening the duration of alcohol’s effects on the body long past the decision to abstain.
“During withdrawal, the liver experiences perpetual oxidative stress and sends a signal throughout the male body,” Golding said. “The reproductive system interprets that signal and says, ‘Oh, we are living in an environment that has a really strong oxidative stressor in it. I need to program the offspring to be able to adapt to that kind of environment.’”
Those adaptations to the sperm likely aren’t beneficial, but instead lead to problems like fetal alcohol syndrome, Golding said.
What’s more, a fellow doesn’t have to be a booze hound for his drinking to affect the quality of his sperm, the researchers noted.
“In the models we’re using, even drinking three to four beers after work several days a week can induce withdrawal when the behavior ceases,” Golding said. “You may not feel inebriated, but your body is going through chemical changes.”
Golding hopes his work will both improve pregnancy outcomes and change the conversation about who is responsible for alcohol-related birth defects, since mothers have borne the brunt of the blame until now.
The new study was published recently in the journal Andrology.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has more about fetal alcohol syndrome.
SOURCE: Texas A&M University, news release, Dec. 13, 2023
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