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When we talk about fertility, the focus is often placed on what to do to prepare for conception and pregnancy, like, for example, cutting down on drinking alcohol. And while this question is often raised when talking about female fertility, it’s important to also look into alcohol and its role in male reproductive health.
Research has shown that drinking alcohol could affect a man’s fertility and sperm health. But how much alcohol does it take for these effects to occur? Keep reading to learn more about how alcohol impacts sperm.
How much alcohol does it take to affect sperm?
It’s common for people to occasionally drink in social situations. But how much alcohol is “too much”? And how much alcohol does it take to affect your health, including fertility? That depends on multiple factors, like how often you’re drinking, how much alcohol you’re drinking each time, and how your body metabolizes alcohol.
The research on how much alcohol it takes to start affecting sperm health is mixed. A 2016 review suggests that occasionally drinking alcohol in moderation likely doesn’t negatively impact sperm (Ricci, 2016). But a 2014 study found that drinking more than five drinks per week can start to impact semen parameters (Jensen, 2014).
The effects of heavy alcohol drinking on sperm health, as opposed to occasional drinking, are clearer. Heavy drinking—which the CDC defines as 15 or more drinks per week for men—can lead to decreased sperm health and changes to your reproductive and sex hormones (CDC, 2021; Jensen, 2014; Ricci, 2016).
In other words, the impact of moderate alcohol consumption, which the CDC defines as up to two drinks per day for men, isn’t clear. But we know that heavy drinking doesn’t help when it comes to male fertility (CDC, 2022). It may be okay to have a few drinks from time to time, but one easy and helpful step could be to stop drinking alcohol while trying to conceive.
Semen without sperm (azoospermia): causes and treatments
How does alcohol affect sperm quality?
Male reproductive health, which includes sperm production, is influenced by hormones in the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis (HPA axis), which describes the interaction between the hypothalamus, pituitary gland, and adrenal glands.
Alcohol use over time—especially heavy alcohol use—could lead to hormonal changes in the HPA axis—particularly the pituitary gland—leading to changes in your reproductive health, including (Jensen, 2014; Ricci, 2016; Grover, 2014):
- Decreased sperm concentration
- Low sperm count
- Abnormal size and shape of sperm
- Low sperm motility
- Changes in hormones like testosterone
Besides its impact on sperm quality, alcohol can also lead to erection issues or alcohol-induced erectile dysfunction (ED). Booze can impair blood circulation and nerve sensitivity, which are important factors for sexual arousal. The effects of alcohol on a man’s erection usually go away when you sober up, but chronic heavy drinking can lead to long-term ED (Wang, 2018).
Can you reverse the effects of alcohol on sperm?
The adverse effects of alcohol on sperm health are likely reversible, and sperm health will begin to improve with time after a period of heavy drinking.
In general, the more you cut back on drinking and the longer you go without drinking, the more your sperm health can return to where it was before you started drinking. One study found semen quality returned within three months after participants withdrew from heavy, chronic alcohol consumption (Sermondade, 2010).
So, yes, no longer drinking alcohol could improve sperm quality if you have alcohol-related changes. But remember, other factors can impair male fertility like nutrition deficiencies, cigarette smoking, illicit drug use, stress, and lack of sleep (Leslie, 2021).
Everything you need to know about sperm
How to boost male fertility
Healthy lifestyle choices, like a healthy diet, exercise, and sleep, play important roles in supporting your overall health and well-being. And your overall health influences your fertility and reproductive health.
Here are some of the ways to boost male fertility:
Eat a balanced diet
Diet plays an important role in overall health and sperm development. For example, eating a high-fat diet that is low in vitamins and minerals is associated with low sperm quality and decreased testosterone (Skoracka, 2020).
Try to eat a healthy, balanced diet full of nutrient-dense foods like vegetables, fruit, seafood, nuts, seeds, poultry, and whole grains.
One diet to consider is the Mediterranean diet. It has grown in popularity because it’s associated with a lower risk of developing chronic diseases like heart disease, diabetes, and cancer (Tosti, 2018).
And it could boost sperm health. A 2019 study found that following a Mediterranean diet may help improve the ability of sperm to move efficiently (Salas-Huetos, 2019).
Get enough sleep
Not getting enough sleep and poor sleep quality can lead to low motility and sperm count (Chen, 2020). Try these tips to promote better sleep:
- Try to go to bed and wake up at the same time every day.
- Sleep in a cool, dark, and quiet environment.
- Avoid drinking caffeine in the late afternoon and evening.
- Limit watching TV or looking at your phone or tablet before bed.
- Limit daytime naps.
How to increase sperm count: 7 things to try
Research suggests exercise may help improve male infertility, especially when it’s linked to factors like obesity and diabetes. One study showed exercise helped improve sperm production and quality in people with lifestyle-related infertility (Minas, 2022).
Consider trying group fitness classes, working with an accountability partner, or hiring a personal trainer if you need help exercising consistently.
There are many male fertility supplements on the market. However, not all are effective and usually only improve sperm health if you have a nutrient deficiency that plays into your sperm quality.
Still, it could be worth exploring with your healthcare provider if supplements may help you. Research suggests that some supplements may improve male fertility, such as (Kuchakulla, 2020):
Alcoholism: signs, causes, and treatments
Drinking alcohol can impact sperm production and the quality of semen. It’s not known exactly how much alcohol you can drink before sperm becomes affected because it depends on how your body responds to alcohol.
For some men, even moderate alcohol consumption could impact their sperm health. And the more you drink, the more likely it is that alcohol will affect the health of your sperm and your overall health. Talk with your healthcare provider if you’re concerned about your fertility to explore what factors could be impacting you.
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). (2021). Excessive alcohol use. Retrieved from https://www.cdc.gov/chronicdisease/resources/publications/factsheets/alcohol.htm
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). (2022). Dietary guidelines for alcohol. Retrieved from https://www.cdc.gov/alcohol/fact-sheets/moderate-drinking.htm
- Chen, H. G., Sun, B., Chen, Y. J., et al. (2020). Sleep duration and quality in relation to semen quality in healthy men screened as potential sperm donors. Environment International, 135, 105368. doi:10.1016/j.envint.2019.105368. Retrieved from https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/31830732/
- Grover, S., Mattoo, S. K., Pendharkar, S., et al. (2014). Sexual dysfunction in patients with alcohol and opioid dependence. Indian Journal of Psychological Medicine, 36(4), 355–365. doi:10.4103/0253-7176.140699. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4201785/
- Jensen, T. K., Gottschau, M., Madsen, J. O. B., et al. (2014). Habitual alcohol consumption associated with reduced semen quality and changes in reproductive hormones; a cross-sectional study among 1221 young Danish men. BMJ Open, 2014(4), e005462. doi:10.1136/bmjopen-2014-005462. Retrieved from https://bmjopen.bmj.com/content/4/9/e005462
- Kuchakulla, M., Soni, Y., Patel, P., et al. (2020). A systematic review and evidence-based analysis of ingredients in popular male fertility supplements. Urology, 136, 133–141. doi:10.1016/j.urology.2019.11.007. Retrieved from https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/31747549/
- Leslie, S. W. (2021). Male infertility. StatPearls. Retrieved April 16, 2022 from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK562258/#
- Minas, A., Fernandes, A., Maciel Júnior, V. L., et al. (2022). Influence of physical activity on male fertility. Andrologia, e14433. doi:10.1111/and.14433. Retrieved from https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/35415898/
- Ricci, E., Beitawi, S. A., Cipriani, S., et al. (2016). Semen quality and alcohol intake: a systematic review and meta-analysis. Reproductive Biomedicine Online, 34(1) 38-47. doi:10.1016/j.rbmo.2016.09.012. Retrieved from https://www.rbmojournal.com/article/S1472-6483(16)30560-0/fulltext
- Salas-Huetos, A., Babio, N., Carrell, D. T., et al. (2019). Adherence to the Mediterranean diet is positively associated with sperm motility: A cross-sectional analysis. Scientific Reports, 9(1), 3389. doi:10.1038/s41598-019-39826-7. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6399329/
- Sermondade, N., Elloumi, H., Berthaut, I., et al. (2010). Progressive alcohol-induced sperm alterations leading to spermatogenic arrest, which was reversed after alcohol withdrawal. Reproductive Biomedicine Online, 20(3), 324–327. doi:10.1016/j.rbmo.2009.12.003. Retrieved from https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/20117050/
- Skoracka, K., Eder, P., Łykowska-Szuber, L., et al. (2020). Diet and nutritional factors in male (in)fertility-underestimated factors. Journal of Clinical Medicine, 9(5), 1400. doi:10.3390/jcm9051400. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7291266/
- Tosti, V., Bertozzi, B., & Fontana, L. (2018). Health benefits of the mediterranean diet: metabolic and molecular mechanisms. The Journals of Gerontology, 73(3), 318–326. doi:10.1093/gerona/glx227. Retrieved from https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/29244059/
- Wang, X. M., Bai, Y. J., Yang, Y. B., et al. (2018). Alcohol intake and risk of erectile dysfunction: a dose-response meta-analysis of observational studies. International Journal of Impotence Research, 30(6), 342–351. doi:10.1038/s41443-018-0022-x. Retrieved from https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/30232467/
Felix Gussone is a physician, health journalist and a Manager, Medical Content & Education at Ro.