Alcohol consumption by fathers has been linked to an increased risk of fetal alcohol syndrome, which can lead to irreversible brain damage and growth abnormalities in children. Researchers from Texas A&M University now suggest that men should abstain from alcohol for at least three months before conception.
A research team led by Dr. Michael Golding had previously found that a father’s drinking habits could result in brain and skull deformities in their baby. In a new study published in Andrology, the team found that the impact of paternal alcohol consumption on sperm lasts much longer than expected.
A child with fetal alcohol syndrome might have distinct facial features, including small eyes, thin upper lips, a smooth skin surface between the nose and upper lip, and may suffer from joint deformities, vision problems, small head size, heart defects, and slow physical growth. The child may also have poor social and behavioral skills, intellectual disability, poor coordination, and memory, attention, and mood issues.
Previously, fetal alcohol syndrome was only associated with the mother’s alcohol consumption. Currently, doctors only need to confirm whether the mother consumed alcohol during pregnancy to diagnose FAS.
„For years, male alcohol consumption has not been considered at all. In the last five to eight years, we have noticed that there are certain conditions where there is a very strong paternal influence on alcohol exposure and fetal development,“ said Golding in a press release.
„If someone regularly consumes alcohol and then stops, their body goes through withdrawal, where it needs to learn to function without the existing chemicals. We found that a father’s sperm is still negatively affected even during alcohol consumption,“ he added. „This means that it takes much longer for the sperm to normalize than we previously assumed.“
Alcohol consumption causes oxidative stress that disrupts the body’s normal cell activity. The same type of oxidative stress also occurs during withdrawal, prolonging the duration of alcohol’s effects on the body longer than previously thought, the researchers explained.
The team found that even minimal alcohol consumption can lead to withdrawal symptoms. „In the models we used, even drinking three to four beers after work on several days in a week can lead to withdrawal when the behavior stops. You may not feel drunk, but your body undergoes chemical changes,“ said Golding.
The researchers believe that their findings will provide guidance to couples planning a pregnancy by showing them when to stop drinking to avoid birth defects. Although further studies are needed to determine the exact timeframe required to neutralize the harmful effects of alcohol, based on the current findings, the researchers recommend abstaining from alcohol for at least three months in advance.
„There is still a lot to do to get a clear answer, but we know that sperm are made over the course of 60 days and the removal process takes at least a month. So, my estimate would be to wait at least three months,“ said Golding.