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The Effects of Alcohol on Sexual Function

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Sexual Disfunction

We know that alcohol affects the body in numerous negative ways. One area that has been widely studied is the effect of alcohol on sexual function. The science is there to explain how and why sexual dysfunction occurs, but that message gets lost when competing for our attention amidst a sea of glitzy alcohol advertising campaigns. Culturally we still hold fast to the notion that alcohol enhances sex. Besides the obvious risk of lowered inhibitions, impaired judgment and resulting bad decision making while intoxicated, even mild-to-moderate alcohol consumption can produce negative consequences less obvious at the biological level. Alcohol can damage reproductive health in both males and females. Putting aside its relationship with risky sex (risk of sexual assault, STDs, failure to use contraception, etc.), alcohol can have an enormous effect on our ability to have sex.

In males, inadequate sexual function (hypogonadism) related to alcohol abuse includes testicular atrophy, sterility, impotence, loss of libido, reduction in size of the prostate gland and decreased sperm production. Studies show hypogonadism may be caused both by the direct effects of alcohol on the testis and the effects of alcohol on parts of the brain that regulate gonadal function: the hypothalamus and the pituitary gland. Research suggests that alcohol causes hypogonadism by disrupting the three control points of the hypothalamic-pituitary-gonadal axis (HPG axis, which also refers to the control of ovarian function in the female). Both human and animal studies demonstrate that alcohol consumption is linked to direct toxicity to both the sperm-producing and testosterone-producing cells of the testis. Brain mechanisms that normally compensate to regulate gonadal function are also damaged by alcohol. In layman's terms, alcohol can impair the ability to have and maintain erections as well as the ability to have orgasms.

In females, alcohol use has several negative consequences for reproductive function. Mild-to-moderate alcohol use affects female reproductive function at several stages of life. Studies show that alcohol consumption disrupts female puberty and may also affect growth and bone health. In animal studies with rats, the vaginal opening (a well-characterized marker of puberty in the female rat) was delayed by alcohol administration. Studies show that estrogen levels were decreased among adolescent girls for as long as two weeks after drinking moderately. Because of estrogen's role in bone maturation, it is thought that alcohol use during adolescence may have long-term effects on bone health. Beyond puberty, alcohol can interrupt normal menstrual cycling. Similar to the male, the HPG axis plays a vital role in regulating ovarian function. And like their male counterparts, females experience disrupted hormonal secretions when alcohol is ingested. Alcohol elevates estradiol and temporarily increases testosterone levels, resulting in alterations in estrous cycling. In postmenopausal women the evidence suggests that alcohol exposure affects hormonal levels. Additionally, alcohol inhibits natural lubrication and lowers sensitivity. Common to both males and females, alcohol can impair the ability to have orgasms.

Alcohol plays a big part in our culture and often gets linked to enhanced sexual enjoyment. But the research demonstrates otherwise. The risk of harmful effects on sexual function, as well as growth and bone health, appears especially pronounced during adolescence. However, throughout all life stages there exists the danger that alcohol can impede or impair sexual function.


  1. Part II. The Effects of Alcohol on Sexual Function. Sex Under the Influence. The Bridge Stanford University Peer Counseling Center.

  2. Wright, Harlan I., Gavaler, Judith S., Van Theil, David. Effects of alcohol on the male reproductive system. Alcohol Health & Research World. Spring 1991.

  3. Emanuele, Mary Ann, MD, Wezeman, Frederick, Ph.D., Emanuele, Nicholas V. MD. Alcohol's Effects on Female Reproductive Function. Publications. National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. June, 2003.

This page was last modified on : 10/28/2013

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