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Health Watch: Alcohol, Fertility and Inside Sommeliers' Brains

In one study, scientists examine how drinking can impact fertility; in another, they find proof that being a sommelier shapes your mind
Photo by: Matthew Molchen
Scientists found evidence that spending your day smelling wine will reshape your brain.

Emma Balter
Posted: September 13, 2016

Alcohol and pregnancy has long been a sensitive topic. While some studies have found that light drinking has no negative impact on developing fetuses, most doctors and national health groups urge women to avoid alcohol completely while pregnant. But what about women trying to conceive?

Few studies have looked at alcohol's impact on fertility, and they've offered limited, contradictory conclusions. But a new study by researchers from the Aarhus University Hospital in Denmark, the Boston University School of Public Health, and RTI Health Solutions in North Carolina, published in the BMJ in August, tried to find an answer to that question. And their findings suggest moderate consumption before you're expecting is just fine.

"When you look at the literature, first of all, you don't have many studies of real good quality in a big size, and then the results were unclear so far," said Ellen Mikkelsen, the project's senior researcher and an Aarhus University Department of Epidemiology lecturer. To remedy that, Mikkelsen and her team followed 6,120 Danish women, ages 21 to 45, who were attempting to conceive.

Subjects filled out an initial questionnaire on their socio-demographic background, medical and reproductive history, and behavioral and lifestyle patterns. Over the next 12 months (or until they became pregnant), they filled out followup questionnaires asking for information on their pregnancy status, date of last menstrual period, frequency of intercourse and their alcohol use over time. The women self-reported alcohol consumption by type—beer, red or white wine, dessert wine, and spirits—and their weekly intake, checking off servings of none, one to three, four to seven, eight to 13, or 14 or more.

By the end of the study, 69 percent of participants had become pregnant. The median alcohol intake was 2.0 servings a week, with 59 percent of subjects consuming wine, 38 percent consuming beer and 24 percent consuming spirits.

The data showed that consumption of less than 14 servings of alcohol a week had no discernible effect on a woman's ability to conceive, and there was no evidence that moderate drinking—one to seven servings a week—had any effect whatsoever. The researchers did find, however, that 14 servings or more decreased the likelihood of becoming pregnant by 18 percent compared to no alcohol consumption at all.

There were some limitations to the study. By recording drinks per week, the data does not differentiate regular drinking from binge drinking. And the study did not record information on the alcohol consumption of the prospective fathers—heavy drinking can impact sperm quality and therefore affect conception rates. Mikkelsen says they are planning future studies. "We want to look into male alcohol consumption in relation to fecundability as well," she said.

Master Sommeliers: My brain is thicker than yours

It's no secret that sommeliers and other wine professionals have a heightened sense of smell, but new research shows their work might have an impact on their brain matter.

A pilot study published in Frontiers in Human Neuroscience and spearheaded by Sarah Banks, the head of Neuropsychology at the Cleveland Clinic Lou Ruvo Center for Brain Health, and Jay James, director of Napa's Chappellet winery and a Master Sommelier, assessed structural and functional brain differences between experts and non-experts.

They subjected 13 Master Sommeliers and 13 controls—mostly college students who had limited knowledge and experience with wine—to a variety of olfactory and visual tests, including MRI scans. As expected, the parts of the brain associated with olfactory processing and memory were more active in the sommeliers' brains during the tasks, but the researchers also found that parts of the somms' entorhinal cortexes, a part of the brain that plays a major role in smells and memories, were larger and thicker than those of the control group.

Furthermore, somms who had been Master Sommeliers longer had the thickest areas of the cortex, suggesting that experience was a key correlation. Why is that key? Banks is exploring how brains change over time. The somms' cortexes suggest that increased use of their olfactory senses led to these structural differences, rather than them being born with the differences.

Banks hopes the study will lead to better understanding of neurodegenerative diseases. "Knowing that the olfactory and memory areas of the brain are the first to be impacted by diseases like Alzheimer's and Parkinson's, we were interested to see if some people can train these brain regions to be stronger, and potentially healthier," said Banks. "Master Sommeliers were a great option since they have a documented level of expertise."

More research is needed, but make sure to take a deep whiff from your wineglass. It could help your mind.

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