Ovulation: Beyond Pregnancy & Vital to Your Health
For so many women, ovulation (when our bodies release an ovum with the possibility of fertilization and implantation) is not something we think about except in regards to avoiding or achieving pregnancy. Other than that, what kind of role does ovulation play in our wellness? Is it even important? Do you know when you're ovulating or what to look for? Should you care?
Let me begin by saying, no system within our bodies lives in a vacuum; everything is interconnected, functions synergistically, and serves a purpose. When a person has knee pain, it's rarely the case that other issues are not involved: whether that's stress, misalignment, poor sleep, or inflammation. Ladies, our reproductive systems do not hang out in outer space by themselves either, but rather play an important role in our health.
The menstrual cycle can be broken down into four basic phases: bleeding, the follicular phase, ovulation, and the luteal phase.
Bleeding is when the period occurs (not pregnant) and the body sheds blood and tissue.
The follicular phase follows the period and precedes ovulation. The pituitary gland in the brain stimulates the release of follicle stimulating hormone (FSH), which act on follicles in the ovaries. These follicles contain immature cells that have the potential to become fertilized eggs.
Ovulation is the release of a mature egg from the ovary -- generally on either the left or the right side of the ovaries (which is why some women experience tenderness or pain with ovulation). The maturing egg causes estrogen levels to rise (which may cause higher appetite or food cravings) in the body. Please note that our bodies have estrogen AND progesterone receptor sites everywhere, so these hormones effect more than just reproduction! Other hormones such as human growth and luteinizing (LH) hormone also come into play here, but we won't spend too much time on these.
During the luteal phase, the released follicle transforms into a structure known as the corpus luteum. This structure starts releasing progesterone, and small amounts of estrogen. These combined hormones maintain a thickened lining of the uterus, waiting for a fertilized egg to implant.
Understanding the hormones involved in each phase of the menstrual cycle helps to demonstrate the value of successfully ovulating each month and not suppressing it (which hormonal birth control methods do). In this instance, ovulation stimulates not only the production of a viable egg for fertilization, but estrogen and progesterone, which are vital to bone health/density, breast health, and cardiac health.
Hormonal birth control methods: pill, IUD, etc. are very common and often prescribed to young women for various reasons aside from pregnancy prevention: endometriosis, painful periods and cramps, migraines, headaches, acne, and more. Unfortunately, adolescent females who take hormonal birth control are those who may suffer the most damage to their long-term bone density health. Age 16 to 24 is the peak bone mass density building phase for a woman, and since both estrogen and progesterone play a role in this, halting ovulation -- which is what hormonal birth control DOES -- can prevent this natural process from occurring.
Stress, trauma, excessive exercise, and poor nutrition can also prevent a woman from ovulating and/or having a period. Not only is this the body's way of saying that it cannot support a pregnancy, but it may also prevent your body from releasing all the beneficial and cyclical hormones that are released with the ovulatory phase.
Ovulating every 28 days or so (the average norm for a healthy female reproductive cycle) also proves beneficial for heart health and preventing heart attacks, as well as the wellness of breast tissue and lowering the risk of breast cancer. Progesterone also plays a role in supple skin and arteries to keep us looking vibrant and performing all the activities we enjoy.
Signs of ovulation:
Ovulation typically occurs around cycle day 11 to 21 (cycle day 1 is the first day of your period).
Fertile cervical mucous: resembles wet, raw-egg-white consistency. Once cervical mucous is dry or less present, it's less likely you are ovulating, though not impossible.
Increased appetite or cravings.
Slight pain or tenderness on one side of the lower abdomen over the ovaries.
Slight breast tenderness or discomfort.
Sustained basal body temperature rise. This will indicate a rise in progesterone. Basal body temperature should be done for several months before a pattern can be determined. If you're unsure how to do this, just ask or google it online.
Cervical changes: the cervix is the opening between the vagina and the uterus. If you have ever used a diaphragm for pregnancy prevention, it is designed to cover the cervix. When ovulation occurs, the cervix moves up higher -- you may not be able to touch it -- and it softens and opens to make it easier for sperm to fertilize a follicle. When you are not fertile, it lowers and becomes harder and closed. So yes, you can check your own cervical position.
Ovulation test kit: these work like a pregnancy test and can tell you when you are at your most fertile. If you have been diagnosed with PCOS, they may not be particularly accurate. They can also be expensive if you are using them multiple times per month. I still recommend paying attention to the other signs and not relying on this method alone.
The good news is, if you're a woman dealing with issues that hormonal birth control is meant to be helping with: PCOS (polycystic ovarian syndrome), acne, painful periods, endometriosis, heavy bleeding, and hormonal imbalance, acupuncture and herbal medicine can all help, without the detrimental effects on bone density, cardiac and breast health. Producing quality ovulation cycles for pregnancy is also one of our specialties. Let us know how we can help!