When you think of ovulation, what comes to mind?
Babies! And maybe an egg? Or that freshman biology class that you didn’t really pay attention to?
How about the natural and powerful function of a healthy female body? 🙂
Ovulation doesn’t get a lot of press. But, you should know — it’s really a superstar.
As I’ve written before, knowledge of our cycles and fertility doesn’t just help us with family planning. Our goal is also to gain insight into our physical health on a deeper level. That’s the beauty of fertility awareness. It allows us to see a broader picture of our bodies in a holistic, integrated way.
The most fundamental skill fertility awareness gives to women is to teach them how to identify ovulation.
Why does this matter? you’re asking yourself. Well, I want to tell you something that you have probably never heard in sex ed or even from your doctor —
Yes! Ovulation is the culmination of the proper functioning of a woman’s reproductive hormones and processes. And although our periods tend to be in the spotlight every month because they’re so noticeable, ovulation is actually the main event of every cycle — because you can only have a real period if you ovulate first.
Every woman of childbearing age should be ovulating every month. Unless you’re pregnant or lactating, a lack of ovulation is not to be taken lightly; it’s usually a sign that something else in your body is unhealthy or off balance.
Isn’t it amazing that your cycle can tell you so much about your health! And it’s not speculation. It’s science. We know so much more about cycles, reproduction, and the endocrine system now, that the American Academy of Pediatrics has even gone so far as to state that
“Once young females begin menstruating, evaluation of the menstrual cycle should be included with an assessment of other vital signs. By including this information with the other vital signs, clinicians emphasize the important role of menstrual patterns in reflecting overall health status.”AAP, 2006 (italics mine)
Did you catch that — the menstrual cycle should be evaluated as a vital sign?! This revelation is a little bit mind-blowing, and its implications are very exciting for women! But it’s also kind of counter-cultural.
Somehow, the truth about ovulation has never been included in the mainstream narrative surrounding women’s healthcare. I think it’s because of the Pill and other hormonal contraceptives.
While we talk about the Pill as the easiest way to avoid pregnancy and fix all our female problems, it’s not often disclosed that the Pill (and hormonal contraceptives in general) “works” because it’s designed to pump the female body full of synthetic hormones that actually suppress ovulation. So essentially these pharmaceuticals are “fixing” our problems by inhibiting the very natural function of a healthy woman: ovulation.
[You can read more about your cycles while on the Pill here. And read about Pill “periods” here.]
So let’s talk about why ovulation is beneficial to a woman’s health, and why it’s not just about making babies.
Ovulation as a process is a fundamental aspect of a woman’s optimal health and wellbeing. This is because the reproductive hormones that work together in a beautiful dance to make ovulation happen each month actually affect the health of the entire female body.
“Ovarian hormones estrogen and progesterone are highly beneficial for health. That means that natural ovulatory menstrual cycles are beneficial for health, because ovulation is the only way to make ovarian hormones.”Dr. Lara Briden
The hormones that your body produces throughout your monthly cycle play a central role in the management of your health. There are several hormones at work during the duration of a woman’s cycle, but the two most important ones are estrogen and progesterone.
A healthy cycle is characterized by adequate production of these two main ovarian hormones. (Ovarian just means originating in the ovaries.) Since ovulation is the only way to make healthy amounts of estrogen and progesterone, we can say that, if you’re a woman of reproductive age, ovulation is an essential function for maintaining optimal health.
What are some of the health benefits of ovulation?
This chart gives you an idea of just how many aspects of your body are touched by estrogen and progesterone! And this isn’t even an extensive list.
The health of everything from your breast tissue, to your brain cells, to your blood sugar is intricately intertwined with your reproductive hormones. This is one reason why it’s so important for us to begin to see our cycles and fertility as an integral part of the whole woman rather than just isolated functions. (Read studies on ovulation and health here.)
As an important aside, I want to highlight the relationship of these hormones to a woman’s mental health (at the bottom of the chart). It’s really vital that both estrogen and progesterone rise and fall at the right time every cycle. When they aren’t at optimal levels, a woman can be vulnerable to anxiety or even depression.
This has been true in my own life, as I’ve suffered from postpartum depression and anxiety after the birth of each of my children; every time, it was linked to my low progesterone production. There are many, many women who experience hormone imbalance as the root cause of their mental health issues. And this needs to be talked about. If your mental health is something that you are hoping to improve, I highly recommend having your doctor assess your hormones.
Ovulation really is the superstar of your cycle.
One other thing to consider: your entire menstrual cycle (or should we call it the ovulation cycle??) is geared toward conception, which can’t happen without ovulation.
Here’s a quick overview of what happens in your cycle each month:
After your period, your brain signals your ovary to begin to grow a follicle, which is the tiny sac that holds the premature egg. As the egg grows and matures within the ovary, estrogen levels begin to rise, and this hormone stimulates the cervix to produce fluid, called mucus. When the egg is ready, peak estrogen levels “talk” to the brain, which then signals the ovary to launch the egg — this is ovulation!
Meanwhile, the cervical mucus has become very fertile — stretchy, clear, and lubricative — to facilitate sperm to stay alive as they travel up the fallopian tube to meet the newly released egg. If sperm are present at ovulation, there will most likely be a baby. This is what your body has prepared for since the end of your period.
The female body was made to ovulate. It’s an awesome, powerful, life-giving function.
So let’s revisit:
- Ovulation is the main event of every monthly cycle — in fact, it would be apt to rename the menstrual cycle as the “ovulation cycle”!
- Estrogen and progesterone work together to achieve ovulation; conversely, ovulation is the only way to make these ovarian hormones reach their peak levels.
- Because estrogen and progesterone affect the health of multiple organs and systems in the female body, ovulation is essential for optimal health!
- Fertility awareness teaches you how to identify ovulation — or a lack of ovulation — so that you can assess your general health.
- If you suspect that you’re not ovulating, don’t worry! There are trained medical providers who can help you optimize your hormone levels and make lifestyle changes to support your body in doing what it was made to do. (Resources can be found here.)
I’ll leave you with these exciting words from fertility awareness expert Lisa Hendrikson-Jack:
“When you learn to understand and interpret your fertile signs, a whole new world opens up. You can avoid pregnancy naturally, optimize your chances of conceiving, monitor your overall health, and experience the health benefits associated with regular ovulation.”Lisa Hendrickson-Jack, The Fifth Vital Sign