Ovulation is when an egg is released from one of the ovaries. It will then travel down the fallopian tube and into the uterus. It will either be fertilized by sperm, implanted into the lining of the uterus, and a pregnancy is underway or the egg is not fertilized and in approximately 12-16 days the uterine lining will be released and a menses will occur.
This description of ovulation may lead us to believe that ovulation is only crucial for pregnancy, but that is absolutely not true!
Let’s discuss the menstrual cycle a bit more to help understand why ovulation is so important and what it means for your overall health.
A normal menstrual cycle is considered to be between 21-35 days, but I would consider an optimal menstrual cycle to be between 26-33 days. The reason why I think a shorter window is optimal is because this likely means you have a more ideal balance of estrogen and progesterone in the body, which paves the way for fewer negative hormonal symptoms. The menstrual cycle is divided into two sections, a follicular phase where estrogen is dominant and a luteal phase where progesterone is dominant. The first 3-7 days of a normal menstrual cycle is when the uterine lining sheds.
Now, for a little more about how these hormones connect to ovulation:
During the menses and for approximately the first half of the menstrual cycle (note: it is normal for this “half” to vary from month-to-month or person-to-person) estrogen is increasing more and more each day. This increase helps an egg (aka a "follicle") in the ovary to develop. While an egg speeds its development quickly during the menstrual cycle it is released in, it actually takes about 4 months (or 120 days) for an egg to become fully mature.
Estrogen produced in the first half of the cycle can make you glow, feel energized, motivated, and want more social interaction. When estrogen reaches its peak and that egg is developed enough this is when the ovary gets a signal from the brain to release the egg...ovulation! Ovulation often occurs from every other ovary, though this is not universally true. One month you will ovulate from your right ovary and the next month from your left. Even though ovaries are about the size of almonds and an egg is about the size of a period at the end of a sentence, some women can actually still feel the sensation of ovulation, called Mittelschmerz.
Ovulation immediately makes progesterone, which for the first half of the cycle was extremely low in the body. Progesterone is made by the corpus luteum, the portion of the follicle (aka egg) that gets left behind after ovulation. This phase of the menstrual cycle (the luteal phase), when progesterone dominates can make people feel relaxed and improve sleep. Progesterone can also protect against certain cancers. Without ovulation occurring a woman’s body makes almost no progesterone. Meaning ovulation is absolutely essential for progesterone production.
Ovulation is important because having that proper balance of estrogen and progesterone in the body is crucial for overall health.
Some women might think if they have a normal menstrual cycle within that 21-35 day window that they are ovulating, but in fact many women that have a normal menstrual cycle are actually not ovulating. You can imagine knowing this information is very important if you plan to become pregnant. But, ovulation is also so important for many other reasons that have nothing to do with pregnancy. Ovulation is a sign of good health. A sign that your hormones are in balance. This balance of hormones can help support a healthy mood, decrease or resolve acne, resolve a painful menses, stop heavy menstrual bleeding, protect from some hormonal cancers, build stronger bones, protect thyroid function, and even help with your digestive health! These are just some of the areas where your hormones play a role. So having balanced hormones - and specifically ovulating - can improve many facets of health.
Even if you don’t plan to become pregnant now or even ever, ensuring you are ovulating is essential to protect your health. Most hormonal birth controls, with the exception of a hormonal IUD on occasion, halt any of this crucial hormonal fluctuation including ovulation.
For my menstruating patients, I recommend tracking menstrual cycles with a symptothermal Fertility Awareness Method. It can take some practice to learn, but the connectedness and body awareness you gain from it is well worth the few months of practice.
The menstrual cycle, including the knowledge of if you are ovulating, is a key indicator of your overall health. Some would even consider the menstrual cycle as the fifth vital sign, with pulse, respiration, temperature, and blood pressure. Meaning the health of the menstrual cycle, including the main event of ovulation, is just as important as healthy blood pressure.
- “The Fifth Vital Sign” by Lisa Hendrickson-Jack
- Female Reproductive System via The Cleveland Clinic