What is ovulation? What you need to know about your cycle

It’s a process that happens in women’s bodies frequently, but some experts say most of us still don’t understand how it works.

Marla E. Lujan, an associate professor and researcher of women’s reproductive health at Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y., told Global News ovulation refers to the release of an egg from the ovary.

“It is the culmination of a process called folliculogenesis wherein eggs housed within our ovaries undergo a process a maturation that make them suitable for fertilization.”

The menstrual cycle

Ovulation is a process that is characterized by cell changes, all related to the maturation of the egg, she said.

“The menstrual cycle is a coordinated process wherein growth and development of ovarian follicles (structures that contain eggs) bring about changes in our uterine lining that prepare a women for implantation of a fertilized egg.”

The menstrual cycle has three phases: the follicular phase, ovulatory phase and luteal phase.

“The follicular phase is characterized by the process of folliculogenesis wherein numerous ovarian follicles compete for dominance with the goal of becoming the one follicle that ovulates.”

The follicular phase can last up to 14 days, and is marked by ovulation at the end of the phase.

The ovulatory phase, she added, is a shorter process, where the dominant follicle ruptures and releases its mature egg from the ovary.

“The luteal phase is the post-ovulatory phase of the cycle,” she explained.

It’s characterized by the presence of a corpus luteum (CL) which is a structure that forms from the remaining cells of ruptured follicles. This CL produces substantial amounts of sex hormones.

According to Live Science, ovulation typically lasts for a day and occurs two weeks before a woman is expected to get her period. This can vary for women from month to month.

“If a woman is hoping to become pregnant, she will want to keep track of when she may be ovulating,” the site added. “Knowing when a woman is ovulating each month is helpful because she is the most fertile — or able to become pregnant — around the time of ovulation.”

How do I track it?

Lujan said the best way to track ovulation is getting an ultrasound.

“(An ultrasound) enables you to visualize folliculogenesis and you can see the dominant follicle appear and then be replaced by a CL — but this requires a health-care provider.”

At home, you can try ovulation kits or calendars to track your cycle, but this may not work for all women, she adds.

According to The Society of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists of Canada (SOGC), bleeding and other symptoms related to your cycle can also help you determine when you are ovulating.

“Record when your period starts and ends, what the flow was like, and describe any pain or other symptoms (bloating, breast pain, etc.), changes in mood or behaviour that you experienced,” the society noted.

“Over several cycles, you will be able to see patterns in your cycle, or identify irregularities that are occurring.”

You can find a tracking calendar on the SOGC’s site or download an app. You can even try cervical mucus testing or basal body temperature monitoring.

Disorders linked to ovulation

Lujan said there are numerous disorders linked to ovulation.

“The ones that are most recognized are those that impact fertility, because failure to ovulate results in failure to conceive,” she said. “The most common cause of anovulatory infertility is polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS).”

PCOS is a hormonal disorder that affects women of reproductive age, and can cause prolonged or irregular periods, polycystic ovaries and excessive androgen, the male hormone.

Less common conditions include premature ovarian failure, which can occur when a woman transitions to menopause early and stops ovulating.

“It is important to think of the menstrual cycle as a “vital sign,” she continued. “When our bodies are challenged by other stressors/diseases, the ability of the reproductive system to perform is compromised.”

Other disorders include hypothalamic dysfunction, the Mayo Clinic noted, where the follicle-stimulating hormone and luteinizing hormone are disrupted in production.

“Excess physical or emotional stress, a very high or very low body weight, or a recent substantial weight gain or loss can disrupt production of these hormones and affect ovulation. Irregular or absent periods are the most common signs,” the site added.

Premature ovarian failure, another disorder, is often caused by “an autoimmune response or by premature loss of eggs from your ovary (possibly from genetics or chemotherapy).” The Clinic added this means the ovary can no longer produce eggs.

Tips for couples looking to get pregnant

Lujan said it is possible to figure out your “fertile window,” but it can still be an imperfect process.

“It makes assumptions about the process of folliculogenesis in women, that at best hold up in women with very predictable and regular cycles which not all women can relate (to).”

There is also the common misconception that all ovulations should result in pregnancy. “There are just too many other factors related to fertilization and implantation that need to align for pregnancy to occur.”

For couples looking to get pregnant, allow yourself time to get there, she said.

“First and foremost, give yourself time and set realistic expectations,” she said. “A majority of ovulations do not result in clinical pregnancies so it makes sense that it may takes several cycles to get pregnant.”

And if you are having issues tracking your cycles or figuring out when you actually ovulate, speak with your doctor.

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