The 411 on Ovulation

by Dr. Aliza

If you've already started having your periods, you are in your fertile or childbearing years. You’ve begun to experience new processes and feel new sensations in your body. One of the most visible and obvious is your menstrual cycle or menstruation. But tied to it is another that you’ll barely notice: ovulation.

Once a month, sometime between 10 and 19 days from the start of your menstrual cycle (remember that that the first day of your cycle is the first day you start to bleed), one of your ovaries releases an egg. What is this egg? It is the female reproductive cell, also called an ovum or female gamete. On a curious note, it is the largest cell in the entire human body, with an approximate diameter of 0.16 mm (about 0.006 of an inch).

Even before you were born, your ovaries already contained all the eggs you'll need throughout your life. At birth, you had about two million, but by the time you hit puberty, they had been reduced to about 500,000. Of those thousands, it is estimated that from puberty to menopause, about 500 will become mature eggs, usually one per month or per menstrual cycle.

Ovulation is the process of releasing a mature egg from the ovary. Why does this happen? So that it can join up with a sperm (the male gamete). When fertilization takes place, a pregnancy starts. If a sperm does not fertilize the egg, it is shed, along with the uterine lining. They leave your body through the menstrual bleeding.

In broad strokes, that is the ovulation process, but you should know a little more. You already know that our brain is like a very complex computer that regulates many bodily functions, including ovulation. The part of the brain that controls ovulation is called the hypothalamus. It sends signals to the anterior lobe of the pituitary gland, telling it to begin to secrete luteinizing hormone (LH) and another hormone follicle-stimulating hormone (FSH) that stimulates the ovarian follicles (which are little sacs in the ovaries) that contain your eggs.

The entire process occurs in three main phases, which are:

1. The pre-ovulatory phase or follicular phase: The layer of cells around the egg softens and the uterine lining begins to widen.

2. The ovulatory phase: With the aid of special enzymes, a hole called a stigma is formed, through which the egg leaves the follicle and travels to the fallopian tube (which connects each ovary to the uterus). This is the fertile period of each cycle and lasts between 24 and 48 hours.

3. The ovulatory or luteal phase: This lasts from ovulation, or the release of the egg, until the day before your next bleeding -- 12 to 14 days. The ovary begins to accumulate a cholesterol-rich tissue called the corpus luteum (Latin for yellow body) which produces large amounts of progesterone, a hormone responsible for preparing the endometrium (the lining of the uterus), to receive and nourish a fertilized egg. If fertilization does not occur (that is, if the sperm and egg do not unite), the ovarian follicle shrinks and the levels of progesterone and estrogen begin to decrease, since they are no longer needed. It’s during this last stage that you could start feeling premenstrual signs (like swelling, irritability, lethargy, or breast tenderness), which last until you begin to bleed, starting a new cycle.

Many women don’t even notice that they’re ovulating. Others learn to recognize certain signals. For example, the mucus or secretion that comes out of the cervix becomes heavier and gets thicker. At the most fertile point in the cycle, its texture is similar to that of an egg white.

Ovulation also increases your body’s temperature, but unless you measure it with a thermometer, you’ll scarcely notice the 0.4 to 1 degree increase. Some women experience mild abdominal pain or discomfort. This pain, which can last from just a few minutes to a few hours, has a curious name: Mittelschmerz. (That’s German for "middle pain" or "mid-cycle pain" or "ovulation pain"). If necessary, you can take over-the-counter medicines like ibuprofen to relieve it. Most women don’t need to take anything.

Every woman is different. You’ll soon become familiar with your menstrual cycles, their frequency and duration, as well as the signals that your body sends you. Gradually, you'll recognize what’s going on inside you. And, now that you know a little more about ovulation, you will better understand how your body works and why you get certain feelings. I hope it will make you admire the extraordinary machine that is the human body.

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