Ovulation is a fundamental process in a woman’s reproductive system that plays a crucial role in her fertility. Understanding the intricacies of ovulation is essential for women who are trying to conceive, as well as those who wish to track their reproductive health.
What is Ovulation?
Ovulation refers to the release of a mature egg from the ovary, marking the peak of a woman’s fertility cycle. This process occurs once every menstrual cycle and is driven by complex hormonal interactions. The release of the egg allows for the possibility of fertilisation and subsequent pregnancy.
Ovulation is governed by the interplay of various hormones, including follicle-stimulating hormone (FSH), luteinising hormone (LH), oestrogen, and progesterone.
Follicular development refers to the process by which ovarian follicles, which are fluid-filled sacs in the ovaries, mature and eventually release an egg during the menstrual cycle. This intricate process is controlled by the interplay of hormones and involves several stages.
The process of follicular development begins before birth. During foetal development, millions of primordial follicles form in the ovaries. Each primordial follicle contains an immature egg cell, or oocyte, surrounded by a layer of support cells.
After birth, only a fraction of the primordial follicles are activated for further development. Activation involves the recruitment of a few follicles from the pool of primordial follicles to begin the growth process.
Growth and Follicle Selection
The recruited follicles enter the growth phase, transitioning into primary and then secondary follicles. The oocyte within the follicle undergoes maturation and begins to increase in size. During this phase, several follicles may continue to develop, but eventually, only one dominant follicle will be selected for ovulation.
Dominant Follicle Development
As follicles progress, one follicle typically becomes dominant and receives a greater share of hormonal support. The dominant follicle continues to grow and develop a fluid-filled cavity called the antrum. It also secretes increasing amounts of oestrogen.
The granulosa cells surrounding the oocyte within the dominant follicle secrete oestrogen. Oestrogen plays a vital role in preparing the uterine lining (endometrium) for potential implantation of a fertilised egg. As the dominant follicle grows, oestrogen levels rise.
Ovulation occurs when the dominant follicle reaches its maximum size and matures. The surge in luteinising hormone (LH), which is triggered by rising oestrogen levels, stimulates the release of the mature egg from the ovary. The egg is released from the follicle into the fallopian tube, where it can potentially be fertilised by sperm.
Corpus Luteum Formation
After ovulation, the remaining follicular cells in the ovary form a structure called the corpus luteum. The corpus luteum produces progesterone, which helps prepare the uterus for potential implantation and supports early pregnancy. If fertilisation does not occur, the corpus luteum regresses, leading to a drop in hormone levels and the start of a new menstrual cycle.
It is important to note that follicular development is a dynamic process influenced by hormonal feedback loops between the hypothalamus, pituitary gland, and ovaries. These hormonal interactions regulate the timing and progression of each stage in the follicular development process.
The actual release of the egg from the ovary involves a rupture of the dominant follicle and its expulsion into the fallopian tube.
The ovulation process is part of the ovarian cycle, which consists of three phases: the follicular phase, ovulation, and the luteal phase. The ovarian cycle is regulated by hormones, primarily follicle-stimulating hormone (FSH) and luteinising hormone (LH), which are produced by the pituitary gland in the brain.
The ovarian cycle begins with the follicular phase. During this phase, multiple follicles within the ovary start to develop and grow under the influence of FSH. Each follicle contains an immature egg.
Dominant Follicle Selection
As the follicles grow, they produce oestrogen, a hormone that prepares the uterus for potential pregnancy. The high levels of oestrogen in the bloodstream trigger a negative feedback loop that inhibits the release of FSH, preventing further follicular development. Eventually, one dominant follicle emerges as the most developed and suppresses the growth of the others.
As the dominant follicle continues to grow, it starts producing even more oestrogen. This increase in oestrogen levels leads to a positive feedback loop, resulting in a sudden surge of luteinising hormone (LH) from the pituitary gland. The LH surge is a crucial trigger for ovulation.
Within 24 to 36 hours after the LH surge, ovulation occurs. The mature egg is released from the dominant follicle and is swept into the fallopian tube. This process is facilitated by the contraction of the muscular wall of the ovary, which ruptures the follicle and expels the egg.
The released egg is viable for fertilisation for approximately 12 to 24 hours. If fertilisation does not occur within this timeframe, the egg disintegrates, and the opportunity for pregnancy during that menstrual cycle is lost.
After ovulation, the ruptured follicle transforms into the corpus luteum, a temporary endocrine structure. The corpus luteum produces progesterone, which prepares the uterus for implantation of a fertilised egg. If fertilisation occurs, the developing embryo releases a hormone called human chorionic gonadotropin (hCG) that signals the corpus luteum to continue producing progesterone, supporting the early stages of pregnancy. If fertilisation does not occur, the corpus luteum degenerates, progesterone levels drop, and the menstrual cycle begins again.
Signs and Symptoms of Ovulation
Basal Body Temperature (BBT)
During ovulation, your Basal Body Temperature rises slightly; you become more fertile in the two days before it increases. You can track your BBT by using a special thermometer for a few months so it can help you pinpoint your most fertile days but saying this, it’s not a great method to use when you are most fertile as once your BBT increases you may have already ovulated one day prior.
Cervical Mucus Changes
The consistency and appearance of cervical mucus undergo significant changes during the menstrual cycle. It becomes clearer and thinner and has a slippery consistency similar to egg whites.
Some women experience mild pelvic pain or twinges and discomfort in the midline or on one side on the day of ovulation or the day after ovulation which is known as mittelschmerz which means “middle pain” which is the result of the maturation or release of an egg from the ovary.
A boost in Libido
Your sex drive may increase two or three days before you ovulate which is due the ovaries producing increased testosterone.
Changes in the Vulva
Your labia or the outer part of your genitalia may swell up.
Your hormones fluctuate which bring on tender breasts and sore nipples
Fluid Retention and Bloating
You may experience bloating and water retention down to the surge in hormones which can lead to gas and slower digestion. Eating foods rich is potassium and magnesium may help reduce bloating. Drinking lots of water, limiting your salt intake and engaging moderate exercise may help reduce symptoms.
Some women feel happier and in a good mood around the time of ovulation, midway through their cycle and some women experience the opposite. Try and monitor what you are consuming as nutrition has a big effect on how you feel at this time.
Changes in Appetite
Just before ovulation, your appetite may reduce slightly or it may increase. Watch what you consume and try and opt for healthy foods that will support your health and well-being.
Heightened sense of smell
Your sense of smell will become sharper when ovulating. This also happens when women become pregnant and during their pregnancy journey.
When does ovulation occur?
Ovulation usually takes place halfway through your menstrual cycle or a round day 14 of the average 28 day cycle, counting from the first day of one period to the first day of the next one. Ovulation occurs 13-14 days before your next period. Some cycles can last from 25 to 35 days. Some women have regular periods and are straightforward but some are unpredictable, inconsistent so can be difficult to track.
Ovulation Prediction and Tracking Methods
Ovulation Predictor Kits (OPKs)
Many women use these kits as they are far easier than tracking monthly discharge. It can identify the date of ovulation 12-24 hours in advance by detecting the surge in luteinizing hormone (LH) that precedes ovulation. They are a reliable method if you have regular periods.
Fertility Apps and Monitors
Numerous smartphone applications and fertility monitors are available to help track ovulation. Even though these apps may not be able to give you an accurate prediction, it can make you more aware of your menstrual cycle if you decide you want to try for a baby.
Common Ovulation Disorders
Anovulation refers to a condition in which a woman’s ovaries do not release an egg during the menstrual cycle. It is a common cause of infertility and menstrual irregularities. Anovulation can occur at any age and may be temporary or chronic, depending on the underlying cause.
Polycystic Ovary Syndrome (PCOS)
PCOS is one of the most common ovulation disorders. It is characterised by hormonal imbalances, specifically elevated levels of androgens (male hormones) and insulin resistance. Women with PCOS may experience infrequent or absent ovulation, which can result in irregular menstrual cycles. The ovaries often develop small cysts, hence the name “polycystic.” Other symptoms include acne, weight gain, excessive hair growth, and fertility issues.
The hypothalamus is a part of the brain that regulates various hormonal functions, including the menstrual cycle. Certain conditions such as excessive stress, excessive exercise, significant weight loss, or eating disorders can disrupt the hypothalamus and lead to ovulation disorders. These factors can suppress the release of gonadotropin-releasing hormone (GnRH), which in turn affects the production of follicle-stimulating hormone (FSH) and luteinising hormone (LH) necessary for ovulation.
Premature Ovarian Insufficiency (POI)
Also known as premature ovarian failure, POI refers to the loss of normal ovarian function before the age of 40. Women with POI may experience irregular or absent periods, and they may have difficulty conceiving. POI can be caused by genetic factors, autoimmune disorders, chemotherapy or radiation therapy, or certain infections. It is characterised by a decline in the number and quality of eggs in the ovaries.
Thyroid hormones play a vital role in regulating the menstrual cycle and ovulation. Both an underactive thyroid (hypothyroidism) and an overactive thyroid (hyperthyroidism) can disrupt normal ovulation. Hypothyroidism can cause infrequent or absent periods, while hyperthyroidism can lead to shorter menstrual cycles. Treatment with thyroid medication can help restore normal ovulation.
These are just a few examples of ovulation disorders, and there can be other less common conditions affecting ovulation. If you suspect you may have an ovulation disorder, it is recommended to consult with a healthcare professional or a reproductive endocrinologist who can provide a proper diagnosis and appropriate treatment options tailored to your specific situation.
Ovulation is a complex process that underlies a woman’s fertility and reproductive health. By understanding the mechanisms, signs, and tracking methods associated with ovulation, women can optimise their chances of conceiving or gain valuable insights into their reproductive well-being.