Back to School:
Understanding the 3 Phases of Ovulation

We all remember THE day.  For most of us, it happened in middle school.  The boys and girls were separated into different rooms and a buzz of electric nervous energy filled the air.  I’m speaking about the day we learn about sexual maturity and the processes of ovulation and menstruation. As a concept, the whole thing seems impossible, mysterious, and a little scary until a girl gets her period for the first time.  Then, like many things in life, it becomes routine and mundane and we don’t spend a lot of time thinking about it too much.

However, maybe it’s time to bring the phases of ovulation closer to the forefront. So much of how we feel day to day is linked to how our bodies respond to the constant changes that occur throughout the cycle.  It can be frustrating to experience a laundry list of symptoms like bloating, acne, and mood swings but not know why. There is a sense of powerlessness that arises when we feel out of sync and out of control of our bodies.  Having a good understanding of your cycles can help strengthen the mind-body connection by understanding what processes are taking place, how it impacts the ripple effect of hormones, and how to best manage symptoms to feel your best.  Let’s review the 3 phases of ovulation.

Follicular Phase:  Egg Development and Maturation

The end of one cycle ushers in the beginning of the next. The follicular phase starts in tandem with menstruation on the first day of the cycle and lasts 16 days on average.  It’s true that sexy is a state of mind, and even truer that the catalyst of each new cycle begins in the brain. As hormones levels drop during the end of the cycle, the cells in the hypothalamus create chemicals that regulate sex hormones and activate the pituitary gland called gonadotropin-releasing hormone.  Then, the pituitary gland manufactures and releases follicle-stimulating hormone or FSH into the bloodstream. FSH works in the ovaries to activate the production of 5-20 follicles which are little sacks of immature eggs. The follicles mature and grow and release their own chemical fingerprint of hormones called oestradiol (a type of estrogen) and inhibin.  The hypothalamus and pituitary gland continues to monitor hormone levels and as estrogen and inhibin increase, the production of gonadotropin-releasing hormone decrease. Estrogen produced from the follicles increases the blood supply to the uterus, creating a thick, nutrient-rich lining.

Ovulation Phase:  Releasing the Egg

Although many follicles develop, only the healthiest and most mature egg is released during ovulation.  Most women only ovulate one egg per month, however sometimes 2 mature eggs are released- shout out to all the fraternal twins out there.  The remaining untapped follicles are absorbed back into the body. At this stage, estrogen levels continue to climb which triggers the pituitary gland to release luteinizing hormone or LH.  Luteinizing hormone prompts the ovary to release the prized egg where it travels down the fallopian tube towards the uterus. Once the egg is in place, it is ready for fertilization, or it dies in 24 hours.  Ovulation occurs smack in the middle of your cycle so it’s important to monitor the length of your cycle, especially if you want to avoid or achieve pregnancy.

Luteal Phase:  the Path to Pregnancy or Menstruation

And you thought ovulation was the only function of the ovaries?!  Well, we are not quite done with them yet. After the egg is released for ovulation, the follicle transforms into the corpus luteum.  The corpus luteum acts like a temporary gland that releases hormones, mostly progesterone and estrogen.

If the egg is fertilized, then honey, you have a few things to do.  But real quick, your body will produce human chorionic gonadotropin or hCG.  This is the same chemical that pregnancy tests look for. HcG also preserves the corpus luteum ensuring that progesterone stays high and the uterine lining stays thick creating a cozy new home for an embryo.

If the egg is unfertilized, the corpus luteum will break down and progesterone levels will drop.  This happens pretty quickly and the resulting effects are the many signs and symptoms of PMS. As we all well know this includes, bloating, cravings, cramps, headaches, fatigue, breast changes, and mood swings.  Within a few days, menstruation will begin as the cycle will return to phase 1.

Now that you’re reacquainted with what, when, where, and how of ovulation, the next step to deepen your knowledge of your cycle is to track it.  It’s a good idea to gain an understanding of the average length of your cycle and gather data at critical points to best interpret all the ways that you are most affected by hormonal ebbs and flows.  You can go old school and use a simple calendar or planner to keep notes or you can digitize the experience with apps such as Clue or Eve. Remember every cycle is different, so getting to know yours can help provide peace of mind. Here’s to all of us who bleed bravely and beautifully!