7 Facts About Your Ovaries You Should Know, And Why They Matter
Your ovaries play a key role in your journey to motherhood, so you must know some basic things about them, right? Knowing your reproductive anatomy is important whether you are trying to get pregnant, prevent pregnancy, or neither.
Understanding how your reproductive system works can help you maintain good reproductive health and be fertile for long. In this article, we will get to know ovaries a bit better. You will read about several facts about your ovaries that you might not know and why they are important for your reproductive health.
Ovaries can change their size and volume over time.
Contrary to what you might think, ovaries don’t have a fixed size and volume. Their size can vary significantly throughout your lifetime. The average size is 3.5cm X 2.5 cm X 1.5 cm when you are in your reproductive years. However, the size of the ovaries decreases after menopause due to the declining level of reproductive hormones, especially estrogen. After menopause, the ovaries can shrink to about 2cm X 2.5cm X 1cm in size or even smaller. In some women, the ovaries shrink so much after menopause that they are almost invisible in an ultrasound.
As the size of the ovaries decreases, so does their volume. You are born with about 2 million immature follicles. This number continuously declines as you age. Till your first period, only about 300,000 follicles remain. The loss of the follicles does not stop there. Once you start menstruating, you lose about 1000 eggs per cycle. By the time you are menopausal, most of the ovarian reserve is depleted, and the ovaries shrink significantly in volume.
Ovaries are responsible for hormone production.
Hormones are important chemical messengers of our body, responsible for the smooth functioning of various physiological processes. The system of organs responsible for producing hormones in your body is called the endocrine system. Various glands such as the Pituitary gland, thyroid gland, and adrenal gland produce various important hormones. It might take you by surprise that ovaries are an important part of this system as well.
The two main female sex hormones- Estrogen and Progesterone, are secreted by the ovaries. The phase of your menstrual cycle determines the level of these hormones in the blood. For example, the level of the hormone Progesterone increases during ovulation. The hormone is responsible for thickening the endometrium lining of the uterus that receives the fertilized egg. If the egg is fertilized, the ovaries ramp up the production of Progesterone and thus maintain the endometrium intact and allow the fetus to grow. The ovaries also make extra estrogen once you get pregnant to prevent the release of more eggs from the ovaries.
The levels of estrogen and Progesterone keep changing during your menstrual cycle and control the cycle’s various phases. Hence, it is important to have the right level of these hormones at the right time.
Only one egg is released during ovulation.
If you have a normal menstrual cycle, only one egg is released by one of the ovaries. Although many ovarian follicles start to develop during the follicular phase of the menstrual cycle simultaneously, only one becomes mature enough to release an egg. The follicle that releases the egg is the dominant follicle that ruptures during the ovulation phase of the cycle.
In some instances, however, more than one egg might be released during one cycle. If two separate eggs are released in one cycle and fertilized by two different sperms, you have multiple pregnancies. Twins born in this manner are called dizygotic or fraternal twins. In rare cases, ovaries can release three or even four eggs during one cycle leading to triplets or quadruplets. As such, twins are formed from separate eggs and sperm, such twins don’t have identical DNA. Hence they might be of different genders or look alike.
One interesting thing that can happen regarding twins, triplets, and quadruplets is when they share the same zygote. In rare instances, a fertilized egg splits into multiple parts during embryonic development. Each of these parts can give rise to an individual fetus. Such siblings are called monozygotic or identical multiplets. As these siblings arise from the same egg released during one cycle, they share the same DNA and look very alike.
The fallopian tubes are not tied to your ovaries directly.
Contrary to what you might infer, looking at the diagrammatic representation of the female anatomy, ovaries are not directly connected to the fallopian tubes. Ovaries are connected to the fallopian tubes via small finger-like projections called the Fimbriae. They form a funnel-like structure that captures the released egg from the ovaries and directs it to the fallopian tube. Once in the fallopian tube, if fertilized, the egg continues its journey to the uterus for implantation.
Not all the fimbriae connect or touch the ovaries, though. Only the longest fimbriae, called the ovarian fimbria, can directly attach to the ovaries. Hence, the ovaries are hanging onto the fallopian tubes by a single thread. Ovaries, however, are attached to the walls of the abdomen by several ligaments.
Some women can feel ovulation happening in their ovaries.
Most women experience pain in their abdomen in the middle of their menstrual cycle. This pain, called the Ovulation pain, is thought to originate due to the ovulation process itself. The incidence of pain during ovulation is quite common, and 1 in 5 women experience this pain in the middle of their cycle. This pain is also called ‘mittelschmerz’ after the German word for middle.
The pain during ovulation is not the same for every woman. It usually lasts for a day or two and does not need any intervention to treat. The pain can occur on either side of your abdomen and shift from one side to another in subsequent cycles. Menstrual pain is not severe in most women; however, consult your physician immediately if you experience severe pain. Ovulation pain can predict fertility window in combination with reliable and cheap ovulation tests such as the ones from Fertility2Family.
Your ovaries are affected by stress.
Stress affects your entire body, and hence it is highly unlikely that it will spare your ovaries. Your menstrual cycle and ovulation is a delicately balanced process controlled by several hormones. Hormones of the Pituitary gland control the growth and development of the ovarian follicles and release the egg from the ovaries through Luteinizing Hormone (LH) and Follicle Stimulating Hormone (FSH). The Pituitary, in turn, is controlled by a part of your brain called the Hypothalamus.
Many women experience a missed period, but they don’t show a positive pregnancy test either. In most cases, this happens when they were going through a stressful phase in life. Stress can be good (eustress) or bad (distress), and the brain is almost always affected. The Hypothalamus is also not left out. If you are excessively stressed, you might have an anovulatory cycle without ovulation and miss a period.
As your stress levels drop, your hypothalamus springs back into action, and your cycles fall back into a healthy regular rhythm. If you have prolonged irregularities in your cycles, consult your OBGYN right away.
Ovarian cysts are quite common.
Not all ovarian cysts are associated with Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome (PCOS). Most women will develop at least one ovarian cyst in their lifetime, so they are quite common. Most of these cysts are perfectly harmless and need no medical intervention, and they will go away on their own.
The most common ovarian cyst is called a simple cyst or a functional cyst. Such cysts originate in the ovarian follicles. During the follicular phase of the menstrual cycle, many ovarian follicles develop simultaneously. One of them becomes dominant and releases the egg. The rest of the follicles generally dissolve on their own after ovulation. However, in some cases, one of the immature follicles fails to dissolve. The follicle gets filled with a liquid forming a cyst. Such cysts are called simple cysts, and as they arise due to the normal functioning of the ovaries, they are also called functional cysts. Such cysts and are perfectly harmless. Many women develop such cysts without ever knowing about their existence.
That said, some simple cysts can be painful but don’t require any medical attention. However, a cyst that grows more than 5cm in size might need surgical removal to avoid rupture of the cyst.