Understanding Your Menstrual Cycle for Fertility
Understanding ovulation and menstrual cycles are essential if you or your partner are trying to get pregnant. Knowing the point at which ovulation most commonly happens, the signs accompanying it, and when peak fertility is likely to occur can allow you to time your attempts at conception to have the greatest chance of success.
Join us as we look at the menstrual cycle and how to know when you need some intervention to grow your family.
Stages of Your Ovulation Cycle
Understanding ovulation requires a basic understanding of your reproductive cycle. Ovulation is when your body releases a mature egg for fertilization. Your entire menstrual cycle revolves around the buildup and the result (pregnancy or no pregnancy) of this.
Stage One: the Follicular Phase
At the beginning of your cycle, there are a number of immature eggs that become active but are incapable of fertilization. These eggs are still confined to your ovaries and are each stored within a follicle. Your pituitary gland (located in your brain) then sends a signal called follicle-stimulating hormone (FSH), which tells a few of these egg follicles to start to grow into mature eggs. In a normal menstrual cycle, one follicle will grow the fastest, thereby becoming the dominant follicle. The dominant follicle will be the one that will release a single mature egg which is capable of fertilization.
As the follicles mature, they produce the hormone estrogen. This tells your brain that there is now a mature egg, and your body produces a surge of a hormone called luteinizing hormone (LH). This LH surge causes the mature egg to burst through the wall of your ovary and release into the pelvic floor, from where the fallopian tube can pick it up. Once it is in the fallopian tube, this is where it can meet up with sperm. Fertilization occurs when the sperm and egg join together and become an embryo. The embryo will then start traveling down the fallopian tube. This journey takes about five to seven days, and once the embryo enters the uterus, it can find a place to stick.
Stage 2: the Luteal Phase
But the follicle which released the egg still has a job to do. With the egg released, the follicle is now called the corpus luteum, and it begins to produce the hormone progesterone, which it will continue to do for 12-16 days. The progesterone causes the lining of the uterus to get ready for the implantation of a fertilized egg. What happens next depends on whether the fertilized egg implants or not.
If the embryo sticks, the corpus luteum will continue to make progesterone until the placenta forms and takes over the job. Your menstrual cycle then goes on hold for the duration of your pregnancy. If the egg isn’t fertilized or if the embryo doesn’t implant, the corpus luteum will degrade and dissolve. After this, hormone levels start dropping, and within roughly 12-16 days, your body will begin to shed the uterine lining — in other words, you start your period. The cycle then begins all over again. The first day of your period counts as day 1 of your menstrual cycle.
When Am I Most Fertile During My Cycle?
Understanding ovulation and fertility on a larger scale is important, but it’s equally important to understand that cycles vary from person to person. Not everyone has a 28-day cycle (28 days from the first day of one menstrual period to the first day of the next — the “typical” menstrual cycle.) Some people may have longer cycles, and some may have shorter ones. And some people’s cycles may be irregular.
On average, the menstrual cycle is between 28 and 32 days, and ovulation usually happens sometime between day 11 and day 21 after the first day of the person’s last menstrual period. If you’re trying to get pregnant, ensuring that you have sex in the days leading up to and during this window can increases your chances of success. Sperm can survive up to five days, so the days leading up to ovulation are just as significant as when ovulation is likely to occur. Once ovulation happens, you cannot improve the odds of conceiving. If the egg isn't fertilized within 12 to 24 hours, it will degenerate.
What About Fertility Tracking?
If you have an unusually long or short menstrual cycle, or if your cycle is irregular, fertility tracking or fertility charting may give insight into the point of your unique cycle in which you’re most likely to ovulate. Fertility tracking involves recording the signs and symptoms of ovulation and monitoring when they occur in your cycle over several months to discover your most fertile days.
Signs of Ovulation
Ovulation causes physical changes in your body, resulting in symptoms that can be measured and recorded. Some of the signs of ovulation are:
• Increased basal body temperature. Basal temperature is your temperature when your body is entirely at rest. You would take your basal temperature immediately after you wake up and before you engage in any physical activity — even getting out of bed.
• Increased sex drive. Hormone changes increase the desire for sex when you’re ovulating.
• Mild cramps. Some people experience mild cramps in the lower abdomen during ovulation.
• Changes in vaginal discharge. Vaginal secretions are essential for sperm to make their way through the reproductive system to the egg. As ovulation approaches, vaginal discharge becomes thinner and more slippery — the consistency of egg white — to help facilitate the sperm’s journey.
These are subtle signs but are often readily trackable if you pay attention to your body.
What to Do if You Have Trouble Conceiving
If you’ve been unable to conceive after a year of unprotected sex, it may be time to speak to a professional. If you are over 35 years old, you should seek help after six months of trying. The first step is to make an appointment with your OB/GYN. They can rule out problems such as infections or sexually transmitted diseases, check for physical problems using tools like ultrasound, and do basic fertility testing such as semen analysis and testing of hormone levels. They may refer you to a fertility clinic if they determine that you need more specialized help.
Understanding Ovulation and Fertility
Understanding the ovulation cycle — particularly your unique cycle — helps ensure that you’re focusing your efforts on the time when you’re most likely to conceive. Knowing the signs of ovulation and tracking them gives you insight into your cycle, increasing your likelihood of pregnancy.
If you’ve tracked your cycle and still don’t find yourself pregnant, help is available. If you have questions about your fertility and would like to grow your family, contact us today for a consultation.