Ovulation: The What, Why and How
You can be forgiven for not giving ovulation your full attention until you’re trying to conceive (or avoid pregnancy using Natural Family Planning, but that’s a whole other blog post). After all, ovulation isn’t really something that we think about until then. It’s not like a period, where we might need to carry tampons or sanitary towels in case it happens while we’re out and about, and it’s extremely rare that it forces us onto the sofa with Netflix, Ben and Jerry’s and a hot water bottle… although come to think of it, we could do with another excuse to get away with that now and again...
Don’t worry if you feel like you’re a complete ‘ovulation-novice’. Here are the main things you need to know about your ovulation.
What is ovulation?
In a nutshell, ovulation is when one of your ovaries releases an egg and it begins its journey down the fallopian tubes to your uterus. It’s a bit too simple to think of ovulation as ‘just’ the release though.
What causes ovulation to happen?
You could say that the ovulation process starts when the amount of estrogen in a woman’s body reaches a certain level. This triggers the pituitary gland to release a surge of Luteinizing Hormone (or LH for short) surges and this triggers the release of the ripest egg. LH tends to peak in the 24-36 hours before ovulation.
When does ovulation happen?
Knowing exactly when you’re going to ovulate is difficult. Unfortunately, it's easier to work out when you ovulated once you get to the end of your cycle, as ovulation happens roughly 12-14 days before the first day of your last period. Working backward like that is no good if you’re trying to time intercourse for pregnancy but learning about your cycle patterns and tracking BBT and LH can give you a good idea for your next cycle.
The fertile window
Cue the fertile window. Luckily for us, sperm can survive in the uterus and fallopian tubes for up to 7 days. So this means that as long as you’re timing sex in the 6 days up to ovulation, and the day of ovulation, there will be swimmers waiting for the egg once it’s released. This is super important because the egg can only survive for 12-24 hours if it’s not fertilized.
There are a couple of things you can look out for when pinpointing ovulation. The first is to track the changes in your cervical mucus. Just like many other symptoms we experience during our cycles, cervical mucus, or CM for short usually follows a cyclical pattern. Just before and during ovulation women tend to have a more watery, stretchy CM. This is usually described as egg white cervical mucus - for reasons we probably don’t need to explain…
Secondly, tracking your LH in the week before ovulation will help you to see the hormone first increase and then surge. This will give you a better idea as to when you’re fertile and when you might be about to ovulate.
Thirdly, tracking basal body temperature, BBT for short, will also help you to identify ovulation. Many women notice a dip in their BBT right before ovulation, and then a rise in BBT in the following days.
Some women will feel ovulation, and describe a short, sharp pain on one side, others may also see some spotting on the day of ovulation, but these two symptoms are less common.