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Those of us who menstruate usually know the signs of our period coming along: Before the bleeding occurs, we might experience bloating, pain, or moods swings. And yes, sometimes PMS makes sure you know your period is on its way.
Most of us are less familiar with the signs of ovulation. In fact, a recent study actually showed that most people struggle to tell whether they’re ovulating or not. Many of us might not even know that there are indeed physical signs of ovulation or why our bodies respond to ovulation the way they do.
First, a quick biology refresher: Ovulation occurs when an ova, or egg, is released from the follicle in the ovary. Once the egg leaves the ovary, it moves into the fallopian tube. It stays there for roughly 12 to 24 hours. Depending on your sexual activity, it’s during this time that sperm will reach the egg. If the egg is fertilized, it goes to the uterus. There, a fertilized egg will implant in the uterus wall, marking the beginning of pregnancy. If the egg isn’t fertilized, it degrades and menstruation will follow. Either way, ovulation is the time in your menstrual cycle when you’re fertile.
The ovulation process also includes a great deal of hormonal changes. “Hormones called estrogen and progesterone are like yin and yang: There needs to be a balance,” says Carolyn Alexander, MD, of Southern California Reproductive Center. Alexander is board-certified in obstetrics and gynecology as well as reproductive endocrinology and infertility. “Ovulation leads to a corpus luteum [a hormone-secreting structure], which produces elevated amounts of progesterone. This prevents unopposed estrogen or an imbalance of high estrogen,” she says. When this progesterone decreases a few days after ovulation, it triggers the beginning of a period.
These hormones work to prepare the body for pregnancy and it’s these preparations that can produce certain signs of ovulation you’ve probably noticed (and can learn to associate with the science behind your cycles).
How can I be sure that I’m ovulating (and why should I care)?
There are many reasons why you’d want to know whether you’re ovulating or not: You could be trying to avoid pregnancy, or you might want to get pregnant. You might also want to know whether you’re ovulating simply because you’d like to understand your body better—we’re all for understanding our bodies better.
Firstly, tracking your menstrual cycle can help you figure out when you’re ovulating. If you have a 28-day cycle and you mark the first day of your period as day one of your cycle, you’re likely to ovulate around day 14—that is, in the middle of your menstrual cycle. To keep track of ovulation, you could use a pen-and-paper calendar or you can record your period (and related symptoms) in a period tracking app, like Clue.
Secondly, ovulation kits can test your urine to help you figure out whether you’re ovulating or not. “What kicks the ovary to get the egg out is something called luteinizing hormone (LH), which surges right before ovulation,” says Mary Jane Minkin, MD, a clinical professor in the department of obstetrics, gynecology, and reproductive sciences at the Yale University School of Medicine. “This is called the LH surge, and you are actually measuring this in the urine on the ovulation predictor kits.” Minkin recommends the First Response Ovulation Calculator.
Bear in mind, though, that neither of these methods are 100 percent effective. As with your period, many factors might affect the time you ovulate. In other words, you could ovulate a little earlier or later than expected. “Stressors, illness, change in eating, dieting particularly, but even overeating, all can affect ovulation,” says Minkin. “So it is not 100 percent repetitive.” Even ovulation predictor kits can be wrong, she adds.
Another way to figure out whether you’re fertile or not is to look out for certain signs of ovulation.
What are the signs of ovulation?
While there are many ways to find out whether you’re ovulating or not, it’s also great to pay attention to the signs and signals your body gives you.
Since ovulation causes a great deal of hormonal changes, it affects your body in multiple ways. In terms of our biological evolution, the function of ovulation is to help us reproduce, so many of the signs of ovulation involve physical changes that make pregnancy more likely.
Remember that since no two uteruses are the same, everyone experiences ovulation differently—so don’t be alarmed if you don’t notice any signs of ovulation. It’s totally possible to ovulate without experiencing any signs.
If you’ve had some unexpected physical symptoms around the middle of your cycle, read on to find out if they’re signs of ovulation.
1. Your cervical mucus changes.
You might note that your vaginal discharge changes around this time. This is because your cervical mucus changes during ovulation. Studies show that there’s a significant increase in the amount of cervical mucus produced by your body. The substance often becomes sticky, clear, and thick. According to Minkin, this makes it easier for sperm to make it to your cervix, thus increasing the chances that you’ll become pregnant.
2. You’re feeling mild pelvic pain.
Ever felt a little twinge in the side of your pelvis during ovulation? That mild ache might be your follicle releasing an egg. “This pain is known as mittelschmerz, or ‘pain in the middle,’” says Kelly Kasper, MD, an OB-GYN at Indiana University Health. “When a follicle matures prior to releasing an egg, the follicle can contain a small amount of fluid like a cyst. When the egg is released, the follicle ruptures, releasing the fluid [and] causing an ache or pain.”
Mittelschmerz usually only lasts a few hours, and it can be managed with over-the-counter anti-inflammatory medication like Advil. Kasper warns that if the pain is too unbearable or persistent, you should see a doctor.
3. Your libido increases.
A change in your sex drive and a change in the type of sex you’d like are both signs of ovulation. There’s a strong correlation between ovulation and libido: “There is a spike up of testosterone right around the time of ovulation, which from a biological perspective is also designed to get you to want to have sex,” says Minkin.
Ovulation might also influence the type of sex you’re interested in. A small study focusing on heterosexual women suggested that they might prefer penetrative sex over oral sex during ovulation. If you don’t notice an increase in libido, though, that doesn’t mean you’re not ovulating—Alexander notes that if you have a low libido in general, you might not notice a spike in arousal around ovulation.
4. You’re experiencing spotting or light bleeding.
If you’re ovulating and you notice some blood spots or brown discharge, don’t be alarmed. This is fairly common. “When ovulation occurs, the follicle can rupture and result in a small amount of bleeding,” says Kasper. “This blood turns brown as it gets older, hence why the vaginal discharge can be red to dark brown.”
5. Your breasts feel tender.
Since ovulation involves a lot of hormonal activity, you might notice that your breasts feel more sensitive or tender around the middle of the cycle. Studies have shown that breasts are generally more tender and more swollen during the fertile window.
6. Your sense of smell is heightened.
“You could experience a heightened sense of smell in the second half of the cycle after ovulating in order to be more attracted to androsterone, a male pheromone,” explains Kasper.
A recent study supported the commonly held idea that ovulation increases your sense of smell. The study especially showed that ovulation makes us more sensitive to androsterone. Again, this is one of the responses to ovulation that is meant to help you get pregnant.
7. Your basal body temperature (BBT) changes.
Your basal body temperature, which is the temperature of your body when it’s resting, is affected by ovulation. Monitoring basal body temperature was once used as a method to detect ovulation. “Before we had ovulation predictor kits to measure the LH surge, we relied on basal body temperatures,” says Minkin. “If you take your temperature first thing in the morning—even before you get out of bed—and chart it, you will see a slight drop right before ovulation, and then the temperature will rise about half a degree Fahrenheit.”
BBT isn’t one of the signs of ovulation you’ll be able to see at a glance. It must be taken with a digital thermometer designed to measure BBT. Once you have the right type of thermometer, you have to chart your temperature over time. Since the BBT can fluctuate throughout your cycle, it has to be monitored for quite some time; it could take months to identify the pattern, Kasper adds. This is why urine-based ovulation tests are favored over measuring BBT nowadays.
8. Your immune system may be weaker.
“In light of an embryo hopefully implanting in the uterus sometime soon, there are immune changes that may adapt to allow paternal proteins to be accepted by the uterus,” says Alexander. In other words, the immune system lets its guard down so that sperm can enter the body and stay there until fertilization takes place.
Your immune system might be weaker because of these hormonal changes, so you might find yourself more prone to colds and flu. Interestingly, a 2012 study noted that people are more prone to infections during ovulation.
9. You could have a higher pain threshold.
Your menstrual cycle might also affect your pain threshold—that is, how sensitive you are to pain. According to multiple studies, higher estrogen levels cause you to have less sensitivity to pain. This suggests that your pain threshold is higher during ovulation.
This might not be the same for everyone, though. And, as studies have warned, measuring your pain threshold is subjective, so it’s possible that your bias changes depending on where you are in your cycle.
Can I get pregnant if I don’t have sex while ovulating?
If you’re trying to get pregnant, your best bet is having sex around the day you ovulate. This is why knowing the signs of ovulation and using ovulation tests can be useful.
However, you can’t always be completely sure when you’re ovulating. Even if you could predict ovulation accurately, abstaining from sex when you ovulate isn’t a foolproof method of avoiding pregnancy.
It’s important to remember that sperm can linger in the cervix and uterus for a few days, explains Minkin. If you have sex for a few days before ovulation, you might still get pregnant. If you’re trying to track ovulation to avoid pregnancy, consider using another method of contraception in addition to tracking your cycle.
What happens if I’m not ovulating?
While it’s generally true that we ovulate once a month, this isn’t the case 100 percent of the time. If you’re on hormonal birth control, you shouldn’t be ovulating at all. It’s also possible to have occasional menstrual cycles when you don’t ovulate. These are called anovulatory cycles.
However, if you continuously don’t ovulate, this could be cause for concern, even if you’re not trying to get pregnant. Ovulation is an essential part to your menstrual cycle as it influences the fluctuation of hormones in your body. These hormones aren’t only essential for fertility—they’re essential for our overall health. Anovulation can be caused by extreme stress, extreme exercise or dieting, polycystic ovarian syndrome (PCOS), and other illnesses.
“There needs to be a balance [of progesterone and estrogen] to prevent uterine cancer or pre-cancer cells,” says Alexander. This can especially be a problem if you have unopposed estrogen levels—that is, high amounts of estrogen and low amounts of progesterone. Alexander notes that it is possible to menstruate without ovulating. “This can lead to ovarian cysts as well as a thickened uterine lining that can develop pre-cancer cells,” she says. Again, you might be ovulating without displaying any signs of ovulation, so you can’t diagnose this yourself. If you think you’re not ovulating, speak to your healthcare provider.
Knowing the signs of ovulation is super useful for those of us who are hoping for (or avoiding!) pregnancy. It’s also comforting to know that some signs—like spotting and mild pelvic pain—are a part of ovulation, and (typically) not signs that something’s wrong.
Want to start tracking your cycles to get to know when you’re ovulating? Check out how free femtech apps can help you educate yourself about ovulation, fertility, safe sex, and more.