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Ovulation is a pretty amazing and intricate process, so let’s start with the basics: Ovulation is the phase of the menstrual cycle when an ovary releases an egg. Once released, time is of the essence: that egg cell then has about 24 hours to, potentially, be fertilized by a sperm cell. If the egg is not fertilized, menstruation will soon begin, and a new menstrual cycle starts. If the egg is fertilized, this means that conception has taken place. Following conception, once the egg implants into the uterine wall, this will mark the start of a pregnancy. Like we said, pretty amazing!
Beyond the basics of ovulation
Within each of the ovaries are ovarian follicles, which are fluid-filled sacs of cells; each ovarian follicle surrounds an egg, and this is where each egg will grow to maturity. Ovulation is triggered by the release of luteinizing hormone (LH), which causes one ovarian follicle to rupture and release an egg. That egg will then make its way into a fallopian tube – which is where egg and sperm would meet if fertilization were to take place – and then make its way to the uterus.
Ovulation is the only phase of the menstrual cycle when it’s possible to conceive. Although an egg only has only about 24 hours after ovulation before it disintegrates, sperm can live inside the vagina or the upper genital tract for up to five days. This means if you have intercourse in the few days leading up to ovulation, and there is already sperm present when the egg makes its big entrance, it’s possible to conceive. Because of this, the period of time when it’s possible to conceive, known as the fertile window, includes the five days before ovulation and the day of ovulation. Because you’re only able to conceive for these few days each cycle, it’s important to be able to recognize signs of ovulation.
Signs of ovulation
So, when do you ovulate? In a perfectly “normal” 28-day cycle, ovulation begins about 14 days after the beginning of your period. But it’s worth keeping in mind that when exactly ovulation occurs will vary from person to person and even cycle to cycle. Some people may be able to determine when they’re ovulating based on physical signs, including one-sided abdominal cramping, lower backaches, or breast tenderness. There are also emotional symptoms to look for, such as an increase in libido or feelings of excitement or confidence. If you track your moods and find that you’re often feeling a particular way during your fertile window, you can use that trend to identify when you’re ovulating.
Not everyone experiences or notices these changes, and that’s okay! The three most reliable indicators of ovulation are basal body temperature, cervical fluid, and the luteinizing hormone. You can monitor these indicators in combination with other signs and symptoms to find out exactly when you’re ovulating:
- Basal body temperature is the lowest body temperature you have in a day. Changes in your basal body temperature can help indicate an upcoming or past ovulation, as it may dip right before ovulation and then rise in the two to three days afterwards. Basal body temperature really spikes about 12 to 24 hours after ovulation, so while this might not help in identifying whether you’re still ovulating, it can show that you have just ovulated. Tracking your basal body temperature from month to month can help better determine when you will ovulate across multiple cycles. The way to get the best BBT measurement is to use an oral thermometer first thing in the morning.
- Cervical fluid is the vaginal fluid produced by your cervix. The characteristics of this fluid change throughout the different phases of the menstrual cycle, which means that checking your cervical fluid can help tell you when you’re ovulating. During ovulation, cervical fluid is at its most liquidy, clear, and sticky, which reduces the vagina’s acidity to help sperm cells travel to the egg. When it comes to cervical fluid, you don’t need any fancy equipment to help determine if ovulation is occurring – you’ll just want to be observant, stay on the lookout for any changes, and, if you’re up for it, feel the fluid to determine what stage it’s in.
- Luteinizing hormone, which surges before ovulation, is the most definitive indicator of fertility. You can measure your LH levels with an ovulation test, which is a simple urine test that you can take at home. Ovulation usually occurs about 24 to 48 hours after LH levels are detectable by the test.
Track your ovulation cycle
Ovulation is amazing, and so is your body – it definitely has a lot to tell you if you know how to listen. Tracking all three of these important signs is a great way to get a stronger sense of when you’re ovulating and when you’re most fertile.
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- JB Stanford, GL White, H Hatasaka. “Timing intercourse to achieve pregnancy: current evidence.” Obstetrics & Gynecology. 100(6):1333-41. December 2002. Retrieved July 13 2017. ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/12468181.
- Landon Trost, M.D. “How long do sperm live after ejaculation?” MayoClinic. Mayo Foundation for Medical Education and Research, May 1 2015. Retrieved July 13 2017. mayoclinic.org/healthy-lifestyle/getting-pregnant/expert-answers/pregnancy/faq-20058504.