No one knows their body better than you do! As you probably know about the importance of your ovaries but may wonder how much do they really do?
You may get your period every few weeks, once a month, or maybe every few months. Irregular? Blame those mighty ovaries for slacking on the job. They’re small; they’re mighty but also so important. Let’s look into some things you may not have known about your ovaries.
What do your ovaries do?
If you were to ask most people what ovaries did – the typical answer would be housing a woman’s eggs. It’s an OK answer but minimizes how much more they do in your body. Of course, ovaries have more jobs than just storage for eggs.
To start, your eggs are microscopic and filled with half of your DNA. They can also produce hormones. Ovaries create estrogen and progesterone in your body – which are both associated with your reproductive health. These hormones leave the ovaries and go for a joy ride through your body via the bloodstream. The transported hormones aren’t just for your reproductive system but also contribute to your bone, muscle, and brain development.
What about for pregnancy: Fertilizing your eggs with sperm, which contain half of a man’s DNA (and remember half of yours), will create an embryo. Each month, you produce (about) a dozen eggs that can develop, but only one (two if twins) matures. They leave the ovaries and go through your fallopian tube and into the uterus, where they may or may not meet with sperm.
How many eggs are in my ovaries?
At birth, your ovaries will contain one to two million eggs. By the time you’re reaching puberty, that number will be down to about 300,000, and at menopause, the last few will disappear.
This process is called apoptosis. Apoptosis is a natural process following your human ovary from birth until old age.
What could it mean when your ovaries hurt?
There are many reasons for ovary pain, but the first thing you should do if you’re in pain is called your OB-GYN or physician. Some other reasons your ovaries might be hurting are:
Most cysts that develop in your ovaries will be small and painless. Cysts are rarely precursors to cancer and will resolve themselves on their own. Some symptoms you may experience with a cyst are abdominal pain, feeling belly fullness, and irregular periods. You’ll be unaware of having one without symptoms. A yearly pelvic exam is an excellent way to track ovary health. Your OB-GYN should be doing it already but if not, make sure you’re advocating for it. Your ovaries will thank you for it.
PCOS (Polycystic ovary syndrome)
PCOS is a hormonal disorder common among women during their reproductive age. Symptoms of PCOS include acne, weight gain, irregular periods, and increased body hair growth. If you’re experiencing PCOS, you may have infrequent or prolonged menstrual periods.
Up to 20% of women will experience PCOS. PCOS is when your ovaries produce too many male sex hormones, which keeps follicles shut and leads to cysts forming.
Some find birth control to help manage PCOS. The exact cause of PCOS is unknown. Getting a diagnosis early is crucial to getting the proper treatment.
Each year, 20,000 women are diagnosed with ovarian cancer. The tumors from ovarian cancer are rarely detected early when they are easier to treat.
No standardized screening tests for ovarian cancer have been shown to improve diagnosis. If you are concerned about having ovarian cancer, discuss with your doctor the next steps and get a new pelvic test.
During your pelvic test, your doctor will:
- Check the outer part of your genitals.
- Put two gloved fingers into your vagina and push on your abdomen with the other hand. This test is to check your uterus and ovaries size.
- A speculum device will be put into your vagina to look for irregularities.
Your doctor may also run blood tests, imaging tests, biopsies, and genetic tests to check for ovarian cancer. Symptoms of ovarian cancer may be present, but in many cases, you won’t experience any.
Symptoms of ovarian cancer may include:
- Back or pelvic pain
- Feeling like or constant urination
- Loss of energy or appetite
What happens to your ovaries during menopause?
At a certain point in life, your ovaries will kick up their feet and enjoy a well-deserved vacation. The years leading up to this “vacation” will be a bit unpredictable for you. This period is called perimenopause. Perimenopause is the natural process of when your ovaries stop working. Your ovulation will become irregular and then suddenly stop. Perimenopause is caused by the constantly changing levels of hormones in the body.
As your ovaries age, they may not always be able to read the signal from your hormones that it’s time to release an egg. These missed readings result in more hormones being secreted, throwing your whole body’s balance off.
You may experience the following during this period:
- Varying periods
- Mood swings
- Sleep issues
- Hot flashes
Talk with your doctor about finding ways to help you control these symptoms.
How do you keep your ovaries healthy?
Some of the ways you can keep your ovaries healthy and happy include:
Getting an annual pelvic exam: Through this one exam, your doctor may be able to catch issues like cysts and tumors that are symptomless or not causing you physical issues.
Don’t smoke: Smoking lowers your fertility rate. If you smoke, quit smoking. Cigarette smoke chemicals can cause damage to your eggs. Again, if you smoke and are working towards fertility, stop smoking.
Maintaining a healthy weight: Keeping your hormones regulated starts with having a healthy weight. Some other benefits for you are regulating your period and easing PCOS symptoms.
Keeping up with your annual exams and planning your ovary health is a great way to expect the unexpected better. While your ovaries will eventually “retire,” you can be as prepared as possible for this moment. Your ovaries do a lot for being so small – maybe we will try to do the same for them!
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