Female Reproductive System
All women know the basics about their menstrual cycle – through experience or hearsay. But properly understanding just what happens in your body can give you insight as to just how delicate and sensitive your reproductive system really is. Understanding your system will help taking optimum care to ensure good reproductive health.
- Ovaries: There are 2 ovaries, one of each side of the uterus. This is the site of egg production. They contain follicles that house immature eggs. Each month, roughly 20 follicles are activated and begin developing an egg. Usually, only 1 egg will get released. The ovaries are also responsible for producing estrogen and progesterone, two important hormones necessary for normal reproductive function.
- Fallopian Tubes: One end of the fallopian tubes hovers just over the ovaries. It has 20-25 finger-like structures that help collect the mature egg into the fallopian tube each month. They act as a passageway for the mature egg to travel. They are also the site of fertilization. After an egg is fertilized, it continues on to the uterus and implants itself.
- Uterus: This is the part that acts as a home to your baby for 9 months. It is a muscular organ made up of three layers: the outer, middle and inner layer. The inner layer thickens every month in preparation for a fertilized egg. The cervix begins at the bottom, while the fallopian tubes are positioned near the top of the uterus, one on each side.
- Cervix: is also referred to as the "neck" of the uterus. It is a passageway that is positioned between the vagina and the uterus.
- Vagina: This part of your body connects the external genitals with the internal reproductive organs. It acts as the point of entry for the sperm, and as an exit when a child is born or during menstruation.
- External Genitals: This is made up of the tissue surrounding the vaginal and uterine opening, called the labia minor (the inner, hairless folds, closest to the body), the labia major (the outer folds which often have hair and sit on top of the labia minor) and the clitoris.
- Oestrogen: The key function of oestrogen is to encourage the thickening of the inner layer of the uterus every month. It also helps the follicles that will not produce an egg during the monthly cycle to disappear.
- Progesterone: Produced by the remaining follicle from which a mature egg has been released, progesterone is responsible for making the inner layer of the uterus more receptive to implantation by a fertilized egg. At the same time, it prevents further growth by the follicles.
- Follicle Stimulating Hormone (FSH) and Lutenizing Hormone (LH): These hormones help to stimulate the follicles, causing egg production as well as oestrogen production.
YOUR MENSTRUAL CYCLE
The reproductive years begin with the onset of menstruation during puberty and end when you enter menopause around age 45 or 50. A normal menstrual cycle can last for 25 to 34 days and have three to five days of bleeding. However, when discussing menstrual cycles, a 28-day cycle is the standard most professionals use.
- The first day of your menstrual cycle begins on Day 1 of your period (menstruation). The period usually lasts for 3-7 days.
- This is followed by preparation of the next cycle. The lining of the uterus begins to thicken and ovaries producing hormones for ovulation
- Ovulation occurs mid-way through the cycle ie. around Day 11-15. This is the stage when ovaries release one mature egg. This is also known as the unsafe period of the cycle and chances of pregnancy are highest during this time.
- If fertilization does not take place, the egg moves down the fallopian tubes into the uterus. The corpus luteum (follicles that released the mature egg) also starts to fade away in the ovaries. Hormones are produced to initiate shedding the thickened wall of the uterus.
- Between Day 26-28, the thickened inner layer of the uterus begins to detach itself and prepares for menstruation ie. beginning the next cycle.
Lifestyle and Health
In your busy lifestyle and daily routines, you tend to forget one of the most important aspects of being a woman ie. good reproductive health. The ripple effects of neglect on your system can sometimes lead to long-term health issues, which may take years to cure. Imbalanced hormonal cycles also have an effect on your mind, your moods and the way you see the world around you. Promoting good reproductive health and habits from an early age itself keeps you fit and balanced. It can also help you make a smoother transition into motherhood, when you are ready. This will also ensure that you can give the utmost care and safety to your foetus, providing a strong foundation for its life ahead.
Maintaining the delicate balance of hormonal cycles and good physical health is much easier than it sounds. Here are a few tips that can help you.
SHAPING UP AND GETTING HEALTHY
Staying healthy is always important for your general well-being. One of the major causes of infertility is poor health. And this encompasses everything, from your diet to your general lifestyle.
- The first step to good reproductive health is by eating a healthy, well-balanced diet. Eating a diet that includes fruits, vegetables, and low-fat dairy and protein products will not only help you feel better and give your more energy, but it will also provide you with the nutrients you need to keep your body, and your reproductive system, functioning properly. Cut down intake of fast foods and processed food as they offer little nutritional value and are loaded with fat and empty calories.
- Exercising regularly can help you maintain your weight, feel better about yourself and boost your body’s normal functions. Cardiovascular exercise can also help get your blood circulating, which in turn gets the blood flowing through your reproductive system, encouraging regular ovulation and normal hormone levels.
- Building muscle helps tone your body and increase your bone density and that will come in handy later in life by preventing osteoporosis. Having too much weight can also hinder your reproductive system from functioning normally and alter hormonal levels. But be careful not to overdo it. Exercising too much can lead to excess weight loss, which in turn can lead to amenorrhea ie. lack of menstruation.
IS YOUR PERIOD REGULAR?
The menstrual cycle is generally considered to be a marker of female health. Women who have irregular periods or no period at all should take this as a sign that all is not well. However, the reasons for an abnormal menstrual cycle can vary eg. lifestyle issues, inadequate rest, diet, lack of exercise, side effects of medication, change in hormonal cycles etc.
Increasing age and changing life stage do have an effect on menstruation, and it is also natural to see changes in your cycle as you mature. The key is to pick up these signs that your body is giving you, and change incorrect practices in your lifestyle that may be causing these changes. It is also recommended to seek help from a medical practitioner, if this is a chronic problem.
Stress takes its toll on everyone at one point or another in life. Regardless of what a person does for a living, where they live, how old or young they are or whether they are male or female, situations that generate stress happen.
Reducing stress can help immensely in stabilizing hormonal cycles, which in turn will facilitate regaining more natural and normal functions.
- Simple relaxation techniques that can be useful are yoga, meditation, light walks in the park or even listening to your favourite music.
- Managing work-life balance or sharing jobs with family members and colleagues can also help you clear up your cluttered routine and break down stress cycles.
- Another good way to manage stress is by rejuvenating a hobby. Take some time off every week, calling it “me-time” and dedicate it to your hobby – the further away it is from your regular work, the better. It may be art, music, dance, gardening or any other interest – this can be a very good way to absorb your mind into a creative exercise and also ease off the stress from the entire week.
At ovulation, a woman is at the peak of her fertility and chances of pregnancy increase significantly. Hence, understanding your monthly cycles can give you very important cues and the power to plan better. So if you are planning to have a baby, figuring out when ovulation will occur would tell you when you should have conception sex, to increase your chances of getting pregnant. Conversely, if you do not want to get pregnant right now, this is the time when you need to be careful and avoid unprotected sex. After a few months of charting, a pattern should emerge, helping you to predict ovulation in the coming cycle.
The simplest method of predicting ovulation is by counting the days of your cycle. For starters, mark the 1st day of your menstrual period on a calendar and begin tracking exactly when do you get your next period.
An average cycle lasts 28 days, though it varies between 25-35 days. Ovulation tends to occur mid-cycle, or anywhere between 12-18 days within a 28-day cycle. This is usually marked as the “unsafe” period. Since ovulation is your most fertile time, you have the best chance of becoming pregnant during the time span in which ovulation is predicted.
BASAL BODY TEMERATURE
Another sign that ovulation is occurring is a very slight increase in body temperature. Ovulation brings with it an increase in body temperature of somewhere between 0.5-1.6 degrees. The increase is too slight to be sensed as a fever, but is a good predictor of ovulation. Taking your basal body temperature (resting body temperature) first thing in the morning when you wake up, will help you know when ovulation occurs during your cycle. You can measure your daily temperature to spot this slight rise.
CHANGES IN DISCHARGES
As hormone levels change in your body, the mucus discharges also change throughout the month. So in addition to counting, you can also note changes in the texture, appearance, and amount of your cervical mucus.
At the beginning of your cycle, it will be dry but will become thicker and sticky with a cloudy appearance as your cycle advances. About the time of ovulation, your cervical mucus will appear thin, watery and elastic.
Technology has given us the option of predicting ovulation with the help of ovulation prediction kits. These kits contain ovulation strips that help you detect the presence of certain hormones in your urine that are produced during ovulation. Not all of them are created equal, however. When the test indicates the surge has taken place, then you can expect to ovulate in 24 to 48 hours. You can also recommend your physician for further information on these kits.