Every woman is born with an organ essential to fertility - her ovaries. We all hear about these two organs located deep inside our bodies, but how much do we actually know about them? This article will give you a brief overview of what your ovaries actually do for you and how you can keep them healthy and happy.
What are the Ovaries?
The ovaries are an essential part of a woman's reproductive system. Together with the uterus, fallopian tubes, and vagina, the ovaries allow a woman to become pregnant. They are also responsible for giving a woman all of her secondary sex characteristics - in short, your ovaries are what make you look like a woman.
Your ovaries are two almond-shaped glands that are located just underneath the ends of your fallopian tubes. You have one ovary on either side of your uterus. Your ovaries are very small - in fact they are only about one and a half inches long - and are pinkish-grey in color. Each ovary is connected to the end of your fallopian tubes, connecting them with the rest of your reproductive system.
Ovaries and Ovulation
When you think about your ovaries, you probably immediately associate them with ovulation and reproduction. Well, you are right to make this connection. Your ovaries actually store and release your eggs (also called ova). When fertilized, these eggs develop into your baby. When you are born your ovaries actually contain about one million follicles, each housing an unripened, immature egg. By the time you begin menstruating, you have about 400 000 follicles available for use.
Every month, either your left or right ovary releases an egg to be fertilized. This process is called ovulation, and it is actually part of your menstrual cycle. About 2 weeks before you are due to menstruate, 10 to 20 eggs will begin to ripen inside their follicles. Only one of these eggs will actually be released from their follicle and leave the ovary. It will then begin to travel down the fallopian tube towards the uterus. If fertilized, this egg will develop into an embryo.
Hormones and Your Ovaries
Your ovaries don't just store your eggs, they are also responsible for releasing them. Throughout your cycle, your ovaries release female sex hormones including:
In order to begin the ovulation process, your ovaries begin producing less estrogen. This drop in estrogen signals your brain to release a special hormone, called gonadatropin-releasing hormone (GnRH). The release of GnRH, in turn, triggers the production of follicle-stimulating hormone (FSH), which actually gets your eggs maturing. So, without your ovaries' hormone production, you wouldn't have any eggs to release.
Secondary Sex Characteristics and Your Ovaries
Your ovaries aren't just responsible for making sure your eggs are released on a monthly basis. You ovaries also help to develop your secondary sex characteristics, including:
- body hair
- body fat in buttocks, thighs, waist
The hormones in your ovaries, including estrogen and progesterone, actually contribute to your breast size and shape, the tone of your voice, and other things that make you a woman. If you didn't have enough of these hormones, or if you didn't have your ovaries, some of these sex characteristics would begin to fade.
Ovaries and Age
Your ovaries are just like the rest of your body - they will eventually age. The size of the ovary begins to decline as you grow older and their function will also begin to change. The eggs inside your ovaries will become older and more difficult to fertilize. This is because egg quality declines as you age. You will also have fewer eggs available in your ovarian store. As you near menopause, your ovaries will also begin to produce less and less of the female sex hormones. This will eventually cause you to stop ovulating, and you will be unable to have any more children.
Just like any part of your body, your ovaries are susceptible to disease and disorders. These illnesses can often impair the production and hormones and inhibit ovulation, leading to infertility. Ovary problems to watch out for include:
- ovarian cysts
- polycystic ovarian syndrome (PCOS)
- ovarian cancer
Keeping Your Ovaries Healthy
It is important to take care of your ovaries in order to keep them healthy and happy. Here are some tips on what you can do to stay on top of your ovarian health:
- Have a pelvic exam every year. Your doctor can make sure that you do not have any abnormal growths or pain in your ovaries during an exam. This can help to catch any disease in its early stages.
- Quit smoking. Smoking has been linked to all types of cancer, including ovarian cancer.
- Eat healthy. Avoid highly processed foods whenever possible and focus on eating lots of fruits and vegetables. This will keep your system healthy and more able to fight off disease.
- Learn about ovarian diseases. Know the signs and symptoms of ovarian illness so that you can report it to your health care provider right away.
- Find out about your family history. Ovarian cancer tends to run in families, so ask relatives on both your mother and father's side if they have had it.