Ovulation is a miraculous process. The human body is a remarkable, well-oiled machine made ever more fascinating by menstrual physiology and the female reproductive tract. In the prior article I wrote, I discussed menstrual cycles and attempted to dispel some myths and misconceptions on the subject. Here, I would like to delve a bit further, and shed some light on the physiological signs and symptoms most women experience, and can observe and chart, in order to understand more about the process of ovulation.
Ovulation Physiological signs and symptoms
In what is called the Sympto-Thermal method of fertility awareness, a focus on three important cyclical changes is emphasized. These changes signal the pre-ovulatory, ovulatory, and post-ovulatory phases of the menstrual cycle. They are basal body temperature, changes in cervical mucus, and changes in the cervical opening (os), itself. Learning to observe and track these changes can help inform a woman about the time frame during which she may (or may not) be ovulating.
Basal body temperature is the body’s temperature at rest. This generally means upon wakening, after 6 to 8 hours of sleep. Early in the menstrual cycle, during the days of bleeding and for a period of time after the bleeding ends, the basal body temperature will be low, generally in the 96.7 to 97.6 range. At this point in the cycle, estrogen is the predominant hormone in control.
It keeps the body temperature cool in order to make the female reproductive tract a favorable environment for sperm, should they be introduced. Remember, as a species, our bodies are designed to reproduce in order to survive. This is a process that happens naturally without us having to think much about it at all.
Sperm do not thrive under high temperatures, and so, as a woman nears ovulation, which is when eggs are released from the ovaries, her body sets up for conception, fertilization of the egg by sperm, whether or not it happens. The basal body temperature will remain low during ovulation and for a short time thereafter.
Once ovulation has occurred, the basal body temperature will rise, spike and stay high for two reasons. One reason is to keep a potentially fertilized egg warm, as if in an incubator. The other is to change the reproductive tract environment from favorable to unfavorable for supporting sperm life.
If the egg and sperm have met, and an egg has been fertilized, the body will do what it can to keep additional sperm out of the uterus and away from the implanted embryo. These temperature ranges will be between 97.7 and 98.6. They are very subtle but very detectable. Progesterone is the hormone in control now. Progesterone protects pregnancy. It causes a heat reaction.
Ovulation Creates Cervical Mucous
The female body will also produce a cervical “mucous” that will change dramatically in consistency throughout the cycle, similarly designed to support sperm life leading up to and during ovulation and to repel sperm afterward. After the bleeding ends, one can observe a sort of vaginal discharge that will gradually take on a creamy, whitish quality. It will look a bit like white hand cream and will form peaks if touched between the thumb and index finger. This is a type of mucous that is designed to prepare the reproductive environment (vagina, cervix, and uterus) for sperm, and begins to create a favorable setting in which they can travel.
As ovulation nears and then occurs, cervical mucous will take on a different consistency. It will be clear, slippery to the touch, and will stretch between the thumb and index finger, much like egg white might look. This mucous is very supportive of sperm life. If sperm are introduced into the reproductive tract while this mucous is present, chances are they will find their way to the egg and fertilize it.
After ovulation, the mucous changes again. It takes on a viscous (sticky and thick) quality that is dry when touched between the thumb and index finger. It could be white, or even yellowish. This mucous acts as a natural spermicide. If an egg has been fertilized and is traveling to or already implanted in the uterine wall, the body will do what it can to keep sperm, or anything foreign for that matter, out of the uterus. This change in mucous signals the post-ovulatory phase of the cycle.
Ovulation and the Cervix
The cervical os, or opening, will take on changes as well, during the pre-ovulatory, ovulatory, and post-ovulatory phases. After the bleeding ends, the cervix will begin to slowly ascend in position. It is open during menstruation in order to allow blood and endometrial tissue to leave the body. As the days pass leading up to ovulation, it will ascend, and continue to open. Much like a superhighway, the cervix will eventually be very high, very soft, and very open in order to facilitate sperm travel. It will descend, close, and become firm after ovulation.
Gauging the position of the cervix involves using a finger, gently inserted into the vagina, to actually touch and assess it. This takes a bit of practice, as the various positions – high, soft, open vs low, firm, and closed – can only be detected upon comparison with one another. In other words, one would not know “soft” until one felt “firm.” One would not know “high” until one felt “low.”
Nonetheless, like the other symptoms we have discussed, the cervix gives access to sperm before and during ovulation by opening a clear path to the reproductive tract and then closing that access off after ovulation. If fertilization has occurred, sperm are no longer needed. In fact, they pose a certain risk to the newly implanted embryo, and so the body sets up to keep them out.
In conclusion, taking note of the signs and symptoms of ovulation can provide fascinating insights as to if, when, and how often a woman ovulates. Whether to plan or prevent pregnancy, understanding this process, how and why it happens, provides a powerful tool for women to take control of their reproductive health, gain knowledge, and further their awareness.