What is ovulation?

The menstrual cycle has four phases: menstruation, the follicular phase, ovulation and the luteal phase.

Out of the 4, it would be fairly safe to say that ovulation is the most important, because it actually sets the tone for all the others by directly impacting them.

So what is ovulation?

In a natural cycle, we start the month with a certain number of mini follicles (antrals). The number depends on the age of the woman, her ovarian reserve and her reproductive health. Out of these follicles, only one will dominate, grow and get ripe. This lead follicle will ovulate at one point, under the influence of your hormones, sometime around the middle of the cycle.

Once the follicle bursts, the egg that comes out will travel down the fallopian tubes, where, if it meets viable sperm, may get fertilized.

Based on the day of ovulation and the level of hormones produced after that by the Corpus Luteum, a woman’s lutel phase may be longer or shorter, influencing the due date of the next menstruation.

When does ovulation occur?

Many women assume that ovulation occurs precisely in the middle of the cycle, on cycle day 14. In truth, this is just an average, and science shows us that since a “normal” cycle may last anywhere between 21 and 35 days, the ovulation day will “move” based on the length of the cycle. Hence the importance of actually tracking ovulation especially if you are trying to conceive.

It might sound weird, but as per one of the biggest meta studies observing ovulation tracking, one of the most common causes of infertilty in young health couples was mistimed intercourse.

The egg is only viable for fertilization for 12 to 24 hours following its release from the follicle. If there is no sperm available to fertilize it during this time span, the egg will dissintegrate and pregnancy will not occur.

So, can we actually pinpoint ovulation? We can’t, really, which is important to know a few facts:

-the egg has a (very) limited life span

-healthy sperm can live in a woman’s reproductive tract for up to 5 days

-ovulation usually occurs between 12-36 h after a first positive ovulation test

Based on all of the above, doctors consider that women have their best chance at getting pregnant in a period of 4 days before and 1 day after the actuall release of the egg. These 5 days timespan is called “the fertile window

How to identify the fertile window?

For women who have very regular cycles and/or who have the habit of tracking their cycles, the solution is quite easy: estimate the next ovulation date and count 6 days backwards. Never rely just on the calendar, or on digital apps based on calendars, because even if ovulation is an event that should occur each month, anovulatory cycles are actually quite common, even in health fertile women who do not have any ovulatory issues.

Checking your LH surge gives you a much better and more accurate view.

You may do that using the usual ovulation strips, and test your LH levels in urine. When the second line starts getting darker and more visible, it’s a sign LH is going up, in order to help the follicle burst.

Do not wait until the test turns positive and you get two identical lines, because it might be too late! Remember that the egg’s life is very short lived, and also you want the sperm waiting for the egg, not the other way around.

If LH testing is not your thing, you might want to rely on the world’s oldest method of tracking ovulation: cervical mucus. Under the influence of hormones, cervical mucus changes color and conistency throughout the cycle. What we call “the fertile” discharge is one with the look and consistency of egg-white: clear, transparent, stretchy between two fingers.

Last but not least, women who have PCOS tend to have high LH throughout the cycle, or several peaks before the actual ovulation occurs. For them, LH testing might not be acurate and cervical mucus tracking might offer a better option.

What does an ovulation test mean?

As the follicles grow and mature, they release estrogen. Once a certain level of estrogen is reached, this sends a message to the brain that the egg is ripe. In turn, we get a surge of LH to help with the final maturation and the release of the egg.

An LH test is going to help you predict ovulation. And while it’s true that this is a very helpful tool, be mindful of the fact that it’s only a predictive one!

As mentioned previously, it may happen you have constantly high LH in your body, or have several peaks of LH in a cycle, or simply that your body gears up to ovulate, under the infleunce of high LH, but can’t.

An ovulation test is a good indicator, but is in no way a confirmation that an actual egg has been released.

In order to confirm ovulation actually occurred, you would need to measure Progesterone-the hormone that goes up in the second part of the cycle.

You can do this either at home, with the help of PdG tests, or by measuring serum progesterone in a lab.

Another way to confirm ovulation is basal temperature tracking, although the downside is the fact that it’s quite influenced by external factors and needs a very strict discipline, with testing daily, at the same time, in order to detect a pattern.

Ovulation is a very important process in the life of every woman of childbearing age. It can help you conceive, but it is very important to remember that its importance goes beyond baby-making. Ovulation is a sign of hormonal balance, and it’s essential to track it even if it is just to make sure your body is on track and you are in good hormonal health.