Fertility is a complex area of female health and there are a lot of factors that affect your reproductive health. If you are trying to conceive a baby, there are a lot of important factors that you should be aware of. In this article, we’ll take a closer look into some of the basics of fertility that every woman should know, from hormones to ovulation cycles and much more. The more you know about your body and how it works, the better you will be able to increase your chances of conceiving.
How Do Hormones Affect Fertility?
The hormone levels within your body can have a significant effect on your fertility. Sometimes, factors in your daily life can throw your hormones out of whack which can affect your fertility. This can include stress, weight gain or loss or other environmental factors.
There are four main hormones that affect the menstrual cycle in women. All of these hormones must be present within the body in specific levels for ovulation to occur. If the levels of these female reproductive hormones are too high or too low, this will negatively affect fertility.
If you are experiencing fertility problems, your doctor might investigate by drawing blood and checking your hormone levels. This will often be done on Day 2 or 3 of the menstrual cycle1.
The Hormones that Affect Female Fertility
- Follicle Stimulating Hormone (FSH) – If you have levels of this hormone that are excessively high on day 2 or 3 of the menstrual cycle, this will indicate a diminished egg reserve, premature ovarian failure or poor egg quality.
- Luteinizing Hormone (LH) – This hormone helps with maturing the egg. Also, it is responsible for causing the egg’s release from the ovaries. Women who suffer from PCOS often experience issues with their luteinizing hormone levels.
- Estradiol – This hormone is the main form that estrogen takes in the body. If you have low levels of estradiol, this might indicate menopause or ovarian failure. If your levels are high, this can indicate a lot number of eggs or an ovarian cyst.
- Progesterone – The hormone progesterone works to sustain a pregnancy. The levels of this hormone should be low during the beginning of the menstrual cycle and then they should be high after ovulation. If the levels are low they can cause a lot of difficulties with implantation.
These are the hormones that will affect female fertility and will have an impact on your odds of conceiving a baby. These hormones need to be present in the body within the right levels in order to for ovulation to occur and the egg to be released.
How Does the Ovulation Cycle Work?
Men produce new sperm every day all throughout their lifetime, but women are born with all of the potential eggs they will ever have already stored in their ovaries. When you are born you have 1-2 million eggs, but only a small fraction of these will be released during your lifetime.
Your reserve of eggs will decline over time, with each menstrual cycle you have at least one egg ripens and is released. If the egg is fertilised by sperm when it is released during ovulation, it will bed down in the uterus and start to develop into a baby. If fertilisation does not happen, the egg is flushed out along with the lining of the uterus during your period.
Usually a menstrual cycle will last for around 28-29 days, which is counting from the first day of your period to the day before the next period starts. However, this is just an average. Some women’s cycles can be as short as 22 days or as long as 36 days.
One general rule to predict your ovulating day is to subtract 14 days from your cycle. So say your cycle is 30 days, your ovulation day should be on the 16th day (30 days – 14 days)2. But bear in mind this is applicable only if your period and cycle is consistent; it wouldn’t work if you have irregular period or cycles. You can use our ovulation calculator.
How Do I Know When I am Ovulating?
You can only conceive during ovulation, which is a small window of opportunity every month during which the egg is viable. The egg is available for only around 12-24 hours, but sperm are able to live within your body for anywhere from three to six days. So, this means that even if you have sex a few days before you ovulate there will still be sperm within the body to greet the egg when it emerges. So taking the above calculated ovulation day as an example the perfect day to have sex would be on the 14th or 15th day.
So how else can you tell when you are ovulating? Here are some tips to help you figure it out:
- Keep a calendar of your cycle so that you can get an idea of how long your cycle is and how many days there are between each period. Then, you will be able estimate based on the data from the average cycle.
- Count the day that you start your menstrual period as Day 1. Around Day 14 the average woman ovulates and releases an egg. That egg will be viable for 24 hours, which is when you have the highest chance of conception. However, not every woman is the same and some don’t ovulate on Day 14. Some ovulate earlier, some later, and sometimes it can vary from month to month.
- Listen to the signs of your body. 20% of women say that they experience a series of cramps or a twinge of pain in their lower abdomen when they are ovulating. This is thought to be caused by the release of the egg and it is called “Mitterschmerz” which is German for “middle pain”3.
- Keep track of your basal body temperature with a basal body thermometer. This temperature will change throughout your cycle as your hormone levels fluctuate. During the second half of the cycle, you get a surge of progesterone. This will increase your body temperature and get your uterus ready to take care of the fertilised and implanted egg. This means that your temperature is lower in the first half of the month and higher in the second half.
- Check out your cervix. When your body senses the hormone shifts before an egg is released, the starts to ready itself to receive sperm. One sign of this is that the cervix, the passage between your uterus and vagina, actually changes position. During the beginning of your cycle it will be low, hard and closed. As ovulation approaches it will soften, pull back and open up so that the sperm can more easily reach the target. You can check your cervix using one or two fingers and see if you can feel the difference.
- Look at your discharge. If you find that it has increased in quantity and become clear, stretchy and sticky (refer to picture below) this is a good sign that your body is preparing to conceive a baby.
- There are even ovulation prediction kits that you can use which will be able to pinpoint your date of ovulation 12 to 24 hours in advance. All you need to do is pee on the stick and the kit will tell you whether or not you are about to ovulate.
- There are also tests that you can use that will measure the levels of estrogen in your saliva.
- Some tests will also detect the types of salts in your sweat, which change during different times of the month. Of course, remember that these devices will not guarantee that you will get pregnant – they can only indicate when you might be ovulating.
These are just a few of the ways that you can figure out when you are ovulating. When the time is right and you know that you are in that fertile window, make sure that you and your partner are having sex at least every couple of days.
What is Corpus Luteum?
The name “Corpus Luteum” means “yellow body” in the Latin language and it is a temporary endocrine structure made from what is left of the follicle after you ovulate. In a woman’s cycle, during the follicular phase, several follicles develop under the influence of follicle stimulating hormone. Each of these unique follicles contains an egg.
In the typical cycle, there will only be a single egg that will become mature enough for ovulation. During ovulation, the egg will burst out from the follicle and what is left of that follicle will become the corpus luteum. The luteal phase is what begins after ovulation and is the second half of the woman’s menstrual cycle.
The corpus luteum is responsible for producing progesterone, which makes the lining of the uterus thick and healthy so that it can sustain a pregnancy. The corpus luteum will produce progesterone until the placenta begins to take over the production of this hormone when the fetus us around 10 weeks old.
What is Infertility?
The medical definition of infertility means that you have been having regular unprotected sex for a year and you have not gotten pregnant. In this situation it might be the female or male partner that has a fertility problem. In approximately 20% of infertile couples, both of the partners have fertility problems. In women who are over 35 years old, infertility means not becoming pregnant after six months of unprotected, regular sex.
There is a difference between being infertile and being sterile. If you are sterile that means that you are unable to have a child, ever. If you are infertile there is still the possibility that you could have a child, either on your own or with medical help.
One of the common reasons for infertility in women is that she is just not ovulating. This means that her ovary will not be releasing eggs. This can sometimes be caused by Polycystic Ovary Syndrome. Also, there can be problems with the fallopian tubes which can cause infertility. Sometimes these tubes can be blocked by scar tissue from an infection or by a condition called endometriosis.
Smoking is a risk factor and it can decrease fertility in women. It can also increase the risk of ectopic pregnancy. Age can also be a factor. In women, fertility decreases with age – especially after the age of 35. It is rare for a woman to be able to conceive a baby after the age of 45. Also, being underweight or overweight can play a role in fertility.
In approximately 15-30% of couples, no cause can be found for the infertility even after all of the tests have been done. This is called unexplained fertility4.
If you and your partner are trying to get pregnant, it is a good idea to see a doctor first. During your doctor’s visit you will be able to explore whether or not there are any problems that could be treated in order to improve fertility and raise your chances of getting pregnant.
What About Fertility Issues in Men?
If a couple is struggling with conceiving a baby, it isn’t always due to problems with the female. The man could be having issues as well. In men, the most common reason for infertility is a problem with the sperm. This includes a low sperm count, or low sperm motility – which means that the sperm don’t move as well as they should. Also, there can be problems with blocked sperm ducts and abnormally formed sperm.
Sometimes there can be a temporary drop in sperm production, which will happen when the testicles are seriously injured or been exposed to a temperature that is too high. Also, this can happen when the man has been exposed to drugs or chemicals that are harmful to sperm production. Also, smoking and drinking excessive amounts of alcohol will lower the sperm count. Age is also a factor in men as well – men who are over the age of 40 have lower fertility. You can read up this article on how your partner can increase his fertility.
Fertility is a very complicated thing! There are a lot of factors that are involved in conceiving a baby – from ovulation to the health of the sperm to the timing of the conception and so much more. Certain health issues, from PCOS to obesity, can affect the ability to conceive or carry a baby safety to term.
If you are planning to start your family, make sure that you understand the basics of fertility and how they affect you. If you have any health issues or questions, don’t hesitate to ask your doctor for help.
- BabyMed. Cycle Day 3 Testing. http://www.babymed.com/fertility-problems/cycle-day-3-fertility-testing (Accessed April 2016) ↩
- TheBabyCorner. Does Ovulation Only Happen on Day 14?. http://www.thebabycorner.com/page/2710/ (Accessed April 2016) ↩
- everyday Health. Ovulation Pain: When Cramps Come in the Middle of Your Cycle. http://www.everydayhealth.com/pms/ovulation-pain.aspx (Accessed April 2016) ↩
- Fertil Steril. Effectiveness and treatment for unexplained infertility. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/17055802/ (Accessed April 2016) ↩