Reproductive health, a healthy menstrual cycle and normal ovulatory function all rely on achieving and maintaining a fine balance between your hormones. When your hormones are out of whack or imbalanced, each of these functions suffers or is compromised as a result. While there are various different hormones playing crucial roles in ovulation and reproductive function, let’s focus on three of the main “female” hormones required for healthy ovulation: oestrogen, progesterone and testosterone.
Why is ovulation important?
Before we get into the specifics of each hormone and its role in ovulation, it’s important to discuss why ovulation is so essential for your health and fertility. In understanding this fertile window of your menstrual cycle, you’ll know how best to improve your chances of conceiving a baby or preventing conception, now or in the future.
Ovulation occurs midway through your menstrual cycle, at around day 14 for anyone experiencing a standard 28-day cycle. If your cycle is longer or shorter than this 28 days, the day on which you ovulate will vary accordingly. At the time of ovulation, your production of oestrogen increases, triggering the release of another hormone called gonadotropin-releasing hormone, or GnRH. This surge in GnRH tells your body to increase production of lutenising hormone (LH) and follicle-stimulating hormone (FSH), both of which work together to trigger ovulation within 2 days. When ovulation takes place, a mature follicle or egg is released from your ovary, and travels to the fallopian tube to prepare for fertilisation.
Ovulation accounts for a tiny portion of the menstrual cycle, with the egg surviving for just 24 hours once it’s released from your ovary and making its way to the fallopian tube. That means those 24 hours are the crucial window for conception if you’re wanting to try for a baby, as any time beyond this point there will be no viable egg to fertilise. However it’s important to note that, while this is the “fertile window” during your cycle, sperm can survive in the fallopian tube for up to 5 days. So if sperm is present already when ovulation occurs and the egg is released, conception is still possible.
In essence, ovulation is a critical part of your menstrual cycle, as it’s the one time you’re releasing a viable egg ready to be fertilised into an embryo and implanted to begin pregnancy. And to ensure ovulation occurs as it should, at the same point of your cycle each month, you need to understand the three key hormones facilitating ovulation, and how you can support their healthy production and balance.
Ovulation plays a vital role in your health beyond fertility too. It’s actually considered a good marker of your health status, as it can highlight any issues with your menstrual cycle, and even indicate the presence of certain illnesses or health conditions. If you’re ovulating at the same point in your cycle each month, this is a good sign that your hormones are balanced, your menstrual cycle is regular, and your body is receiving the energy and nourishment it needs for optimal health.
Oestrogen is a female sex hormone, which plays an important role in the menstrual cycle and ovulation. Given your menstrual cycle relies on a delicate balance of hormones, oestrogen plays a big role in regulating this balance and facilitating healthy ovulation within each cycle.
Oestrogen plays a significant part in preparing your uterus for pregnancy, making it a healthy environment for an embryo to implant if an egg is fertilised during ovulation. It also helps trigger ovulation at the correct point in your cycle each month.
This hormone has many functions beyond reproductive health too. It helps regulate your brain and body temperature, enhances libido and memory function, supports skin health and bone strength/density, and helps keep your heart healthy too, protecting against conditions such as stroke or blood clots.
If your oestrogen production is too low, your body can’t create a healthy environment for an egg to become fertilised and implant in your uterus, potentially impairing your fertility. It also means your body won’t trigger ovulation as normal, so your menstrual cycle is likely to be disrupted as a result too. Low oestrogen can also cause issues with sexual function and development, and potentially increase your risk of obesity, osteoporosis, and some metabolic diseases.
On the other hand, if you’re producing too much oestrogen, you may experience irregular periods, mood fluctuations or anxiety, weight changes, fatigue or trouble sleeping, and worsened PMS symptoms. Oestrogen excess can also impact your other sex hormones, causing low levels of testosterone and progesterone and throwing your hormonal balance off.
Progesterone plays various roles in facilitating ovulation and can be thought of as the hormone which “balances out” oestrogen production. If you’re not producing enough progesterone, oestrogen will become dominant, leading to a hormonal imbalance and often triggering symptoms such as irregular periods, breast tenderness, mood changes and low libido. Progesterone has a really important role in regulating your menstrual cycle, and therefore ovulation.
Interestingly, progesterone’s role in regulating the production of other sex hormones is extremely important. While progesterone keeps oestrogen production balanced, it also helps to produce testosterone – another sex hormone involved in healthy ovulation.
Like oestrogen, progesterone helps to prepare your uterus to support the implantation of an embryo, in the event that fertilisation occurs. It also facilitates the growth of blood vessels in your uterine lining, which go on to provide an embryo with the nutrients and oxygen it needs for implantation and growth if conception occurs. Essentially, progesterone helps your uterus and body prepare the perfect conditions for healthy ovulation to occur, and implantation in the event of fertilisation.
Again, progesterone has many functions beyond reproductive health. It regulates mood and nervous system function, supports cognitive or brain health and sleep, and helps protect against health conditions including endometrial cancer.
If you’re not producing enough progesterone, you may experience symptoms including irregular periods or changes in your regular cycle length, difficulty conceiving, mood changes or anxiety, difficulty sleeping and hot flashes.
High levels of progesterone don’t often have extremely negative health consequences, however, it can be a signal of ovarian or adrenal cancer in very rare circumstances.
While testosterone is considered an androgen or “male hormone”, it actually plays a crucial role in female health and ovulation too. While women produce less of this hormone than men, it is required for regulating the menstrual cycle and promoting ovulation.
Testosterone is important for a woman’s libido and sexual function, and is required to ensure proper development of an egg each month – which is essential to allow ovulation to occur.
Testosterone also helps to regulate the levels of other important reproductive hormones including LH and FSH, the hormones which trigger ovulation. So testosterone is important to ensure ovulation occurs regularly and consistently and at the right stage of your cycle.
However, excessive production of testosterone can cause menstrual cycle irregularities or even infertility. For example, women who experience polycystic ovarian syndrome (PCOS) typically have high levels of testosterone, causing irregular menstrual cycles and fertility complications, as well as symptoms like unwanted hair growth, weight changes, acne and potential insulin resistance.
Evidently, as with the other primary sex hormones, you need testosterone in just the right amount to facilitate healthy ovulation, reproductive health and menstrual cycles.
LH and FSH
Lutenising hormone (LH) and follicle-stimulating hormone (FSH) support the actions of the three key hormones above, and are essential for reproductive health. FSH causes an egg to begin maturing in the ovary each month, and triggers the production of oestrogen. Meanwhile, LH is produced once oestrogen levels peak, triggering ovulation and progesterone production. Essentially, these two hormones regulate your major sex hormones to maintain a healthy menstrual cycle and reproductive health.
How can you support the healthy production of these hormones?
While some health conditions will interfere with healthy hormone production and secretion, there are various strategies you can implement to optimise your health and achieve optimal production of oestrogen, progesterone and testosterone. These include the following:
1 – Eat a balanced and healthy diet.
Your dietary choices can have an enormous impact on your hormone health and balance. Simple swaps such as reducing your intake of refined sugars and carbs, and trans fats, and increasing your intake of whole foods rich in fibre and healthy fats can have huge benefits for your hormones, and help to support healthy ovulation.
Healthy fats, in particular, are crucial for hormone production. Poly- or mono-unsaturated fats and omega-3 fatty acids, found in foods like oily fish, olive oil, nuts and seeds, are the building blocks for healthy hormone production, facilitating hormonal balance between your reproductive hormones required for ovulation. If you’re not getting enough healthy fats in your diet, your body will decrease production of oestrogen, progesterone and testosterone, while getting enough good-quality fats in your diet has been shown to promote hormone health and balance, and reduce risk of ovulatory dysfunction.
On the other hand, eating excessive refined sugars and carbs can increase inflammation in your body and cause spikes in insulin, which can disrupt testosterone production and hormone health. Instead, opt for whole foods where possible, and aim for a diet rich in a diverse range of lean proteins, healthy fats, fibre, vegetables, fruit and whole grains to optimise your hormone health.
2 – Make sure you are getting adequate, high-quality sleep.
Sleep is essential for allowing your body to produce the right amount of oestrogen (and other hormones) needed to optimise reproductive function and facilitate ovulation. Aim for 7-9 hours each night, implementing a nighttime routine at the same time each evening to signal to your body and mind that it’s time to wind down. Try to avoid devices and lights at least an hour before bed, and sleep in a cool, dark room to help improve sleep quality and allow you to fall asleep quicker, and stay asleep throughout the night.
3 – Reduce stress levels.
While some stress is natural and unavoidable, chronic and excessive stress can result in your body producing high amounts of your stress hormones, cortisol and adrenaline. If these stress hormones are produced in higher amounts than your body prefers, this can interfere with the production of other hormones – including your reproductive and sex hormones. You might experience a hormonal imbalance and reduced production of the hormones needed to facilitate ovulation, or even notice your menstrual cycle becoming irregular or disappearing altogether if your stress levels aren’t addressed. Chronic stress is a key cause of hormonal imbalances, so if you’re experiencing prolonged stress, take an inventory of your life and lifestyle.
Consider the people you surround yourself with and whether they have a positive impact on how you feel after your interactions with them, or if they simply add to your stress levels. Consider your work, and whether it brings you joy and fulfillment, or panic and anxiety. Consider your lifestyle and routines, and whether they leave you feeling energised, calm, and prepared to deal with whatever life may throw at you, or whether they’re exacerbating your stress and leaving you with unmet needs. Work your way through each pillar of your life, and address those areas which are causing you excessive stress, or long periods of stress. How can you pull back, or make changes within these areas to mitigate stress levels?
Look at implementing a mindfulness practice too – whether that involves journaling, meditation, breathwork, yin yoga, or whatever mindfulness looks like for you. Studies have shown that practicing mindfulness regularly has an incredibly positive effect on reducing and managing stress levels, so this can be a really useful and effective tool in helping to regulate your stress, and therefore your hormones, to allow for healthy ovulation to take place.
4 – Reevaluate your exercise routine.
This is a tricky one to get right. While, on one hand, getting a healthy amount of exercise consistently can help you regulate your body weight and hormone production, improve sleep and immune function and even help to encourage healthy eating habits, too much or excessively high-intensity exercise can have the opposite effect.
If you’re getting little to no exercise, chances are you’re not optimising various aspects of your health – from your cardiovascular health, to your metabolism, insulin resistance, digestion, immune system health and so on. If you think of your body as a car, each different system or function within your body is a crucial part of the car, so as soon as one is neglected or no longer nourished, the entire car cannot work optimally.
If you’re neglecting your health by failing to get adequate exercise, your hormone production and balance will be impacted too. Exercise is essential for healthy hormone production and balance, so aim for around 30 mins of moderate-intensity movement on most days. This can look however you want it to – whether you prefer running, swimming, dancing, yoga, Pilates, boxing, interval training, functional training, you name it – the main aim is to get moving! Find a style of movement you enjoy, because that’s the exercise you’re most likely to stay consistent with. And consistency is far more important than perfection or intensity when it comes to supporting optimal health, hormone function and ovulation.
However, if you’re overdoing it on the exercise front – whether you’re pushing your body too far with the duration or intensity of your sessions, or simply not allowing adequate time to rest and recover between sessions – this could be wreaking havoc on your sex hormones too. This is another common way people begin to produce too much of those stress hormones, cortisol and adrenaline, and not enough of their reproductive hormones to facilitate healthy ovulation and menstrual cycle function.
Exercise should be done with a balanced approach, with every person and body having a different threshold for what is “too much” for them to handle while maintaining optimal health. If you notice you’re pushing your body too hard, feeling constantly fatigued or experiencing low energy, having difficulty recovering between sessions, or you’re not enjoying your workouts anymore, consider reevaluating your approach to movement. Include some lower-intensity movement styles, add some variety into your routine, take rest days regularly, and remember movement doesn’t have to be exerting, sweaty, or exhausting to be beneficial for your health. Balance is key when it comes to exercising for healthy hormones and ovulation.
5 – Reduce your alcohol consumption.
Without being the bearer of bad news, excessive alcohol intake can actually increase your oestrogen production beyond its optimal level, potentially interfering with your menstrual cycle and ovulation if left unaddressed over time.
When it comes down to it, alcohol doesn’t have any health benefits (other than allowing you to have a good time with friends, if you enjoy sharing a drink in moderation). It can, however, create stress or inflammation in your body, interrupting healthy hormone production if you’re drinking too much consistently for a period of time. Studies have shown that alcoholic women experience a much greater risk of menstrual and reproductive disorders, including irregular or absent menstrual cycles, absence of ovulation, and even infertility. While these results are at the far end of the spectrum, alcohol isn’t doing your hormones any favours, or supporting healthy hormonal balance. So if you’re experiencing hormonal imbalances or considering trying to fall pregnant, it’s a good time to cut back on the booze in favour of healthy, happy hormones and ovulation.
As you can see, healthy and regular ovulation relies on a very delicate balance between these three female hormones. Anything which throws out the balance or production of one hormone will go on to affect the rest of the system, potentially disrupting ovulation and reproductive function. It’s important to consider all aspects of your health – both mental and physical – when looking to balance your hormones and facilitate healthy hormone production, to support ovulation and fertility.