Understanding your menstrual cycle, including when you ovulate and for how long, can save you time and frustration when you and your partner are trying to get pregnant naturally. So what is ovulation? If you can’t remember back to your junior high health class, here’s a quick refresher:
What is ovulation?
Ovulation is when an egg is released by one of your ovaries.
Why does ovulation matter?
Put simply, no ovulation= no egg released. No egg released= nothing for the sperm to fertilize. No fertilization= no pregnancy.
When does ovulation occur?
The answer is not that simple, since every woman’s body (and menstrual cycle) is unique. However, a healthy menstrual cycle is 21-35 days in length. If your cycle is less than 21 days, more than 35 days or you have no cycle at all, then ovulation is unlikely to occur on a regular basis. Ovulation occurs about half-way through your cycle, to put it simply. There are 3 key parts to your menstrual cycle: the Follicular Phase, Ovulation and the Luteal Phase.
Day 1 of your cycle is when your period starts, the follicular phase kickoff. A hormone called Follicle Stimulating Hormone (FSH) is highest in your body during this 7-21 day period.
After the follicular phase comes ovulation.
If you’re trying to get pregnant, ovulation is a very important time. If you’re NOT trying to get pregnant, ovulation is also important because it signals the body to release certain hormones that benefit us in many ways- beyond just pregnancy. Ovulation occurs on 1 single day of the menstrual cycle. In fact, ovulation can even be as short as 12 hours. 1-2 days before you ovulate, a hormone called Luteinizing Hormone (LH) surges and signals your body to start ovulation.
After you ovulate, you enter the luteal phase. This phase lasts 10-16 days and during this time a hormone called Progesterone rises. If you end up getting pregnant, your progesterone levels will continue to rise and stay high into your third trimester. If you do not get pregnant, your Progesterone levels will eventually drop (in a healthy cycle) and Aunt Flo comes to town.
At this point, you might be wondering how it’s possible for so many humans to be procreating if ovulation only lasts 12-24 hours? The answer can be explained by your “fertile window.”
Contrary to popular belief, you aren’t just fertile during those precious 12-24 hours of ovulation. The reason is that we haven’t yet factored in the male partner’s contribution: sperm. Sperm can live in a woman’s body for up to 5 days. That’s right, 5 days! Although research does point to a pretty low percent of pregnancies attributed to sperm 3 days or older. (1) This means that a woman’s fertile window can be up to 6 days long when you combine ovulation (12-24 hours) + the sperm’s potential lifespan of 5 days.
HUGE IMPORTANT NOTE: If you are using the fertile window to estimate when to avoid pregnancy, assume greater than 6 days since many factors can impact when ovulation may occur and it can vary cycle to cycle. Use your preferred method of birth control during this time.
Now that you know what a healthy cycle looks like and when your fertile window is, you might be wondering how you can pinpoint when you, specifically, are ovulating. Remember, every woman’s body is different and ovulation is NOT always day 14 of a cycle like some very outdated birth control methods preach (rhythm method, I’m talking to you).
Thankfully, your body can give you the green light if ovulation is about to occur or did occur.
Ovulation is about to occur:
Oh mucus, what an awful word. But if you’re looking to get pregnant, you will become intimately familiar with many bodily fluids (both your own and your future child).
You don’t have to have a degree in biology to examine your cervical mucus luckily. All it takes is a simple observation of your toilet paper after you wipe down there. Maybe you’ve never paid much attention before, but once you do – you will notice how your cervical mucus changes throughout your cycle.
Right before you ovulate (about 2-3 days before), you will see a clear, stretchy or egg-white consistency of your cervical mucus. This consistency helps transport sperm up through the vagina and ultimately to the fallopian tubes where the egg awaits. This is known as “peak” mucus, since you can have other cervical mucus consistencies throughout your cycle.
Not only is this method simple, it’s also free and a great indicator (if used correctly over time) of which phase of your cycle you are in.
Just like cervical mucus, your cervix will become moist and soft in addition to rising higher up closer to your uterus when your fertile window is approaching. The opening to your uterus, called the “internal os” will open, permitting sperm to travel up to your fallopian tubes. After ovulation, the internal os closes and your cervix will lower down into your vagina. Instead of feeling soft and moist, your cervix will feel more firm to the touch.
This might be obvious, but wash your hands thoroughly before inspecting your cervical position, just as you would before inserting or removing a tampon.
Ovulation Predictor Kit (OPK)
OPKs detect the LH surge that occurs 1-2 days before ovulation. Remember, the LH surge is what triggers the body to ovulate.
However, it’s estimated that 23% of women have Luteinized Unruptured Follicle (LUF) syndrome (2) which means you can have an LH surge but ovulation does not occur. Also, if you are one of the 5 million women who have Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome (PCOS), your LH can remain high for extended amounts of time, throwing off the reliability of an OPK.
Ovulation did occur:
Basal Body Temperature (BBT)
BBT is the temperature of your body at rest. During your cycle, the day after you ovulate will be followed by a rise in the hormone progesterone. This rise in progesterone results in an increase in your BBT of 0.5º F- 1º F. This is a very slight increase, so using a decent thermometer is key, or better yet, consider a thermometer designed for taking BBT specifically.
To check your BBT accurately, take your temperature as soon as you wake up, before you even stand or sit up. A healthy amount of sleep (ideally 7-9 hours) is necessary as well- since sleep affects your body’s ability to produce hormones.
Keeping a log of your BBT for your entire cycle is most helpful- since everyone’s temperature varies slightly from person to person. After a few cycles, you will start to notice patterns in your body’s BBT and be able to easily predict when you ovulated. Remember, BBT does not indicate the beginning of your fertile window, but rather the end of it.
To get exact, 100% accuracy of your ovulation timing, you would need to confirm by undergoing a transvaginal ultrasound. Since most women don’t confirm ovulation that way when trying to get pregnant naturally, you can be confident that your body will give you the signals you need to understand when you are ovulating.
Increasing your odds of ovulation
If you’ve been tracking your cycles for a few months and aren’t seeing the signs that your body is ovulating, what can you do? Here are a few natural ways to help your body increase its chances of ovulating:
Up Your Vitamin D
Vitamin D has been shown to enhance ovulation. Some health experts even consider it to be more similar to a hormone than a vitamin. Research has shown that women deficient in vitamin D (defined as 20 ng/mL or less) have longer cycle lengths (over 35 days), which is correlated with delays in ovulation. (3)
Aim for 600 IU of Vitamin D daily.
Good sources of vitamin D include:
Canned light tuna (6 oz or less/week or find a low mercury option such as Safe Catch)
Fortified Milk or Plant-based Milk
Fortified Orange Juice
Cod Liver Oil*
Vitamin D Supplement*
*Talk to your healthcare provider before starting any supplement.
Zinc helps to promote ovulation by supporting the development of healthy follicles in the follicular phase of your cycle.
Aim for 8 mg of Zinc daily.
Good sources of zinc include:
Hemp, Flax and Pumpkin Seeds
Get Adequate Sleep
When you get a healthy night’s sleep, your body is able to release melatonin, a powerhouse hormone that acts as an antioxidant. Although the exact mechanism is not well known, research suggests that melatonin acts as a messenger, aiding in the signals which tell your body to ovulate. Exposure to bright light in the evening (think blue light from your phone, computer or tv) and natural aging can suppress your melatonin levels. If you travel outside of your time zone often or work the night shift, this can also disrupt your circadian rhythm, and therefore your melatonin.
Some research has shown tart cherry juice (4), almonds, walnuts and oatmeal (5) are natural sources of melatonin. There are also melatonin supplements, but please consult your healthcare provider before starting any supplement.
Establishing and maintaining a normal circadian rhythm is crucial for many aspects of your overall health, so making sleep a priority when you are trying to get pregnant is definitely a good idea. As a mother of 2 young children, I also want to shout from the rooftops:
SLEEP AS MUCH AS YOU CAN WHILE YOU STILL CAN!!!
Exercise To Maintain Health
Although physical activity has long been touted for its health benefits, there are extremes you should avoid. Every woman’s body is different- but if the amount of physical activity you are doing is causing any of the following, consider cutting back:
Cycle length decreases to less than 21 days
Cycle length increases to more than 35 days
Period stops altogether (amenorrhea)
Ovulation is delayed past day 21 of your cycle
Physical activity can also be beneficial for your reproductive functioning, so if you are not finding your cycle disturbed by the type or amount of physical activity you are doing, continue to do so unless directed differently by your healthcare provider.
Easier said than done!
If you are trying to get pregnant and it hasn’t been going as planned, you are likely under a lot of stress. I remember feeling very stressed when I was trying to get pregnant, and I know the last thing you want to hear is “relax more” or “don’t think about it and it will just happen.” Thanks Karen…
Instead of focusing your thoughts on getting pregnant or why you’re not ovulating, consider starting a meditative practice, deep breathing or journaling your thoughts. It can redirect your thoughts to a healthier place that releases stress.
Other ovulation roadblocks
There are other reasons you might not be ovulating as expected, most often attributed to hormonal imbalances. PCOS, endometriosis, insulin resistance and inflammation are just some of the roadblocks that can inhibit ovulation.
If you’ve implemented diet and lifestyle recommendations for 3-6 months and still aren’t seeing signs of ovulation, talk to your healthcare provider to understand what options are available to you. As always, advocate for yourself if you are seeking a natural pregnancy.