Get the lowdown on female fertility with these ten fun facts
By Kel Tan
Our reproductive systems are veritable powerhouses that are capable of generating life, but most women don’t really give much thought to what’s down there. However, there’s so much more to female fertility than just periods and pregnancy. These surprising facts will encourage you to look at your reproductive system in a whole new light.
1. Ovaries look rather unusual.
You’ll probably never get the chance to see your ovaries in the flesh, so picture this: they’re greyish-pink lumps of tissue that each measure about the size of a walnut. They have pitted, lumpy surfaces that become more irregular as you grow older; this is because during ovulation, the egg bursts through the walls of the ovary to enter the fallopian tube, leaving behind an unsightly scar. However, while they’re not exactly pretty, they’re certainly powerful!
2. You’re born with all the eggs you’ll ever have.
Unlike males, who produce millions of sperm cells daily, females are born with a finite number of ova, or egg cells, which are stored in the ovaries. “Women are born with approximately one to two million eggs, but by the time they reach puberty, they’re left with only 300,000 to 400,000,” says Dr Ann Tan, Obstetrician and Gynaecologist at Women Fertility & Fetal Centre. “What’s more, thousands of these eggs die every month; menopause occurs when you have no more functional eggs left.” Talk about “limited edition”!
3. Your eggs are the biggest cells in your body.
At about 0.15mm in diameter, eggs are the largest cells in human biology. In fact, they are just about visible to the naked eye! In contrast, the smallest cell (in terms of volume) in the human body is the sperm cell, which measures just 0.05mm. Sometimes, size does matter…
4. They’re also rather choosy.
Despite the fact that men can release up to a whopping 1.2 billion1 sperm cells during ejaculation, each mature egg will only ever let in a single sperm. Once the lucky swimmer enters, the outer layer of the egg hardens, thereby preventing any other sperm cells from penetrating it. In this case, the early bird catches the worm!
5. Your ovaries fluctuate in size.
Understandably, your ovaries are the largest during your childbearing years, measuring approximately 3cm to 5cm in length2. They also expand a little during ovulation. However, once menopause occurs, ovulation ceases, causing your ovaries to shrink to about half their original size. In fact, if your ovaries grow bigger after menopause, it may be a sign of ovarian cancer3.
6. They are also hormone powerhouses.
Besides eggs, your ovaries secrete two major hormones – estrogen and progesterone. These hormones are responsible for regulating your menstrual cycle and maintaining the health of your reproductive system; what’s more, they’re crucial during pregnancy, contributing to foetal development. How’s that for multitasking?
7. Multiple ovulation is a relatively common occurrence.
While your ovaries usually take turns to release a fertile egg every cycle, they sometimes end up doing so at the same time. If both eggs end up being successfully fertilised, this results in the birth of fraternal (non-identical) twins. In fact, this phenomenon happens in up to 10 per cent of all ovulatory cycles4.
8. Your ovaries are affected by stress.
"If you’re facing undue amounts of stress – both physical and mental in nature – ovulation may slow down or temporarily cease", says Dr Tan. This is because stress causes your body to release other hormones, which may interfere with your reproductive cycle. Of course, this affects your ability to conceive; in fact, WebMD5 suggests that stress may play a role in up to 30 per cent of all fertility problems. “Having adequate hydration, nutrition, and sleep is critical for good ovarian health and function,” adds Dr Tan. As such, if you’re trying for a baby, remember to relax and take it easy!
9. Ovarian cysts are more common than you think.
Unfortunately, most women will experience an ovarian cyst (a sac filled with fluid that develops in the ovary) at least once in their lives. “Polycystic ovarian syndrome occurs in approximately 30 per cent of infertility cases,” says Dr Tan. “These cysts are actually follicles containing the egg. However, due to hormonal imbalances, these eggs don’t get released on a regular basis, giving rise to the most common symptom of irregular menses,” she explains.
“Other common cysts include functional cysts, which occur when there are hormonal disruptions from illness or other stressors,” says Dr Tan. Fortunately, these are easily treated. “However, if your symptoms are severe and repetitive, or if you experience unusual abdominal bloating, do consult your doctor. This could signal underlying issues such as endometriosis or even ovarian cancer,” she adds.
10. There IS such a thing as ovulation pain.
No, those twinges you feel midway through your menstrual cycle aren’t phantom pains. Scientifically, ovulation pain is known as mittelschmerz, which manifests as a lower abdominal discomfort, felt on either the left or the right side (depending on which ovary is releasing the egg). The duration of the pain can last anywhere from several minutes to two days. In most cases, mittelschmerz isn’t serious; over-the-counter painkillers will usually do the trick. As always, do consult your doctor if the pain becomes unbearable.
On a more positive note, these twinges can be tremendously helpful if you’re planning to conceive, as you’ll know when the time is ripe, so to speak. It’s nature’s very own alarm clock!
I Love Children thanks Dr Ann Tan, Obstetrician and Gynaecologist at Women Fertility & Fetal Centre for her valuable input.