When most women think about their menstrual cycle the main thing that comes to mind is their periods – which makes sense as it’s the most obvious thing happening. But it’s important to know that ovulation, while often overlooked or ignored, is incredibly important for your health.
The fact is that you are designed to have a cyclical ebb and flow of different hormones, and those different levels of hormones have different jobs to do in your body. If you’re not ovulating, then you’re not getting hormones that are needed for optimum health.
The UBC Centre for Menstrual Cycle and Ovulation Research (CeMCOR) has done some great research around the menstrual cycle and ovulation. This is a summary of a series of articles they have written which you can find here.
First, you need to know that estrogen is the dominant hormone before ovulation, and progesterone is the dominant hormone after ovulation. Without ovulating, you will not get the increased levels of progesterone and you may become “estrogen dominant” meaning that you have too much estrogen and not enough progesterone. If you don’t ovulate during a menstrual cycle this is called an anovulatory cycle.
Estrogen prevents bone loss and progesterone stimulates bone growth. It’s the interplay of these two hormones together that lead to best bone health for women. Research has found that starting in perimenopause women have increased bone loss, and this is related to the fact that their progesterone levels are lower as ovulation becomes less frequent and eventually stops. Without this regular cycling of hormones, the strength and health of your bones will be compromised and the longer you don’t ovulate over your lifetime the more risk for bone disease when you are older (for example, osteoporosis).
The hormone progesterone has a role to play in preventing breast cancer. It has been found that while estrogen stimulates breast cells to grow, progesterone stops the growth to allow maturation. This means that if you are not ovulating you may be at higher risk for breast cancer because the breast cells will grow uncontrollably without that progesterone to keep them in check. You can see how the hormones work on a smaller scale when women have sore breasts before their period because their body is not producing enough progesterone to counter-balance the estrogen (I’m NOT saying sore breasts before your period causes cancer, I’m just pointing out an example of an experience you can relate to that shows how the hormones function on the breast tissue).
In a large study of women with heart disease compared to those without it, more of those with heart disease had low levels of progesterone similar to anovulatory levels than those without heart disease. This suggests that those older women with heart disease are more likely to have had lower progesterone and thus more anovulatory cycles earlier in life. Another study looked at monkeys, and found that those with regular ovulatory cycles had little or no blood vessel disease, and those with less progesterone had more blood vessel disease (which is what leads to heart attacks). This means that regularly ovulating through your life can reduce your risk of heart disease later in life.
Are you ovulating?
If you want to make sure you are ovulating it’s slightly more complicated than just making sure you have a regular period. The fact is, you may be having a regular cycle but not be ovulating. Research has found that even anovulatory cycles tend to be about the same number of days overall and up to 20% of cycles may be anovulatory. In fact, even for those that ovulate if the time between ovulation and the next cycle starting is too short you may still have a deficiency in progesterone.
It’s also important to realize that if you are taking hormonal contraception then you are probably not ovulating, and so you are missing out on some of these great health benefits of ovulation. This can most definitely have long term effects on health, more so if you started the contraceptive hormones before your body had fully matured (which can take up to 10 years after the first period).
You can easily determine if you are ovulating by menstrual cycle charting. This can involve checking for cervical mucus or taking your temperature when you first wake up in the morning. If this is something you are interested in learning more about, check out the programs I have where I teach women how to do this.
In conclusion, when you hear people say that periods are unnecessary and we should just suppress them with constant contraceptive medication, keep in mind that there’s much more to your menstrual cycle than just having a period.