Tiny but mighty, this reproductive organ affects your whole body.
Ovaries are fig-shaped glands that lie on either side of the uterus and are crucial to a woman’s reproductive system—and have other important roles in the body as well. Here’s everything a woman needs to know about her ovaries: where they’re located, how they function, and what to look out for to keep them healthy.
What exactly do your ovaries do?
The job ovaries are most famous for is housing a woman’s eggs, which are microscopic and filled with DNA (half of her DNA, to be precise, so if the egg fertilized by a sperm, containing half of a man’s DNA, together they can create an embryo). Each month, a dozen or so eggs can develop, but only one—or two, in the case of twins—matures, leaves its ovary, and makes its way through the fallopian tube to the uterus, where it may or may not meet sperm.
Ovaries have another essential job besides long-term storage for eggs: They also produce hormones. Mainly, they’re creating estrogen and progesterone, associated with women’s reproductive health, but the ovaries produce some testosterone as well. All of these hormones leave the ovaries and go coursing through your body via your bloodstream. They keep not just the reproductive system healthy but contribute to bone, muscle, and brain development as well.
How many eggs are in your ovaries—and what exactly happens to them?
You’re born with ovaries that contain 1 to 2 million eggs. By puberty, that number dwindles to 300,000, and at menopause you’re left with none. Many of them say sayonara through the natural process of celldeath (called apoptosis). Because eggs are so microscopic, they’re just reabsorbed into the body. About 400 eggs go through the ovulation process during your lifetime. Until all your eggs are gone, ovulation occurs each month—an egg pops through an ovarian follicle and out of the ovary, then travels through the fallopian tube to the uterus. Follicles then release hormones to prepare the lining of the uterus for pregnancy. But if the egg isn’t fertilized, hormone secretion stops, and you get your period. Egg quality drops over time—one reason it’s harder to conceive in your late 30s and beyond.
What does it mean if your ovaries hurt?
If a follicle doesn’t rupture to release an egg, it can swell with fluid and develop into a cyst. Most cysts are small and painless, and you’re unlikely to know you even have one until a pelvic exam; they usually go way on their own and are rarely precursors to cancer. In some people, a cyst may cause abdominal pain, a feeling of belly fullness, and irregular periods.
Polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS)
Polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS) is another condition that can arise. Characterized by symptoms like acne, weight gain, acne, irregular periods, or increased body hair growth, it affects up to 20 percent of women and means your ovaries produce too many male sex hormones; this keeps follicles shut, spurring cysts to form. Birth control may help manage it.
More than 20,000 women are diagnosed with ovarian cancer each year. Ovarian cancer is often called a silent killer, because tumors are rarely detected at an early, easier-to-treat stage. Because your ovaries are located near your bladder and intestines, symptoms include: bloating, abdominal, back, or pelvic pain, indigestion, diarrhea or constipation, frequent urination, feeling unusually full, and loss of energy or appetite. Because these warning signs are easy to ignore, pay attention to your body—and make sure you check in with your doctor if you experience them more than 12 times per month.
What happens to your ovaries during menopause?
Menopause is when the ovaries put their figurative feet up and relax, and the few years leading up to it can be an unpredictable time called perimenopause. As your ovaries age, they might not always pick up on the signal from your hormones that it’s time to release an egg, which results in more hormones being secreted, throwing things off balance. This can lead to wildly varying periods, mood swings, sleep issues, and hot flashes. Luckily, your doctor can help you find ways to control these pesky symptoms.
How to keep your ovaries healthy
There are three easy ways to keep your ovaries in tip-top shape:
- Get an annual pelvic exam: This can help your doctor catch issues like cysts and tumors that often don’t cause symptoms.
- Don’t smoke: Chemicals in cigarette smoke damage the genetic material eggs are made up of and cause them to die off faster; this can lower fertility or bring on menopause earlier.
- Maintain a healthy weight: This helps keep hormones, and thereby your period, regulated and can help ease PCOS symptoms.