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As women, protecting our reproductive health is one of the best things we can do for ourselves. This holds true even if motherhood isn’t on your agenda.

The menstrual cycle, after all, embodies every aspect of our health. It reflects what’s happening on a deeper hormonal level. When something goes awry, your period and ovulation are the first to react.

This can work in the opposite direction, too. Because your period is affected by your overall health, repeated disruptions to your cycle—such as irregular ovulation—can cause chaos in the complex system of your body. Over time, this can increase the risk for a variety of chronic diseases most common in women. Basically, if Aunt Flo is upset, so is your body.

Dr. Alyssa Quimby, M.D., Assistant Professor of Clinical Obstetrics and Gynecology at Keck Medicine of University of South California, explains factors that can disrupt ovulation and why they’re a red flag for your health.

Q. What is ovulation? When does it occur during the menstrual cycle?

“Ovulation is the process by which one of your ovaries releases an egg. This typically happens fourteen days before the start of your period. So if your cycles are about once a month, that means two weeks after you start your period, you ovulate. Then two weeks after that you have your next period.”

Keep in mind, though, that this rule isn't true for everyone's period. Charting your cycle can help you accurately determine when you have ovulated.

Q. How can you tell that ovulation has started and ended?

“Two ways: one is using an ovulation predictor kit which measures the rise in LH (luteinizing hormone) that happens right before ovulation. This can be measured by testing your urine. The other way to tell that ovulation has started is by following your symptoms. These can include mild cramping pain (typically localized to one side of the pelvis), increase in quantity of cervical mucus (usually seen as increased watery or sticky discharge), or a low basal body temperature followed by a sudden half-degree rise the following day (measured first thing each day before getting out of bed).”

“There isn't a great way to tell that ovulation has ended but it tends to take only about twenty-four hours. If you are someone who is able to notice the symptoms of ovulation, then you will also notice when they begin to resolve.”

Q. Why is healthy ovulation important?

“[I]t signals that your ovaries and uterus and working properly. [It also signals] that your hormones are doing what they're supposed to. . . . Without ovulation, you will not have regular menstrual cycles, which can make it difficult for you to get pregnant. In some women, it can put them at increased risk of developing cancer of the uterus.”

Q. Does hormonal contraception prevent ovulation?

"Some contraception does prevent ovulation, which is how it prevents pregnancy. But other types of contraception work in other ways.

When you get your period while on [an ovulation-suppressing] pill, it is due to a decrease in hormone levels during the last week of the pack (also called placebo pills)."

Q. What can mess with your ovulation, and why?

“[T]he most common (and potentially preventable or at least treatable causes) are the following: stress (moving, starting a new job, ending a relationship, etc.), dramatic changes in your weight (weight gain or loss), extreme exercise (i.e., training for a marathon), eating disorders, thyroid disorders, Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome (PCOS), and pituitary disorders.”

“With all of these causes, the root issue is disruption in the normal function of your hypothalamus (part of the brain), pituitary gland, and/or ovary where the hormones that allow all these parts to communicate aren't working properly.”

Q. How is normal ovulation linked to prevention of chronic conditions?

“Osteoporosis, heart disease, and breast cancer are all somewhat prevented with a normal balance of estrogen and progesterone, which occurs when you are ovulating regularly.”

Q. How can you achieve normal ovulation?

“[You can do so] by staying healthy overall—exercising regularly, avoiding smoking, staying of normal weight. And if you do have irregular periods, check in with your gynecologist so he or she can determine if you need additional testing for thyroid or pituitary disorders or medications that can help regulate your cycle.”

Photo Credit: Horn Photography