Female Reproductive System
Understanding your reproductive system is an important part of knowing how to prevent or increase your chances of pregnancy. While most women know the basics, many don't realize that there is more to your reproductive system than just your period.
Ovulation and the Menstrual Cycle
Every month, your body goes through normal and natural changes that assist your ovaries in releasing an egg, which may or may not get fertilized during the month. This process is known as the menstrual cycle. Day one of your cycle is the first day of menstruation; this is the first day that you bleed during your period. The length of your cycle can vary every month. To determine your cycle's length, simply count the days from the first day of your period up to, but not including, the first day of your next period. The average woman's menstrual cycle last about 28 days but it is perfectly normal for your cycle to last anywhere from 24 to 34 days.
The typical menstrual cycle begins with your period during which time your low hormone levels signal to your body to begin producing more hormones. Although your egg follicles will begin to develop as many as 20 eggs, only one will mature and be released into your fallopian tube about halfway through your menstrual cycle. The process of your egg follicles releasing the egg is known as ovulation. On average, ovulation occurs 14 days before the start your period. However, it is normal for a woman to ovulate anywhere from 12 to 18 days before menstruation.
This increase in hormones not only helps to develop an egg but also your endometrium (the lining of the uterus), which becomes thicker and more suitable for implantation of a fertilized egg. Your cervical mucus also changes as your cycle progresses, going from dry and thick at the start of your cycle to thin and slippery around the time of ovulation. This thinner cervical mucus will make it easier for sperm to swim towards the fallopian tubes and the released egg.
Once an egg has been released, the sides of the fallopian tube periodically spasm aiding the egg in traveling down the tube towards the uterus. If the egg fails to be fertilized during this time, it will break up once it reaches the uterus. Additionally, since your thickened endometrium is also no longer needed as there is no fertilized egg to implant itself into the lining, the lining will shed over a period of three to eight days. This discharge is what makes up your menstrual flow.
A Woman's Reproductive System
Your reproductive organs are comprised of a vagina, a cervix, a uterus, fallopian tubes and ovaries. All of these organs work together to help you menstruate, conceive and carry a baby to term.
Vagina: This tube like structure connects your internal reproductive organs with your external genitalia. It ends at the cervix and is the point of entry for the penis during sex as well as the final passageway through which a baby exits when it is born.
Cervix: This part of your reproductive organs is situated between the vagina and uterus. It secretes mucus that can help or obstruct sperm from fertilizing an egg. The cervix is the opening that sperm must pass through in order to get to an egg. A baby must also go through the cervix as it exits the uterus and enters the vagina.
Uterus: Also known as the womb, the uterus is a muscular organ made up of three layers: the peritoneum (outer layer), myometrium (middle layer)and endometrium (inner lining). An egg that has been fertilized will implant itself into the endometrium lining and will continue to develop in the uterus throughout the pregnancy.
Fallopian Tubes: The fallopian tubes extend off the upper sides of the uterus and lead up to the ovaries. They have 20 to 25 finger-like structures on their ends that hover just above the ovaries and work to collect the mature egg when it is released. It is in the fallopian tubes that fertilization of the egg will take place.
Ovaries: Women usually have two ovaries, one on each side of the uterus. Ovaries are the storing house for your egg follicles; every month, one of these egg follicles will mature and release an egg into the fallopian tubes. The ovaries are also responsible for producing estrogen and progesterone, which are vital for proper reproductive function.
Conception and Pregnancy
Once an egg has been released from the ovaries, it will begin to travel down the fallopian tubes towards the uterus. As it advances towards the uterus, it begins to produce an enzyme that helps to attract and guide any sperm that may have been ejaculated into the female reproductive system during sex.
Although a man releases millions of sperm when he ejaculates during orgasm, only a few hundred will be able to make it all the way from the cervix up into the uterus and then into the correct fallopian tube. Just one sperm will then be able to make its way through your eggs tough coating to fertilize the egg. The fertilized egg will then continue traveling down the fallopian tube to the uterus. Once in the uterus, the egg will implant itself into the endometrial lining and officially become an embryo. Your body will also probably start letting you know that it is pregnant now.
Trying to Conceive
A woman is fertile only for a few days during each menstrual cycle. If you are trying to conceive, it is a good idea to chart and monitor the changes in your body every month. This will help you identify just when ovulation is taking place. Charting your monthly changes can also be beneficial to those women who are trying to avoid pregnancy. If you know when you are ovulating, you can know when to abstain from sex or use birth control.
You are most likely to become pregnant if you have sex on or near the time of ovulation. Once ovulation has occurred, there is only about a 24-hour window in which the egg can be fertilized. However, while an egg has a very limited lifespan, sperm can remain viable inside a woman anywhere from three to seven days. Therefore, a woman is thought to be most fertile from several days before to one day after she has ovulated.