5 Facts About the Ovaries

The ovaries: they’re an important part of the female reproductive system, but how much thought do you give to them? If you’re trying to conceive, you’re probably more aware of your ovaries than ever before - but even if you’re not, your ovaries play a bigger role in your day-to-day life than you may know. Let’s take a look at five facts everyone needs to know about the ovaries.

Illustration of the uterus with sparkles on the ovaries

    1. They aren't stuck to the fallopian tubes

    We’ll address this one first because nearly every diagram of the female reproductive system we’ve ever seen makes it look like the ovaries are connected to the fallopian tubes - but they’re not really attached to each other.

    The fallopian tubes extend from near the top of the uterus and curve in a J-shape around the ovaries. Their ends sit close to the ovaries but, contrary to most drawings, they’re not attached. In fact, this gap is bridged by small projections called fimbriae that carry eggs from the tubes toward the uterus.

    2. Your ovaries can change size

    That’s right: at any given time of the month, your ovaries could be a different size. Your ovaries change depending on what’s happening in your cycle, and they also change at different periods in your life.

    The ovaries’ normal size is usually 3-5cm long, but during ovulation, they swell to be a little bigger than that as they’re busy releasing an egg cell. For most of us this usually takes place around the middle of your cycle, but this can vary from person to person and cycle to cycle.

    Throughout your life, the number of eggs in the ovaries reduces. When you’re born, your ovaries can contain as many as two million eggs, and by the time you have your first period, most people will have around 300,000 eggs. With every menstrual cycle, you lose around 1,000 eggs, so by the time you enter menopause, your reserve of eggs is considerably reduced. That means the size of your ovaries also decreases, and they shrink to around 2-3cm after menopause.

    Certain conditions can also affect the size of your ovaries throughout your lifetime. If you notice any changes or unusual symptoms, it may be a sign of enlarged ovaries, which could signal an underlying condition. Talk to your healthcare provider if you have any questions or concerns.

    Using an app like Natural Cycles can help you to better understand your cycles, so you can easily spot any potentially problematic symptoms or changes to your menstrual cycle month to month.

    3. ...And they can get stressed out

    If you’ve ever burned the candle at both ends, you’ll know that you can feel the effects of stress on your body, with a tight neck, tense shoulders and overwhelming fatigue. But did you know that it’s also having an impact much deeper inside your body? That’s right, stress can impact your cycle, and more specifically on your ovaries, too.

    If you’re experiencing longer-term periods of stress, then you may find that you’re missing periods altogether. That’s because high stress can affect ovulation. Recent studies have even found that there’s a risk that higher stress levels can temporarily lower fertility. It was found that women with high levels of alpha-amylase (a marker of stress) took 29% longer to conceive than those who weren’t as stressed.

    If you’re planning to get pregnant, it’s worth taking steps to reduce your stress levels. Try to exercise and eat a healthy balanced diet, spend time outside and put less pressure on yourself. Trying to have a baby can be stressful in itself, but there are tools and resources out there that can help. 

    If you’re looking for an app that can help you get pregnant faster, the Natural Cycles’ algorithm learns the unique pattern of your cycle, predicts ovulation and lets you know the days you’re most fertile so you can plan pregnancy with precision.

    4. Ovarian cysts are fairly common

    Many of us have ovarian cysts - and we might not even know that we do! That’s because the majority of cysts don’t cause any symptoms.

    A 2018 study in the JAMA Internal Medicine journal looked at a group of 72,000 women who had a pelvic ultrasound between 1997 and 2008. Of those women, roughly 23% under the age of 50, and 13% over 50, had an ovarian cyst - and of those with cysts, just one woman went on to develop ovarian cancer.

    There are two main types of cysts: functional ovarian cysts, which are very common, and develop as a normal part of the menstrual cycle; and pathological ovarian cysts, which are less common, and develop as the result of abnormal cell growth.

    Women with endometriosis may also get endometrioma, which are cysts that are filled with old blood and tissue. Some women may also get dermoid cysts, which develop from ovarian cells and eggs, and those with PCOS can also experience cysts.

    The majority of functional cysts are non-cancerous, and will go away on their own. In fact, because most cysts don’t cause any symptoms, many women won’t even know they ever had one. However, some women do experience symptoms, the most common of which is pain in your lower belly on the same side of the cyst.

    Other symptoms of cysts include:

    • Pain during sex
    • Abnormal vaginal bleeding
    • Tender breasts
    • Pain during your period
    • Weight gain
    • Pain in your lower back and thighs
    • Difficulty emptying your bladder

    If you experience any of these symptoms, you should speak to a healthcare professional who will be able to investigate further and advise you on the most appropriate ovarian cyst treatment, depending on the cause of your cysts.

    5. Ovarian cancer is the second most common gynecological cancer

    We don’t tell you this fact to scare you, but it’s important to be aware of the signs and symptoms so you can get checked out straight away if you do experience anything unusual for your body.

    The most common gynecologic cancer in the USA is uterine cancer, followed by ovarian cancer. The American Cancer Society estimates that, in 2022, around 19,880 women will receive a new diagnosis of ovarian cancer.

    Ovarian cancer mostly affects older women, with about half of those who receive a diagnosis aged 63 or older, but anyone with ovaries can develop it. Early detection can improve the chances of survival, so you should be aware of the key symptoms. 

    The most common ovarian cancer symptoms are:

    • Often feeling bloated or having a swollen belly
    • Pain or tenderness in your tummy or pelvis
    • Feeling full quickly after eating or having no appetite
    • An urgent need to pee, or needing to pee more often than usual

    Other symptoms include:

    • Constipation or diarrhea
    • Indigestion
    • Back pain
    • Constant fatigue
    • Unintentional weight loss
    • Bleeding from the vagina after menopause

    These symptoms can also commonly be caused by other conditions, so if you’re experiencing any of these, it’s unlikely to be cancer - but it’s always worth getting them checked out regardless. 

    Get to know your body better

    Thanks for reading up on the oh-so-interesting ovaries! We hope you learned a thing or two about this powerful part of our reproductive system. 

    If you’d like to learn more, one of the best ways to get better acquainted with your body is through cycle tracking. This helps you to understand what’s normal for you, so you can spot patterns in your cycle and keep an eye out for any irregularities. Find out more about how Natural Cycles works and get started today!

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    Written By

    Lauren McKay

    Lauren is an Edinburgh-based writer, yoga teacher, and advocate for driving women's health knowledge. When she's not at her laptop you'll find her in the yoga studio, running up a hill, or exploring Scotland's beautiful scenery.

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    Scientifically Reviewed

    Jack Pearson

    With 10 years of experience working in the field of fertility, Dr. Jack Pearson is Natural Cycles’ in-house expert. As Medical Affairs Manager, he dedicates his time to conducting groundbreaking research and educating healthcare professionals.

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