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How much do you really know about the complex system behind your menstrual cycle and fertility? Here, we take you beyond the basics to help you conceive, or prevent pregnancy.

Understanding fertility and the menstrual cycle is important to any woman of childbearing age — whether she is trying to conceive or hoping to prevent pregnancy. This article, written for Pregnancy Awareness Week, will take you beyond the basics and help you gain insights into both getting pregnant and preventing conception.

Your Menstrual Cycle

By the time a woman reaches adulthood and needs to make decisions about either how to get pregnant or how to prevent an unintended pregnancy, she will most likely have a basic understanding of how the female cycle works. You know that you experience menstrual bleeding every month, and that ovulation happens somewhere between two periods. But what causes all of this, exactly? Nothing short of a small miracle.

The average menstrual cycle lasts 28 days, but it is perfectly normal for a woman to have a different cycle length. You probably have menstrual cycles that somewhere last between 24 and 35 days, like most women. Only very few women have menstrual cycles that are shorter or longer than that, and those cases will be caused by medical problems that may need to be addressed before a woman can get pregnant.

A cycle begins with the first day of menstrual bleeding — during which the uterine lining that built up to accommodate a fertilized egg is partly expelled from the body, and partly reabsorbed. On average, menstrual bleeding will last between four and six days. Some women have a short menstrual flow, while bleeding can also last longer in some cases.

The menstrual cycle is a complex and clever system that is completely dependant on an intricate dance of hormones. A large number of hormones are involved in regulating the menstrual cycle, but the most important ones are:

  • Gonadotropin Releasing Hormone (GnRH)

  • Follicle Stimulating Hormone (FSH)

  • Luteinizing Hormone (LH)

  • Estrogen

  • Progesterone

Some of these hormones are produced within the hypothalamus in the brain, others in the pituitary gland, and yet others inside the ovaries. Though all of the hormones play essential roles (and an imbalance of any of them can lead to infertility), estrogen and progesterone — which are produced in the ovaries — can be said to be the most crucial ones involved in the menstrual cycle.

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