Ovaries may be small, but they are quite powerful—in more ways than you may realize. A pair of glands (about the size of a walnut combined), ovaries are the gatekeepers of women’s eggs, serve as our producers of estrogen, and play an integral part in our reproductive system. Explore the following facts to learn why ovaries are so important to your health, and why protecting that health is so important.
Ovaries Come Prepared
When women are born, their ovaries hold enough eggs to last a lifetime—around a million in each! These numbers drop to 200,000–400,000 during childbearing years. Your ovaries eventually stop producing eggs, which is known as menopause.
They are Body Builders
Ovaries are the producers of female sex hormones, like estrogen. But did you know there are several types of estrogen? These different hormones (estrone, estradiol, and estriol) are used by the body to help develop female characteristics like breasts and larger hips. Beyond estrogen, ovaries also produce relaxin, which helps loosen pelvic ligaments to make childbirth possible.
They’re Shape Shifters
Most organs remain the same size throughout their lifespan. However, ovaries change sizes throughout different periods in a woman’s life. They begin at around three to five centimeters in length, grow when they produce eggs, and (true story) shrivel up completely during the menopause stages of life.
Ovaries Can Be at Risk
Just like many organs, ovaries are susceptible to cancer. However, ovarian cancer is difficult to detect until it has spread to the pelvis and abdomen. The American Cancer Society projects that more than 22,000 women will get ovarian cancer in 2019. Over the same year, nearly 14,000 will die from the disease. Some good news: It’s a relatively uncommon form of cancer, with just 1 in 78 women developing ovarian cancer in her lifetime.
Because it’s uncommon but too often fatal, you should be aware of the following signs of ovarian cancer:
- Abdominal bloating or swelling
- Feeling full quickly while eating
- Weight loss
- Pelvic discomfort
- Changes in bowel movements, such as constipation
- Frequent need to urinate
If you experience any of these symptoms or have a family history of breast or ovarian cancer, it’s important to talk to your doctor to learn your risks and discuss the possibility of genetic testing.
And They’re Intuitive
Have you ever experienced a time when your period just stopped coming? Odds are it fell during a time of heavy stress—your body’s way of preventing pregnancy during tough times. When a woman goes through a major life change or upheaval (a big move, dramatic weight loss or gain, or training for a sport) her ovaries can stop producing eggs to prevent her body from taking on more than it can handle.
Pretty incredible, right?