If you’re trying to get pregnant, it can be confusing and upsetting to find that you aren’t ovulating, especially if you’re experiencing periods, whether that’s according to your regular cycle or a disrupted one. Understanding why this is happening can help to point you in the direction of a solution, or at least help to ground your worry in the real processes taking place in your body.
What Is a Period?
To understand what’s going on here, we need to look at the technicalities of what a period is.
In the first stage of your menstrual cycle, the follicular stage, eggs are maturing in your ovaries (in small sacs called follicles), but that’s not the only thing that’s happening. The same rise of oestrogen (in the form of estradiol) that causes those eggs to mature also begins the development of your uterine lining. This is the lining that a fertilised egg will eventually implant in and will, as the egg develops, develop itself into the placenta.
After the egg is ovulated, the follicle transforms into a temporary endocrine structure called the Corpus Luteum. This secretes progesterone, which causes that lining to build structure, turning it into a useful organ that can support that egg as it grows into a fetus. If the egg isn’t fertilised, the Corpus Luteum decays causing the lining to lose that structure, leading to your period as it leaves your body.
A Period Without Ovulation
If you don’t ovulate – due to conditions like Polycystic Ovary Syndrome, side effects from medication, or issues with stress or diet – the follicular phase happens as normal. Even if the hormonal signal to release the egg is never received, or even sent, the body’s oestrogen levels are elevated, and that means your uterus is building that lining.
In the absence of the progesterone raise that causes it to build structure and the fall that causes it to decay, it will continue to grow until your level of oestrogen drops again. At that point the extra lining in your uterus is shed in a way that feels like a period.
Is It a Period?
It’s important to note that this is not technically a period. Your period, or menses, is the discharge of material shed due to a drop in progesterone. If you don’t ovulate, that progesterone is never created, so this is a subtly different process. Bleeding caused by a drop in estradiol is known as breakthrough bleeding, and the process that causes it is ‘anovulation’.
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