I have been researching the ovary for almost two decades and find it surprising that most people think of the ovary as just an egg factory. The truth is, it’s the “central command” center of a woman’s body and critical to every major system and function. The ovaries communicate with virtually every cell in the body and exchange signals that influence immune function, brain health, and metabolic health (to name a few).
We protect our skin from the sun’s harsh UV rays with hats and sunscreen. We protect our brains from injury when we ride a bike with helmets. We brush and floss to protect our teeth. When thinking about the best way to protect our health, protection is key. Our ovaries are no exception.
From my professional experience, women often don’t realize how much of their health and vitality is tied to their ovarian function. This leads to frustration sometimes as to why they are facing various health challenges. For example, a woman may follow all the standard advice: exercise daily, eat more vegetables, side effects of long term use of pyridium get 7 to 8 hours of sleep every night, and still have trouble losing weight. She might not realize that the weight gain may be connected to an imbalance in ovarian health.
This lack of understanding is what motivated me to launch a company dedicated to redefining female biology and unique pelvic organs as being more than “reproductive.” Female body parts have key functions beyond just making babies, and the ovary is a great example. My mission as a scientist and CEO has been to give women better options to manage their lifelong health, including their ovarian health. It takes years to bring a new therapeutic drug to market. In the meantime, below are 8 strategies that you can use today to help improve and extend your ovarian function.
Melatonin is commonly known as the “sleep hormone.” That’s because your brain produces melatonin in response to darkness, which then acts as a cue to make you sleepy. What most people don’t realize is that melatonin is also directly involved in ovarian hormone production and other important bodily processes like metabolism. Without melatonin, your ovary cannot function correctly.
Your melatonin levels follow a light-dark cycle, but this can get disrupted if you stay up late or don’t get adequate sleep. Another way to disrupt melatonin production is being exposed to too little natural light and too much artificial light, including the blue light emitted from our electronic devices.
Unfortunately, taking melatonin supplements can’t fix the disruption to your natural melatonin production. Instead, make some changes to your daily routine. Create a bedtime routine and be sure to turn your electronics off and store them outside the bedroom so you won’t be tempted to check them at night. When you need to stare at a screen, whether it’s for work or play, invest in some blue light-blocking glasses and download an app like f.lux for your computer.
One factor that affects melatonin production in your brain is blood sugar levels. If you have hypoglycemia (e.g. sugar crashes), especially close to bedtime, that will result in your brain producing less melatonin.
Your body uses glucose as energy to keep its operations running smoothly. Think back to a time when you ate candy or drank soda and suddenly felt sleepy or low energy. Having one of these crashes is a sign your brain is not getting enough glucose, and without the fuel, it’s difficult for it to function correctly.
One of the most harmful things you can do for your ovarian health is to have a diet high in added or refined sugars. These are the kinds of sugar found in sodas, juices, candy, and boxed foods like breakfast cereals. Not only do these sugars make it hard for your body to maintain healthy sugar levels, but they also increase inflammation in your body. There are two types of inflammation: systemic and local. Your ovaries and other organs, like your uterus, rely on local inflammatory processes to function correctly.
Having chronic, systemic inflammation from too much sugar in your diet creates a “deafening noise” that disrupts the fine symphony of local inflammatory events like the ones that occur during ovulation or your period. If there’s music blaring in the background, you’re not going to be able to hear each other. Similarly, the “noise” inflammation creates in your body is going to make it harder for signals to get through. If you want your ovarian health to flourish, you need to cut back on the processed sugar in your diet.
One way to stay motivated is by wearing a continuous glucose monitor (CGM). There are many apps that give you access to CGM tracking. I recommend the FreeStyle Libre.
We exercise for many reasons, but most people don’t realize that cardio is good for your ovaries too. Your ovary thrives on rich blood flow and oxygen. Whether it’s a daily stroll in the park, biking, or swimming, physical activity that gets your heart rate up and pushes oxygen-rich blood through your organs is full of health benefits.
The ovaries also benefit from oxygenated blood, which cleans out harmful toxins from its system. When you are not moving around, your blood is more stagnant, which can contribute to premature ovarian aging and suboptimal ovarian health in the long term. The one important caveat is when you are undergoing fertility treatments. If you are taking hormones ahead of retrieving eggs for freezing or IVF, your doctor may advise you to take it easy on any exercise that moves your ovaries around too much (like running or jumping). This is because your ovaries become enlarged with extra follicles and eggs during these treatments and there is a small risk that you could experience an ovarian torsion, which is an emergency situation. If you are injecting fertility drugs, better to limit the cardio to low-impact activities like walking.
Another fixture in modern life is stress. It creeps in when we are at work, when we read news reports, overschedule ourselves, doom scroll on social media, and when we have conflict in our relationships. Most people know that chronic stress is bad for our hearts and mental health, but it also significantly impacts your ovaries’ ability to make hormones. A stressed-out body boosts levels of the “stress hormone” cortisol, which in turn suppresses reproductive hormones important in ovulation. You may have missed a period during a particularly stressful time. This is in part because your ovulation was disrupted by high levels of cortisol impacting your ovarian function.
Everyone responds differently to methods of reducing stress. Breathwork is a great way to not only reduce stress but also help maintain healthy pelvic floor muscles. It is hard to think about anything stressful when you are concentrating on tightening all the little muscles that help you breathe. I find listening to music to be helpful. Some people find exercise helps them to destress the fastest. Fitness trackers like the Oura ring can help you get a sense of your chronic stress level by recording fluctuations in your heart rate variability (HRV) levels, which are correlated with stress. If you are tracking your HRV, try different de-stressing methods and see which ones consistently improve your HRV score.
Dr. Piraye Yurttas Beim at SHE Media Co-Lab at SXSW held at Native on March 11, 2023 in Austin, Texas.
Research has shown how critical the gut microbiome is in various facets of your health. The ovaries are no exception. Having a diet high in fiber feeds the billions of good bacteria that colonize your gut. Keeping these microbes happy and nourished helps to digest your food, pull nutrients from food, and send out chemical messages to the body, including ones that help regulate your hormone levels.
Of course, this does not mean you should binge a ton of fiber overnight; that would create too much of a shock to your system, leaving you gassy and uncomfortable. If you want to shift your microbiome to a healthier state, slowly replacing sugary foods with fiber-rich food such as beans and avocados in your diet will help in making the transition.
Additionally, prebiotics are a type of specialized fiber that act as food for gut bacteria involved in managing inflammation and glucose metabolism. If you decide to add prebiotics, start slowly with very low doses and then work your way up. One prebiotic fiber I have found particularly helpful is beta-glucan (Solgar makes a good one). It feeds a number of gut bacteria that produce butyrate, which is important for maintaining your overall gut health. These butyrate bacteria are found in high levels in the gut of infants and then decline as we age. Natural sources of beta-glucan fiber include seaweed and grains like oats and barley.
In addition to prebiotic fiber, two other important dietary supplements for ovarian health are vitamin D and coenzyme Q10 (CoQ10). It has antioxidant properties and there have been studies finding CoQ10 helpful in extending ovarian function. For me, I take a low dose of 60 milligrams of Solgar CoQ10 a day. Dosage depends on factors such as genetics, body weight, and size, so please check with your doctor.
Vitamin D is also important for ovarian health and function. Most people living in the Northern Hemisphere have chronically low vitamin D levels. Supplements can help with restoring normal levels, but we also produce it naturally when we are out in the sun and can get it from dietary sources like fatty fishes, liver, and vitamin D fortified foods like milk.
Most people know that smoking increases your risk of cancer, stroke, and heart disease. What they don’t know is that it also destroys your ovaries and, therefore, can lead to an earlier age of menopause. Research has also linked cigarette smoke to an increase in ovarian cysts, decreases in reproductive hormones, and has shown that it introduces toxins that can destroy mature eggs. Even short-term exposure to cigarette smoke is enough to increase inflammation and damage ovarian cells. Unlike other organs, which can often bounce back from the damage due to smoking, the damage that smoking causes the ovary cannot be reversed.
Ovaries are not just for babies and neither is sex. Sex delivers a lot of health benefits to women beyond baby-making and pleasure. Sex, whether it’s with a partner or by yourself, is a physical activity, and it delivers blood flow to your pelvic region. The increased blood flow can help reduce your stress by lowering your cortisol levels, which in turn can help you sleep better.
Women should also strive to have consistent orgasms. Having an orgasm releases hormones that improve ovarian health and decrease cortisol levels in the body. It’s time to embrace orgasms as a lifelong health benefit rather than something nice to have. So go ahead—have an orgasm (or three!)
Dr. Piraye Yurttas Beim, PhD is the founder and CEO of Celmatix, a preclinical stage biotech transforming women’s lives through better ovarian health. To learn more about Dr. Beim and her company, visit her website or Instagram page.
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