An Introduction to Reproductive Health
More than any other system in the body, the reproductive system shows the miracle of life at work. The female reproductive system is a group of specific organs in your body that help you reproduce, that is, have babies. Like all living things, human beings reproduce which keeps the population going and growing. For humans, this happens when the male and female reproductive systems join together to make a baby. As a young woman, you possess the power to create and bring to life a living human being - this is a true miracle to be grateful for. For our reproductive system to be whole and functioning in a well-balanced way, we must be able to maintain a strong body, mind and spirit connection. If our diet is deficient, issues can arise throughout the menstrual cycle that can challenge our ability to have children in our adult lives. If our lifestyle is doing more harm than good, we create an unhealthy environment for a baby to grow well if/when we become pregnant.
Developing healthy habits now will ensure your reproductive system is working optimally and will prevent any issues that could arise when you’re older if you do decide to conceive! The following text will explain everything you need to know about your reproductive system, as well as educate you on how to take care of this remarkable system now and in the future.
Internal Reproductive Organs
The ovaries are two small, oval-shaped organs in the lower abdomen on both sides of the uterus. Before puberty, it’s as if the ovaries are asleep, and during puberty, they “wake up”. During puberty, the ovaries start making more estrogen and other hormones which cause the body to change. One important body change is that these hormones initiate menstruation, which will be discussed later on.
The fallopian tubes connect the ovaries to the uterus. The released egg moves along the path of a fallopian tube during the ovulation phase of the menstrual cycle.
The uterus — or womb — is where a baby will grow. It takes several days for the egg to reach the uterus. In a woman who has never been pregnant, the uterus is the size and shape of a pear. During pregnancy, the uterus is able to increase in size tremendously to be able to support a growing baby. As the egg travels from the fallopian tubes towards the uterus, estrogen makes the lining of the uterus (called the endometrium) thick with blood and fluid. This creates a uterine environment suitable for a baby to grow. Pregnancy occurs when intercourse takes place without a birth control method during the ovulatory phase of the menstrual cycle. The sperm joins with the egg (called fertilization) on its way to the uterus. There is however a possibility of becoming pregnant even while using some type of birth control as none are 100 percent effective. If the egg does not get fertilized, it will be shed along with the lining of the uterus during the next menstrual cycle.
The blood and fluid that leaves the body during menstruation passes through the cervix and vagina. The cervix is the narrow entryway in between the vagina and uterus. The cervix is flexible so it can expand to let a baby pass through during childbirth. The vagina is like a tube that can grow wider to deliver a baby which has finished growing inside the uterus.
The hymen covers the opening of the vagina. It is a thin piece of tissue that has one or more holes in it. A hymen may be stretched or torn when you use a tampon for the first time or during initial sexual intercourse. It is completely normal to bleed a little bit if it does tear.
The female reproductive structures that are located on the surface of the body in the vaginal area are the external genitalia. The mons pubis is a fatty, round area on top of the pubic symphysis or pubic bone. After puberty, this area becomes covered with pubic hair. Below the mons pubis are two hair-covered skin folds; the labia majora and the labia minora. The labia majora are the skin folds on the most exterior side of the region and cover/enclose the two delicate, hair-free folds - the labia minora. The labia majora contain sweat and sebaceous glands, which produce lubricating secretions. During puberty, hair appears on the labia majora. The labia minora lie just inside the labia majora and surround the openings to the vagina and urethra. A rich supply of blood vessels gives the labia minora a pink color.
During sexual stimulation, these blood vessels become engorged with blood, causing the labia minora to swell and become more sensitive to stimulation. The clitoris is above the urethra and is a small, protruding structure that is composed of sensitive tissue that becomes swollen with blood during sexual excitement. Stimulating the clitoris can result in an orgasm. The opening to the vagina is called the introitus. The vaginal opening is the entryway for the penis during sexual intercourse, the exit for blood during menstruation, as well as serving as the exit for a baby during birth. When stimulated, bartholin glands (located beside the vaginal opening) secrete a thick fluid that supply lubrication for intercourse.
The Menstrual Cycle
The menstrual cycle is complex and is controlled by many different glands and the hormones these glands produce. Each month during the years between puberty and menopause, a woman’s body goes through a number of changes to get it ready for a possible pregnancy. This series of hormone-driven events is called the menstrual cycle. During each menstrual cycle, an egg develops and is released from the ovaries into the fallopian tube, and the lining of the uterus builds up. If a pregnancy doesn’t happen, the uterine lining sheds during a menstrual period. Then the cycle starts again.
There are four phases of the menstrual cycle: menstruation, the follicular phase, ovulation, and the luteal phase. Generally speaking, the cycle will be about 28 days long (a period commonly known as a lunar month). However, everybody is different, and cycles can be longer or shorter, typically anywhere from 21 days to 35 days. The ideal is to begin to sync with the rhythms of the moon and menstruate every 28 days on the full or new moon.
The Menstruation Phase is the first stage of the menstrual cycle and it is when the menstrual period takes place. Without fertilization, there is no pregnancy and levels of estrogen and progesterone decrease. The thickened lining of the uterus, which would normally support a pregnancy, is no longer needed so it sheds through the vagina. During menstruation, a combination of blood, mucus, and tissue is released from the uterus.
At this time, some may experience premenstrual syndrome (PMS) symptoms such as lower abdomen cramping, bloating, irritability, breast tenderness, tiredness, lower back pain, mood swings, food cravings, etc., prior to and/or during the menstruation phase.
The Follicular phase is the beginning of the menstrual cycle. It starts on the first day of menstrual bleeding and lasts for about 14 days, during a 28-day cycle. The pituitary gland releases hormones during this time to stimulate the ovaries to produce the hormone estrogen, and to stimulate the maturation of about 15-20 eggs in the ovaries. These eggs are grown inside small cystic areas known as follicles. With time, one of the egg follicles becomes dominant, and maturation of the other follicles is interrupted. The dominant follicle continues to make estrogen.
Ovulation occurs at the midpoint of the menstrual cycle. Estrogen production from the dominant follicle leads to a sharp rise in luteinizing hormone (LH) secretion, causing the dominant follicle to release its egg. The ovulation phase is the only time during the menstrual cycle when pregnancy can occur. Signs of ovulation are a rise in basal body temperature and an increase in vaginal discharge that can have the look and texture of raw egg whites. Ovulation lasts for about 24 hours, but because sperm can live for up to 5 days in the vagina, pregnancy may occur if intercourse takes place 5 days prior to ovulation. Remember, ovulation is roughly the 14th day of a 28-day cycle, but it can fluctuate month-to-month.
It’s important to notes that ovulation (and menstrual) cycles can change in times of major life change, increased stress, and travel (especially international travel where you’re changing time zones)
The Luteal phase will result in rising levels of progesterone by the corpus luteum. Progesterone also causes the endometrial glands to grow and begin secreting nutrients into the uterine cavity, which will sustain a developing embryo (if one is present) until it has implanted. If pregnancy occurs, the body will produce human chorionic gonadotropin hormone (HCG). This is the hormone that pregnancy tests can detect. HCG helps to maintain the corpus luteum and keeps the uterine lining thick to support the implantation of the fertilized egg. If pregnancy does not occur, decreased levels of estrogen and progesterone will initiate the onset of a new menstrual cycle. The luteal phase typically lasts for 11 to 17 days in a 28-day cycle.
Because the birth of a baby is such a familiar event, we tend to lose sight of the wonder of this accomplishment. The moment fertilization occurs, you are officially 2 weeks pregnant. For fertilization to occur, sexual intercourse must occur no more than 4-5 days before ovulation and no later than 24-48 hours after. Millions of sperm leak from the vagina and of those remaining, millions more are destroyed by the vagina’s acidic environment. Only a few thousand to a few hundred sperm finally make it to the egg’s vicinity. Fertilization occurs at the moment the genetic material of a sperm combines with that of an ovum to form a fertilized egg.
Pregnancy lasts about 40 weeks, counting from the first day of your last menstrual period.
Holistic Protection + Contraceptive Options
Below are some holistic protection options for you to use in order to reduce your chances of obtaining an STD, to increase your sexual pleasure, and to prevent pregnancy. Talk to your health care provider about further contraceptive options.
When used properly, condoms are 98% effective. They’re incredibly affordable, accessible, easy to use, and are the only option on this list that have the added benefit of preventing STIs. Conventional options are usually full of toxins, chemicals, and even carcinogens that can harm your health & upset your natural hormone balance. However, there are now increasing varieties of vegan & non-chemical condoms on the market that are non-toxic and more sustainable, too. Some good options include Sustain Natural, Glyde, L. Condoms, Sir Richard’s, b condoms, and FAIR SQUARED.
The FemCap is a reusable, non-hormonal, latex-free contraceptive device that’s designed to cover the cervix to prevent sperm from entering. It’s over 92% effective in the prevention of pregnancy.
Like the FemCap, diaphragms are silicon or rubber cups that are inserted inside of the vagina to cover the cervix, blocking sperm from reaching the uterus. For best results, they require the use of a spermicide (see info below on ContraGel), which can be applied at the same time as the diaphragm before intercourse. Diaphragms can be inserted several hours beforehand and can stay inside the vagina for up to 24 hours. They should not be removed until at least 6 hours after intercourse. Diaphragms are inexpensive and fairly easy to use, although they do require a physician for fitting. Effectiveness ranges from 84-94%, depending on the accuracy of use.
As an alternative to spermicides (which are full of chemicals), ContraGel is a gel used alongside a barrier method. It changes the vaginal pH, creating an unwelcoming environment for sperm to survive in, and also traps sperm which prevents them from reaching an egg to fertilize. These two actions make it a very effective option for preventing pregnancy when used with condoms, FemCaps, or diaphragms. ContraGel has non-toxic ingredients and won’t irritate the reproductive organs.
Natural birth control methods will protect your health while allowing you to safely & effectively manage your fertility. Ditch the hormonal contraceptives and embrace the natural alternatives available.
Getting tested regularly is a key component to staying safe and maintaining a healthy sex life once sexually activity begins. Get tested for STIs/STDs every 6 months - 1 year and both partners should get tested prior to engaging in sexual intercourse.. This is generally done with a swab of the genitals or through a urine sample and can be conducted with a gynecologist or at a local clinic.
How to support your body with healthy food
There are various ways that women can support and maintain a healthy reproductive system. Below are some holistic suggestions that can be used to support a healthy relationship with this remarkable system in your early teenage years, including herbal, supplemental, nutritional, and lifestyle recommendations.
Eat regular meals at regular meal times This helps to stabilize the body, regulate hormones and blood sugar, and boosts metabolism- promoting metabolism regulation, blood sugar, and hormone balance.
Eat The Rainbow Fruits and vegetables such as arugula, kale, blueberries, leafy greens, oranges, and raspberries are full of vitamins, antioxidants, and phytonutrients. These properties can help feed and repair your reproductive system. By consuming plenty of fruits and vegetables, antioxidants neutralize free radicals, helping to protect your reproductive system.
Try: Eating at least 4 different colors of fruits and vegetables daily. E.g. broccoli, carrots, beets and blueberries.
Consume Leafy Greens Often young girls and women are iron-deficient, especially once their menstrual cycle has begun due to the blood loss that occurs. Specifically, a deficiency is about 30% greater in girls who are beginning to menstruate. Foods high in iron include leafy vegetables such as spinach, egg yolks, pumpkin seeds, mulberries, raw beet greens, lentils, nettle leaf tea, and liver.
Try: Consuming dark leafy greens in a smoothie with fresh berries, chia seeds, hemp seeds, coconut water, almond butter and protein powder of your choice. Aim for 20-30 mg/day of iron, with 30 mg being the maximum. Note: Do not supplement with iron unless it is recommended by a health practitioner.
Zinc is a mineral important for the health of the reproductive organs. It also promotes quicker healing of wounds and boosts immune function to fight a broad range of microbes and free radicals, promoting the body’s resistance to infections such as STIs/STDs. Zinc can also improve and increase libido and sexual pleasure as zinc helps the body maintain proper testosterone levels. It also prevents testosterone already in the body from converting to estrogen by blocking the enzyme responsible for that process. Zinc paired with vitamin B6 has been shown to help significantly with PMS symptoms, as zinc is needed to convert b6 into its active form.
General Dosage: A zinc supplement with 10 mg/day can be used. Note: Do not exceed this supplemental dosage as you also need to consider the amount you are consuming in your meals.
Evening Primrose Oil contains GLA – gamma-linolenic acid. This is an omega-6 fatty acid which has an array of health benefits for the body. Essential fatty acids have anti-inflammatory properties so they can reduce inflammation in areas of the body that are struggling. Evening primrose oil can help reduce cramping during the menstrual cycle by regulating inflammatory prostaglandins. It can also be used topically if hormonal issues are causing acne. In general, supplementing with oil such as evening primrose will help regulate your menstrual cycle and digestive flow, making it a beneficial supplement all around.
General Dosage: 500 mg 2x/day.
Probiotics the bacteria living in our gastrointestinal tracts, are responsible for several essential metabolic processes such as immune system regulation, and the proper digestion and absorption of nutrients. The better our bodies can process and absorb the nutrients in our food, the better we fuel all of the chemical reactions required to keep ourselves and our reproductive systems healthy.
General Dosage: 10 billion CFUs/day with food. A good quality probiotic supplement can be purchased at your local health food store or through a reputable online supplement store.