An Overview of the Ovaries

Estrogen, Progesterone, and Reproduction

Written by Robert M. Sargis MD, PhD

Ovaries Essentials

The ovaries are a pair of ova-producing organs (that is, they produce egg cells) that maintain the health of the female reproductive system. The ovaries, like their male counterpart, the testes, are known as gonads. This simply means they are the primary reproductive organs.


In addition to their role in producing ova, the ovaries also have the distinction of being an endocrine gland because they secrete hormones—primarily estrogen and progesterone—that are vital to normal reproductive development and fertility.

Anatomy of the Ovaries
The ovaries are oval shaped and about the size of a large grape. They are located on opposite ends of the pelvic wall, on either side of the uterus. The ovaries are each attached to the fimbria (tissue that connects the ovaries to the fallopian tube).
 
Hormones of the Ovaries
Ovaries produce and release two groups of sex hormones—progesterone and estrogen. There are actually three major estrogens, known as estradiol, estrone, and estriol. These substances work together to promote the healthy development of female sex characteristics during puberty and to ensure fertility.
 
Estrogen (estradiol, specifically) is instrumental in breast development, fat distribution in the hips, legs, and breasts, and the development of reproductive organs.
 
To a lesser extent, the ovaries release the hormone relaxin prior to giving birth. Another minor hormone is inhibin, which is important for signaling to the pituitary to inhibit follicle-stimulating hormone secretion.
 
Progesterone and Estrogen Production and Function
Progesterone and estrogen are necessary to prepare the uterus for menstruation, and their release is triggered by the hypothalamus.
 
Once you reach puberty, the ovaries release a single egg each month (the ovaries typically alternate releasing an egg)—this is called ovulation. The hypothalamus sends a signal to the pituitary gland to release gonadotrophic substances (follicle stimulating hormone and luteinizing hormone). These hormones are essential to normal reproductive function—including regulation of the menstrual cycle.
 
As the egg migrates down the fallopian tube, progesterone is released. It is secreted by a temporary gland formed within the ovary after ovulation called the corpus luteum. Progesterone prepares the body for pregnancy by causing the uterine lining to thicken. If a woman is not pregnant, the corpus luteum disappears.
 
If a woman is pregnant, the pregnancy will trigger high levels of estrogen and progesterone, which prevent further eggs from maturing. Progesterone is secreted to prevent uterine contractions that may disturb the growing embryo. The hormone also prepares the breasts for lactation.
 
Increased estrogen levels near the end of pregnancy alert the pituitary gland to release oxytocin, which causes uterine contractions. Before delivery, the ovaries release relaxin, which as the name suggests, loosens the pelvic ligaments in preparation for labor.
 
More hormones are released during pregnancy than at any other time of a woman’s life, but during menopause—which marks the end of fertility—estrogen levels fall fast. This can lead to a range of complications. 
 
Diseases and Disorders of the Ovaries
 
The ovaries have an immensely important role not only in the female reproductive system but in the endocrine system as a whole. The hormones they secrete ensure the proper development of the female body and promote healthy fertility.

 

 

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