A few years ago, Rachel and her husband started trying to have kids. As a first step, Rachel stopped taking birth control. Month after month her at-home pregnancy tests read “not pregnant” yet she wasn’t having a period. Not sure what was going on, but hearing alarm bells, she decided to see a reproductive endocrinologist — a specialist focused on the hormones that impact fertility and the reproductive system.
That visit yielded some important discoveries about Rachel's health, including:
- She wasn’t actually ovulating (the period during the menstrual cycle when you can get pregnant)
- Blood testing and a pelvic ultrasound diagnosed her with Polycystic Ovary Syndrome (PCOS)
- High glucose levels confirmed that she had type 2 diabetes
- The realization that she now had the information she needed to reassess her health as a whole, ultimately saving her from further health complications down the line
Regardless of your thoughts on having children, understanding your fertility is important for your health. We’ve even gone as far as to say that periods are the fifth vital sign alongside body temperature, blood pressure, pulse, and breathing rate. Clues from your hormones, your menstrual cycle, and your reproductive organs can help you understand your body and your overall well-being.
What do we mean by overall health?
The World Health Organization (WHO) defines health as “a state of complete physical, mental, and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity.” Health is an ostensibly broad term, so in this article we’ll focus specifically on fertility-related indicators of overall health in order to help you see the big picture and make decisions that are right for you.
Hormones and your health
Let's talk about hormones first. When learning about your fertility, you’ll probably start hearing about your FSH. FSH stands for follicle-stimulating hormone, which is responsible for the growth of ovarian follicles (the cellular structures that house your eggs). These follicles produce both estrogen and progesterone (among other hormones) in the ovaries and control aspects of your menstrual cycle. Checking your FSH levels (a quick blood test) will provide you with information about your fertility — and also let you know what’s going on with your pituitary gland.
From its captain’s seat at the base of your brain, the pituitary gland controls the functions of other glands in your body, while producing hormones that impact growth. Because of this, it’s often known as the "master control gland." Your FSH levels give you and your doctors information about any pituitary disorders or out-of-range hormone levels you might have.
Quite a few things can impact your hormones and your FSH levels; for instance, stress and being severely underweight. If you’re experiencing hot flashes, night sweats, extreme mood swings, or difficulty sleeping at night, you might be looking at a hormonal imbalance, such as changes in your progesterone levels. It could also represent changes in your LH, oxytocin, testosterone, thyroid, cortisol, leptin, or estrogen levels.
If you have concerns about your FSH levels, visit your doctor for a physical exam and blood tests that can help assess what's going on. (Modern Fertility's kit also measures most of these hormones, and you can test at home).
Thyroid and your health
Your thyroid can impact your fertility so testing for thyroid diseases might give you a better idea about both your reproductive and overall health. In fact, your thyroid gland has a say in almost all of the metabolic processes in your body.
Studies estimate that around 27 million Americans have a thyroid issue, meaning at least 10% of people with a uterus may have some degree of thyroid hormone deficiency. Thyroid disorders come in many shapes and sizes, ranging from an enlarged gland that needs no treatment to cancer.
High levels of the thyroid hormone T4 result in hyperthyroidism. On the flipside, hypothyroidism, a disorder of your pituitary gland, occurs when you’re lacking in T4. Hypothyroidism can present itself with a wide variety of symptoms, some of which even resemble early signs of pregnancy. These symptoms include:
- Weight gain
- Hair loss
- Memory loss
With hypothyroidism, you might also notice an irregular period and you may not be ovulating; an occurrence known as an anovulatory cycle. During an anovulatory cycle, you might experience an insufficient level of progesterone, causing heavy bleeding but no actual ovulation. Hormone replacement therapy can be used when anovulatory cycles occur.
Menstruation and your health
Changes in your menstrual cycle can indicate health issues so we suggest paying attention to your flow. Your cycle may not be a set 28 or 30 days, but there should be some pattern to it. If you start to see your period arriving at unexpected times (or not arriving at all), that might be an indication of a medical issue such as PCOS.
PCOS is currently one of the most common causes of female infertility, affecting up to 5 million women of reproductive age across the US. The condition can also increase your risk of heart disease, diabetes, endometrial cancer, and sleep apnea. Symptoms of PCOS include:
- Missed periods, irregular periods, or very light periods
- Excess hair growth on the face, chest, and back
- Multiple small cysts on the ovaries
Your period can also offer other indications as to the state of your health. If you notice spotting in between your periods, don’t panic. It might mean nothing or it could point towards a yeast infection or a sexually transmitted infection (STI). Spotting could also be a sign of uterine cancer or cervical cancer.
While you’re paying attention to your period, be on the lookout for any changes to the color and scent. Your period normally has a smell attached to it, but a stronger odor than usual — especially one with an overwhelming fish-like smell — or watery menstrual blood could be a sign of an infection.
Cramps and your health
Cramps are normal, but can also be a sign that something new is going on in your body. Your cramps shouldn’t be excruciating; if you're unable to find relief from over the counter pain medications and a hot water bottle, you might be dealing with something serious, such as endometriosis.
If you are feeling cramps when you’re not bleeding or in the middle of your cycle, that can also indicate ovarian cysts. Ovarian cysts are fluid-filled sacs or pockets that develop on the surface or inside of your ovary. While it’s not uncommon to have cysts, cysts that rupture can cause serious pain and cysts that develop after menopause can sometimes be cancerous.
The bottom line
Being fertile doesn’t necessarily mean you’re healthy. That being said, understanding your fertility can be one more tool in understanding your health and your body. Even if you’re not planning on having children, it's always a good idea to get a handle on your reproductive health. If you are planning on trying soon, Modern Fertility can help you find more answers about your hormone levels, and even your ovarian reserve. Each piece of the health puzzle can help you live a healthier life.