“From a biological perspective, we’re put on the Earth to make more of us, so that kind of makes the ovaries one of our most important organs,” says Mary Jane Minkin, M.D., clinical professor of obstetrics, gynecology, and reproductive sciences at the Yale School of Medicine. Here are five things you didn’t know about your best reproductive friends.
1. They Produce a Whole Lot of Hormones
Your ovaries secrete estrogen and progesterone, says Minkin. These two hormones are responsible for the development of the female body during puberty (think boob growth, your period, and the widening of your hips). Estrogen and progesterone also prep the uterus for conception—and not producing enough can lead to trouble getting pregnant.
Plus, your ovaries churn out your body’s supply of testosterone (albeit in smaller amounts than the estrogen), which you can thank for your sex drive. (Kick-start your new, healthy routine with Women’s Health’s 12-Week Head-to-Toe Transformation!)
2. They Change Sizes
Unlike a lot of your organs, your ovaries aren’t static in size; they actually change a lot over the course of your cycle and the course of your lifetime. Month to month, your reproductive powerhouses (which are about three to five centimeters in length normally) will fluctuate as they do their thing, releasing an egg each month.
“With ovulation and the likely formation of a small cyst that comes along with it, the ovary can grow a little in size,” says Alyssa Dweck, M.D., assistant clinical professor of obstetrics and gynecology at Mount Sinai School of Medicine. “But that’s only temporary.” Those small changes stop when you go through menopause. Once your ovaries officially go out of commission, they’ll literally shrivel up (fun!).
3. They Can Get Stressed Out
“Ovulation is definitely affected by stress,” says Dweck. When your bod is under pressure—we’re talking the serious kind that’s brought on by a major life change like moving away to college or a physical change like losing a lot of weight—your ovaries will stop releasing eggs. “Simply put, it’s nature’s way of preventing pregnancy during times of stress,” says Dweck.
4. They Could Be Behind Your Acne
Since ovaries play such a big role in your hormonal balance, they can be behind hormonally-driven bodily issues. “With certain conditions like polycystic ovarian syndrome, the hormone balance of estrogen, progesterone, and testosterone becomes really altered,” says Dweck.
“Excess testosterone symptoms like acne, hair growth in typically male places, and weight fluctuations can be seen.” Your doctor can prescribe medication that can help get this under control.
5. They Love the Pill
Birth control—specifically estrogen and progesterone versions of the Pill—can majorly reduce your risk of ovarian cancer within just a few months of starting, according to the American Cancer Society.
The Pill even plays a significant role in reducing the risk in women who are carriers of the BRCA1 or BRCA2 gene mutations (which put you at higher risk for ovarian cancer), says Minkin. “Birth control pills are extremely effective and can reduce their risk by up to 50 percent in some studies,” she says. “It’s a very nice protective factor.”