Your Guide to the Female Reproductive System
This article will explain more about the female reproductive system, including its function, what organs it involves, and what disorders can occur in the female reproductive organs.
The female reproductive system is what gives a female the ability to become pregnant. It also plays a large role in hormone regulation and will change over the course of life.
For instance, the female reproductive system will have a different function during childbearing years than it will after menopause, when having a baby is no longer possible.
The female reproductive system consists of:
- the vagina
- the uterus and cervix
- two fallopian tubes
- two ovaries
- the external structures of the labia, accessory glands, and clitoris
How many eggs does a woman have?
Sex & Gender Terms
Sex and gender exist on spectrums. This article will use the terms “female” and “women” when discussing people assigned female at birth to reflect language that appears in source materials.
Egg cells, also called oocytes, begin to develop while an embryo is still in development. A female baby is born with all the eggs they will ever have for the rest of their life. The number of eggs actually peaks when the baby is still in the mother’s uterus.
By the time a baby is born, the number of eggs drops to 1–2 million. At puberty, there are about 300,000-400,000 eggs left. A woman will use about 400 eggs during the reproductive years. Typically, one egg is released during each monthly ovulatory menstrual cycle.
In general, the female reproductive system has five main functions:
- to get egg cells to develop eggs
- to ovulate or release an egg each cycle
- to allow an egg to fertilize, develop into an embryo, and implant in the uterus
- to deliver a full fetus outside of the body
- to produce sex hormones
At puberty, a female’s reproductive organs become ready to respond to changes in the hormones in the body. The changing levels of hormones control the menstrual cycle and tell the body when to get an egg ready to release, how to prepare for a potential pregnancy, and what to do if an egg does not fertilize.
The main hormones involved in the reproductive system are:
- follicle-stimulating hormone (FSH)
- luteinizing hormone
After menopause, hormone levels change again, and menses will no longer occur.
The organs of the female reproductive system play different roles throughout a female’s life span.
The vagina is an internal, open structure in the reproductive system. It extends from the outer opening to the uterus, which is inside the body. The vagina is the structure that receives the penis in penile-vaginal intercourse.
The vagina is also the birth canal where a baby is delivered out through the body.
The uterus is an organ specifically for growing a developing fetus. When someone is not pregnant, the uterus is about the size of a pear, although that can vary in different people.
During a female’s reproductive years, which last from puberty until menopause, the uterus prepares monthly for pregnancy. If an embryo does not fertilize, the uterus sheds its lining through menses.
After menopause, the uterus does not play an important role in the body. The uterus will become smaller after menopause.
The cervix is the bottom of the uterus. It connects the uterus to the vagina. You can think of the cervix as the “neck” of the uterus, much like the neck of a balloon.
The cervix opens and closes more at certain times of the menstrual cycle for different reasons. For instance, during ovulation, the cervix slightly opens to allow sperm to enter and travel to the egg. The cervix also opens up more during menstruation to allow blood to pass. When someone goes into labor, the cervix can open, or dilate, to allow the delivery of the baby.
Cervical tissue is also the tissue that doctors test with a Pap smear to look for signs of cervical cancer.
The ovaries contain eggs and are responsible for producing hormones. There are two ovaries, one on each side of the uterus and near the fallopian tubes. The ovaries contain follicles, which are fluid filled cysts that contain an egg.
The body will select one egg for ovulation. As the follicle gets bigger, the egg inside develops. Once the egg is ready to ovulate, the follicle bursts, releasing the egg.
The fallopian tubes are where the egg and sperm meet to produce an embryo. The tubes are connected to the uterus and are responsible for capturing the egg once it is released from the ovary.
Sperm travel up through the cervix and uterus and into the fallopian tube in order to find the egg and fertilize it. Once an embryo is created, the embryo travels back through the fallopian tube and into the uterus where it tries to find a place to implant.
If sperm is present during ovulation, fertilization can occur in the fallopian tube. If not, the egg will die, and menses will start after the luteal cycle is complete.
There are also external parts of the female reproductive system. These exist to protect the internal organs and play a role in sexual arousal and reproduction.
The external parts are:
- the vulva
- labia majora and labia minora
The clitoris’s primary role in the body is for pleasure and sexual arousal. When stimulated, the clitoris can cause an orgasm to happen.
The glands mostly provide lubrication that helps keep the vagina clean and moisturized. The glands also produce lubrication in response to sexual arousal to help with intercourse.
The menstrual cycle is the process when the body prepares an egg to release, then releases the egg from one ovary into a fallopian tube. If sperm fertilizes an egg, the body will try to support the pregnancy.
If the egg does not fertilize, the menstrual cycle will then continue to cause the body to discard the lining of the uterus, and the cycle will start over. Day 1 of the menstrual cycle is the first day of bleeding, also commonly called someone’s period.
What are the different phases?
The phases of the menstrual cycle in someone with typical menses are:
- Menstruation: This phase occurs during the days of bleeding over someone’s period.
- Follicular: The follicular phase is when the body prepares to release an egg from the ovary.
- Ovulary: This is when ovulation occurs and an egg is released.
- Luteal: The luteal phase occurs after ovulation and prepares the body for a potential pregnancy.
Ovulation is the process of the body releasing an egg from an ovary. Ovulation typically occurs once a month, about midway through a female’s menstrual cycle. In a 28-day cycle, ovulation might occur around day 14.
However, everyone’s menstrual cycle is different, and it can be temporarily impacted or changed by things such as sleep disruptions, stress, sickness, and travel.
Conditions that affect the female reproductive system can range from structural conditions that impact the organs, such as the uterus, to hormonal disorders that affect how the reproductive system works.
Some female reproductive system disorders include:
- polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS)
- fibroids in the uterus
- uterine cancer
- ovarian cancer
- fallopian tube cancer
- vaginal or vulva cancer
- sexually transmitted infections
- septate uterus
- endometrial polyps
- scar tissue
- infection of the uterus
Read more about PCOS and endometriosis here.
One of the primary functions of the female reproductive system is reproduction, which is the process of pregnancy. However, pregnancy itself can also cause other complications in the body and carries a risk for pregnancy specific conditions, such as:
- high blood pressure
- premature labor
- ectopic pregnancy
- gestational diabetes
- perinatal and postpartum depression
- miscarriage and stillbirth
- hyperemesis gravidarum, or severe morning sickness
- intrahepatic cholestasis of pregnancy
Read more articles relating to pregnancy here.
The female reproductive system consists of the vagina, uterus, fallopian tubes, cervix, and ovaries, as well as the external labia, accessory glands, and clitoris. The primary role of the female reproductive system is reproduction, or the processes of preparing a female to get pregnant. Also, sustaining a pregnancy if it occurs, delivering a baby through the body, and recovering from the physical aspect of pregnancy and birth.
The organs of the female reproductive system respond to changing levels of hormones in the body. During puberty, the ovaries respond to begin ovulation and start the menstrual cycle. With menopause, hormone levels change again, and ovulation and menstruation stop.
Just like with other systems in the body, there can be certain conditions and symptoms that only affect the female reproductive system, such as PCOS or uterine fibroids. Pregnancy-specific conditions, such as preeclampsia or severe morning sickness, can also occur.
If you have any symptoms associated with the female reproductive system, you should schedule an appointment with your doctor for a checkup.