How your body, brain, and behavior change during your most fertile part of the month.
March 25, 2016
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All about your cycle
Each month, about two weeks before your period is due, your body preps for a potential pregnancy by ovulating, a process where an egg is released from an ovary into the fallopian tubes, where it may be fertilized by sperm. Your estrogen level peaks during this time, and progesterone begins to rise sharply, but these hormonal surges don't just affect your reproductive system—they affect your behavior, too. Read on to learn about some surprising things that happen to your body and your brain during ovulation.
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Your sense of smell is sharper
Women are more sensitive to smell around the time of ovulation, according to a study published in 2013 in Hormones and Behavior. In particular, ovulating women were more sensitive to androstenone and androsterone, human pheromones found in male sweat and urine, as well as to a musky odor, compared to women who were taking birth control pills (and therefore not ovulating). It’s possible that a heightened sense of smell helps you better sniff out a potential mate during this time of peak fertility.
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Your gaydar is at its peak
When female college students were asked to look at photos of 80 men—half of whom were straight, and half gay—and determine the sexual orientation of each, they were more accurate the closer they were to ovulation, according to a study published in 2011 in Psychological Science. “Past studies have also shown that women's preferences for men's faces varies depending on where they are in their cycle, so it makes sense that their ‘gaydar’ might vary with these hormonal changes as well,” explains study coauthor Nicholas Rule, PhD, associate professor of psychology at the University of Toronto.
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You’re a little more flush
Your skin color changes ever so slightly throughout your menstrual cycle, according to a 2015 University of Cambridge study. When women were photographed without make-up at the same time every day for a month, they had the most facial redness at ovulation. These changes are so slight they’re not actually detectable by the human eye—but researchers suspect they may be linked to other changes in appearance or behavior, since other studies have found men rate women more attractive when they’ve ovulating.
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Your voice changes
Women use a higher, more feminine pitch when they’ve ovulating, according to a 2009 UCLA study. A higher voice pitch is associated with being younger (and thus more fertile), which may help explain why an earlier study in Evolution & Human Behavior found that women’s voices were rated as more attractive during ovulation. “We’ve also found that women show many behavioral shifts during ovulation, including dressing and walking differently, which when all put together may be the way women inadvertently reveal their fertility status,” explains Greg Bryant, PhD, a psychologist at the Center for Behavior, Evolution and Culture at UCLA and coauthor of the 2009 study.
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You dress to impress
Speaking of dressing: Ovulating women are more likely to choose revealing clothing, a University of Texas study found, and an earlier UCLA study found that people were more likely to rate women in their most fertile phase as “trying to look more attractive,” compared to women post-ovulation. As if those bids for attention weren’t enough, other studies have found that women are more apt to wear pink or red clothing during their most fertile window—the idea being that men are sexually attracted to women who are wearing red.
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You may have an easier time quitting smoking
Women experience their most intense cigarette cravings right after their period, according to a 2014 study that measured brain activity in men and women who were shown both smoking-related and neutral images. “It may be low levels of estrogen and progesterone worsen withdrawal symptoms by interacting with other brain neurotransmitters that spur cravings,” explains study coauthor Adrianna Mendrek, PhD, a psychologist at the University of Montreal. Conversely, women’s brains reacted much less to smoking-related cues just after ovulation, when both hormones are at their peak.
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Your asthma may improve
Got wheezing? It’ll most likely get better for a day or two around ovulation, according to a 2012 Norwegian study. When researchers charted symptoms of nearly 4,000 women over the course of their menstrual cycles, they found that while wheezing and shortness of breath were higher during the middle two weeks of the month (when estrogen levels are naturally high), both symptoms dipped right around the time of ovulation (days 14 to 16). “We see this anecdotally, too, so it makes sense that a woman should talk to her allergist about individualizing her asthma treatments to her menstrual cycle,” says Bryan Martin, DO, president of the American College of Allergy, Asthma, and Immunology.
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Your cholesterol starts to dip
If you need to get your cholesterol checked, don’t do it before ovulation. That’s when it’s at its highest, according to a 2010 National Institutes of Health study published in the Journal of Clinical Endocrinology and Metabolism. Researchers found that women’s total cholesterol levels rose in the first half of their cycle, as estrogen increased, dropped immediately before ovulation, then declined rapidly post ovulation, in the second half of the cycle. Testing at the end of your cycle—when your levels are at their lowest—reduces the risk that you’ll get a false positive.
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You play the field
It probably comes as no shock that you cast a wide net in the dating pool when you’re ovulating, since it’s your most fertile time. But surprisingly, you do the same thing when you’re shopping, too. When researchers surveyed 20- and 30-something women who weren’t pregnant or taking hormonal contraceptives, they found women were more likely to try a new product—everything from makeup to candy bars—when they were ovulating. “We didn’t see this among women who were already in a committed relationship, who were more likely to say they were sticking with both the same partner and brands,” explains study author Kristina Durante, PhD, associate professor of marketing at Rutgers Business School.
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Your vote may swing
One 2013 study (also by Durante) found that single women who were ovulating were more likely to vote for Barack Obama in the 2012 U.S. presidential election, while ovulating women in committed relationships preferred Mitt Romney. “We found that single women were more likely to relax their views about politics and religion when they’re ovulating, possibly because their sexual desire is ramped up during this time,” says Durante, who also notes her group saw similar results in men when their testosterone levels were high. Coupled-up women, however, were another story entirely, becoming more religious and conservative during this time. “We’re not sure why, but it could be that their increased libido made them feel guilty, especially if they fantasizing about men they weren’t involved with,” theorizes Durante.
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You become extra competitive with other women
Durante has also found that women near ovulation are much more interested in boosting their status compared to other women. In a 2014 study, researchers had ovulating and non-ovulating women play the “dictator game,” where they were given a fixed amount of money to share with other women. Ovulating women shared only half as much as the non-ovulating ones. Not only that, when men were added to the game, ovulating women gave about 60% to the guys, as opposed to 25% to the women. “This is consistent with other research that’s been done on animals,” says Durante. “Female monkeys, for example, go all Real Housewives with one another when they’re at their most fertile.”
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You dis your dad
Ovulating women are half as likely to talk to their fathers, and speak to them for about half their usual length, while cell phone calls with Mom increase in both frequency and duration, according to a 2010 UCLA study. It may be that you just subconsciously don’t want Pops lecturing you about your dating life—and exerting any sort of control over you—in your most fertile time. Or, as study researchers darkly predict, it’s an evolutionary defense against inbreeding.
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You choose bad boys
You’re not only more likely to choose that Shia LeBoeuf type around ovulation—you’re also more likely to convince yourself he’ll make a devoted father and provider, according to Durante’s research. In a 2012 study, women were shown online dating profiles of either a charismatic hottie or a reliable “nice guy” at different points of their menstrual cycle, and then asked to rate how helpful they thought the guy would be at caring for a baby, food shopping, cooking, and helping with other household chores. “We found that when women were under the hormonal influence of ovulation, they basically deluded themselves into thinking the sexy bad boy type would be better than the more reliable one,” explains Durante.
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Your guy becomes more jealous
Research has long shown that women gravitate toward “masculine” looking males during ovulation: think strong jaw lines and thin lips. But your partner is also more likely to feel threatened by these manly men, according to a study done at the University of Liverpool in the UK. Men whose female partners were ovulating rated other men with masculine features as more dominant (someone who looked like they could “get what they wanted”), compared to men whose female partner was on birth control, or not near ovulation.