What is Gestational Diabetes?
Gestational diabetes is diagnosed during pregnancy through a test given by your doctor. Like type 1 and type 2 diabetes, gestational diabetes causes blood sugar levels to become too high.
When you’re pregnant, your body naturally becomes more resistant to insulin so that more glucose is available to nourish your baby. For most moms-to-be, this isn’t a problem. When the body needs additional insulin turn excess glucose into energy, the pancreas will make more.
But if the pancreas can’t keep up with the increased demand for insulin during pregnancy, blood sugar levels could rise too high—resulting in gestational diabetes.
Unlike other types of diabetes, gestational diabetes isn’t permanent. Once the baby is born, the mother’s blood sugar will most likely return to normal. However, having gestational diabetes during pregnancy makes developing type 2 diabetes in the future more likely.
Who Gets Gestational Diabetes?
Between 5 and 10 percent of pregnant women develop gestational diabetes about midway through their pregnancies. Doctors typically test for gestational diabetes between the 24th and 28th week of the pregnancy. Doctors test during this time because the placenta is producing a large amount of hormones that can cause insulin resistance. If the test results show higher levels, the doctor will test further before a diagnosis.
Gestational Diabetes Tests
The gestational diabetes test consists of drinking a syrupy beverage and waiting one hour during your doctor visit. You can eat and drink normally before this test. Some moms-to-be find the drink tastes bad, while some enjoy it. After one hour, your doctor will test your blood sugar to see if it is high. If so, the doctor will schedule a glucose tolerance test.
Before the glucose tolerance test, you fast overnight. When you arrive at the doctor, the nurse will test your fasting blood sugar. Then, you drink an 8-ounce glass of glucose solution. Your doctor then measures your glucose levels once an hour for the next three hours.
If both of these tests show high blood sugar, your doctor will diagnose you with gestational diabetes. Your doctor will monitor you and your baby closely for the rest of your pregnancy, and you will need to monitor your blood sugar, modify your diet and exercise habits, and possibly take insulin or oral medication if prescribed by your doctor.
Good exercise options during pregnancy are walking, swimming, and prenatal yoga. It is recommended to get about 150 minutes of exercise every week, or about 30 minutes 5 days per week.
If you are diagnosed with gestational diabetes, your doctor will give you a glucose tolerance test 6 to 12 weeks after delivery to make sure you don’t still have diabetes. After that, you should have screenings every three years.
Gestational diabetes can cause health problems for both the mother and baby. For example, the baby’s shoulders could become stuck during birth. After birth, the baby could have difficulty regulating blood sugar because he or she is used to an increased amount of glucose.
The mother faces several health issues as well, like increased bleeding and preeclampsia, a sometimes life-threatening rise in blood pressure.
What are the Risk Factors?
While some insulin resistance is normal later in a pregnancy, this is sometimes enough to produce gestational diabetes for some women. Some of the factors that put you at a greater risk are:
- A history of gestational diabetes
- Having prediabetes
- A history of polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS)
- A parent or sibling having type 2 diabetes
- A previous delivery of an infant with a birth weight of over 9 pounds
Gestational Diabetes Diet
It’s important to eat a healthy diet if you’re diagnosed with gestational diabetes. The following are recommendations of what to eat with gestational diabetes.
What you should eat:
- Fresh or frozen vegetables
- Fresh fruit
- Skinless chicken breast
- Baked fish
- Eggs or egg whites
- Unsweetened Greek yogurt
What you should avoid:
- Fast food
- Fried food
- Sugary drinks
- Baked goods
- Starchy food, like white potatoes and white rice
Lifelong Risks of Gestational Diabetes
If untreated, gestational diabetes can result in a myriad of additional health problems. Mothers diagnosed with gestational diabetes have the following health risks:
- Higher chance of developing high blood pressure and preeclampsia.
- Increased chance of developing gestational diabetes in future pregnancies.
- Likelihood of developing type 2 diabetes after giving birth is seven times higher, with 50% of women receiving a diagnosis of type 2 diabetes within 10 years of giving birth.
- Risk of developing metabolic syndrome, a cluster of health problems including heart disease, high blood pressure, high blood sugar, and abdominal obesity.
While the lingering effects of gestational diabetes in mothers have been well documented, the health of their babies is less so. If you develop gestational diabetes, work with your healthcare team to determine how to follow up on future glucose testing.
If left untreated, infants of mothers with gestational diabetes may be born overweight and with low glucose levels as their bodies have grown used to receiving extra glucose from the mother. Additional risks to infants include premature birth, respiratory distress syndrome, and increased likelihood of developing type 2 diabetes later in life.
No one can predict who will develop gestational diabetes and who will not, but staying active and eating healthily prior to and during pregnancy can decrease the likelihood of development.