Gestational diabetes often comes across as little more than a footnote in most diabetes literature. In fact, it’s probably the least written about form of diabetes out there, despite being a real health concern for many women, and having some very real implications for women’s postpartum health.
Pregnancy can be stressful enough on its own without having to worry about gestational diabetes, and we’ve always found that knowledge is the best weapon against worry. This guide was written to be read by any woman who is pregnant or might be getting pregnant soon, but should be especially paid attention to by women with a family history of diabetes, as that tends to increase the risk.
What Is Gestational Diabetes?
Gestational diabetes is a condition of abnormally high blood sugar that first presents itself during pregnancy. Various estimates put the number of pregnant women who suffer from the disorder at between 3% and 18%, or almost one in five. As with other forms of diabetes, gestational diabetes occurs because the body has trouble handling excess blood glucose and producing insulin. In that way, it’s much more similar to Type 2 diabetes – the body is still capable of producing insulin, but it does not make enough to effectively deal with all of the glucose being metabolized.
The exact causes of gestational diabetes are not fully known, but it is suspected that the weight gain and hormone changes that accompany any pregnancy are largely responsible for the poor insulin production and uptake. While both gaining weight and changing hormones are natural and healthy during pregnancy, in some women they cause the body to misread how much insulin needs to be produced.
Who’s At Risk for Gestational Diabetes?
All pregnant women are at some level of risk for gestational diabetes. Since it affects as many as 18% of all pregnant women, it is one of the most common conditions associated with pregnancy.
There most common and well-known risk factors are:
Immediate family history of diabetes, or a sibling/parent who had gestational diabetes
Some races are more prone to diabetes. These include – African American, Hispanic/Latino, Asian American, Pacific Islander, or American Indian
Pregnancy over the age of 25. While having a young mother is a risk factor for diabetes in children, it actually decreases the chances of gestational diabetes
Being overweight is a significant risk factor
Having a child born at over 9 lbs. in a previous pregnancy
Prediabetes or impaired glucose tolerance
Gestational diabetes in a previous pregnancy
The more risk factors you have going into a pregnancy, the higher your risk of being affected by gestational diabetes. Being overweight, or having a family or personal history of diabetes are the worst risk factors.
What Are The Effects of Gestational Diabetes?
Unlike Types 1 and 2, gestational diabetes has very few negative effects for the mother. Some potential risks are heightened blood pressure and an increase in the risk for developing Type 2 diabetes post pregnancy. It is very rare for gestational diabetes to get so bad that it requires “traditional” diabetes treatments like insulin injections, or even using a blood glucose monitor.
In women with a higher risk for gestational diabetes, doctors will check for gestational diabetes at the initial visit, and then a couple of times throughout the pregnancy. For those with average or low risk, the first check will likely come later, somewhere between the 25 and 35 week mark. Often, any signs of gestational diabetes can be caught early enough to be corrected.
The risks are significantly higher for babies than they are for mothers. Gestational diabetes is linked to a significantly higher birth weight which can lead to a number of complications. These include difficulty delivering, which often requires a cesarean section. Other risks include impaired breathing and low blood glucose count at birth. While having to go through a c-section might not sound like a terrible consequence, it can be incredibly stressful if it’s not discovered early enough and an emergency c-section needs to be performed instead of a traditional delivery.
To monitor these risks, physicians will often perform extra ultrasounds and blood glucose tests on women who are either prediabetic, have a high risk of gestational diabetes, or actually suffer from gestational diabetes.
How Can I Prevent/Treat Gestational Diabetes?
There’s not a surefire way to prevent gestational diabetes. Even Salma Hayek, always in great shape, suffered from the disease during one of her pregnancies. You CAN however treat it and decrease or eliminate most of its adverse effects.
Like with mild Type 2 diabetes, the best treatment is a combination of a healthy diet and plenty of exercise. Losing excess weight (in a way that is healthy for you and for your baby!) is the best way to keep the adverse effects of gestational diabetes from causing complications. Even small weight reductions can make a large difference, and will go a long way towards preventing Type 2 diabetes after pregnancy.