Gestational diabetes is a kind of diabetes that happens only in pregnancy. This type of diabetes develops in pregnant patients who don’t already have diabetes.
Gestational diabetes is fairly common. In fact, it affects as many as 10% of all pregnancies in the U.S. It’s why doctors test for it during every pregnancy.
While gestational diabetes can feel like a scary diagnosis, you can still have a healthy pregnancy and a healthy baby. However, it’s very important to work with your doctor to manage your gestational diabetes.
What Causes Gestational Diabetes?
Doctors don’t know exactly why some pregnant women develop gestational diabetes and others don’t. But we do know it’s related to hormonal changes that happen during pregnancy.
During pregnancy, your body is flooded with hormones. Some of these hormones can interfere with the way your body makes and uses insulin. Insulin is a hormone your pancreas makes to help glucose leave the blood and become energy.
Gestational diabetes happens when your body can’t make enough insulin — or it can’t effectively use the insulin it does make. The latter is called insulin resistance. You may need up to three times as much insulin if you have insulin resistance.
Is Gestational Diabetes Permanent?
Gestational diabetes is not permanent in most cases. It’s a condition that happens during pregnancy. It doesn’t mean that you had diabetes before you got pregnant or that you will have it after.
About half of people with gestational diabetes go on to develop type 2 diabetes later on in life.
This is why it’s important to work with your doctor to manage your diabetes during pregnancy. After pregnancy, there are some things you can do to decrease your risk for developing type 2 diabetes:
- Work to maintain a healthy weight.
- Stay physically active.
- Make healthy food choices.
Your doctor can give you more specific prevention information. If you develop type 2 diabetes after having gestational diabetes, it doesn’t mean you did something wrong. Some causes of diabetes, like genetics, you can’t control.
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Is Gestational Diabetes Caused By Diet?
Gestational diabetes doesn’t have just a single cause. Pregnant women don’t get gestational diabetes because they ate too much sugar.
But if your doctor diagnoses you with gestational diabetes, diet becomes very important. Your diet is one of the ways you can help keep gestational diabetes under control, and keep your baby healthy.
Treating gestational diabetes means keeping a close watch on your blood sugar. You may need a special meal plan to do this. Your doctor will talk to you about how what you eat affects your blood sugar.
Does Exercise Help Gestational Diabetes?
Yes, exercise can help you manage gestational diabetes. (Exercise also helps everyone manage diabetes, whether or not they are pregnant.)
Talk to your doctor about what level of exercise is safe, and what kind of exercise is best. If you were already active before pregnancy, you can usually keep doing that activity. There are a few exceptions, so talk to your doctor first.
Even if you weren’t active before pregnancy, you can start to exercise in pregnancy. Try to get 30 minutes of activity, like walking, five days a week.
Does Gestational Diabetes Have Symptoms?
Gestational diabetes usually doesn’t have symptoms.
Some people with gestational diabetes may be thirstier than normal or have to urinate more. But these are also common things that happen in pregnancy.
People usually only learn they have gestational diabetes because of a glucose test they take between 24 and 28 weeks of pregnancy. If you have other risk factors, your provider may recommend doing this test earlier in pregnancy.
What’s the Glucose Test for Gestational Diabetes?
There are two types of glucose tests.
- The one-hour glucose challenge: You drink a sweet sugar beverage at the doctor’s office. A health care professional checks your blood sugar an hour later, to see how much glucose is in your blood. Normal is less than 135 mg/dL.
- The three-hour oral glucose tolerance test: This test requires fasting and multiple blood draws. You drink a sweet glucose beverage, and a tech draws your blood two or three times over the three hours. If two or more readings come back high, you are diagnosed with gestational diabetes.
Your doctor will talk to you about which glucose test you need. Most of the time, they start with the one-hour challenge and only have you do the three-hour challenge if the one-hour test is elevated.
Can Gestational Diabetes Harm My Baby?
Keeping your gestational diabetes well-managed is the best way to keep your pregnancy healthy. With the right steps, you can have a healthy baby, and stay healthy yourself. Your provider may recommend additional fetal monitoring (ultrasounds, fetal non-stress tests) during pregnancy to make sure your baby is healthy.
When you have gestational diabetes, your baby has a higher risk for:
- Weighing 9+ pounds (increasing your chance for needing a C-section).
- Premature birth.
- Having low blood sugar after birth.
- Having breathing problems.
Babies born to people with gestational diabetes may also have an increased risk of developing type 2 diabetes later in life.
How Can I Prevent Gestational Diabetes?
You may be able to lower your risk for gestational diabetes by doing the same things that lower the risk for type 2 diabetes. This includes keeping a healthy weight and getting regular exercise.
But there are other factors you can’t control, like genetics.
In general, you have a greater chance of getting gestational diabetes if:
- You’ve had gestational diabetes before.
- You have a first-degree relative with type 2 diabetes.
- You have prediabetes (higher than normal blood glucose levels).
- You have polycystic ovary syndrome.
- You are overweight.
- You’re African American, American Indian, Asian American/Pacific Islander, or Hispanic/Latina.
What If Diet and Exercise Aren’t Enough to Manage My Gestational Diabetes?
With gestational diabetes, you’ll need to check your blood sugar regularly. Your doctor will give you target blood glucose levels. These will include target levels for before eating, after eating, and at bedtime.
If diet and exercise isn’t enough to help keep your levels in check, you may need insulin.
Taking insulin won’t hurt your baby. Your doctor or health care professional will show you how to give yourself insulin shots. Your doctor may also give you insulin shots during labor.
With good control of your blood sugars, the majority of pregnancies can still deliver at 39-40 weeks. However, if you are having a hard time controlling your sugars, your doctor may recommend earlier delivery. It is important to follow-up regularly to ensure a safe and healthy pregnancy and delivery.
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