When you are pregnant, learning the signs, symptoms, and risks for developing gestational diabetes is important. It is not only important for your own health, but for the long-term health of your baby.
While every pregnant woman is usually tested for gestational diabetes within their second or third trimester, it is helpful to know the causes, precautions, treatment, and concerns associated with it beforehand. Studies show that around 18 percent of women might experience gestational diabetes during their pregnancy, but only seven percent of them will endure pregnancy complications.
What is Gestational Diabetes?
If your blood sugar levels were usually normal before pregnancy, but are now too high or too low it is possibly due to gestational diabetes.
Gestational diabetes occurs when the blood glucose level, blood sugar, of the mother stays elevated because she is unable to produce and use the insulin needed to support the demands of her pregnancy. This is also known as hyperglycemia.
GD Causes and Risk Factors
Gestational diabetes occurs when your body is not able to produce enough of the hormone insulin during pregnancy. Insulin is vital to transport blood glucose into your cells. If you do not produce enough insulin your body can build up too much glucose within your blood.
An elevated blood glucose level during pregnancy is caused by hormones that are released by the placenta. The placenta produces the hormone known as HPL, human placental lactogen, which helps the baby grow. It also modifies the mother’s metabolism and how it breaks down carbohydrates and lipids. HPL works to raise maternal blood glucose level and makes a woman’s body less sensitive to insulin. When this happens, insulin is not as effective at getting sugar into the body’s cells.
While the exact reasons why some women develop gestational diabetes and others don’t, there are some risk factors to be aware of:
- Weight- If you were overweight before you became pregnant.
- Race- Women that are Asian, Hispanic, African- American, or Native American
- High Blood Sugar- If you have high blood sugar levels, but not high enough to be diabetic before pregnancy.
- Family History – If you have a family history of diabetes.
- Previous Pregnancy – If you have had gestational diabetes before.
- Age- If you are 25 years or older.
- Medical Complications – If you have high blood pressure or other medical complications.
- Previous Birth – If you have given birth to a large baby before, larger than nine pounds. Or have given birth to a baby that was stillborn or certain birth defects.
GD Tests and Diagnosis
Gestational diabetes usually occurs during the second half of pregnancy. Your physician will test for GD between 24 and 28 weeks of your pregnancy. If you are considered a high risk then you may get tested sooner than 24 weeks.
The test is quite simple. You will quickly drink a sugary drink, usually within five minutes. This will work to raise your blood sugar levels. After an hour has passed, your blood will be tested to see how your body has handled the sugar.
If your results show that your blood sugar is higher than a certain cutoff, you will need another test. The test is then a three hour long test that examines your blood sugar while fasting and a longer glucose test.
If you are a high risk for gestational diabetes, but your results are normal, you may need a follow-up test later on in your pregnancy.
The American Diabetes Association set the following to determine “above- normal” levels:
- Fasting – At or above 92 mg/dL
- 1 Hour – At or above 180 mg/dL
- 2 Hour – At or above 153 mg/dL
How GD can Affect You and Your Pregnancy
If you are diagnosed with GD you will have to control your blood glucose level. If you do not control your blood glucose levels and they stay too high for too long, it could cause complications for your baby.
Having gestational diabetes does not mean that your baby will have any complications, however the following may happen if you do not manage your blood glucose levels.
The following are ways that your baby could be affected at birth or shortly after:
- High birth weight
- Premature birth
- Low blood sugar
- Type 2 diabetes later in life
- Respiratory distress syndrome (difficulty breathing on their own)
The following are potential risks for the mother:
- High blood pressure
- Higher chance of C-section
- Diabetes in a future pregnancy
- Diabetes later in life
To help prevent future diabetes or gestational diabetes again in the future, it is best to get tested for six to 12 weeks after you have given birth and every one to three years after.
Treatment for Gestational Diabetes
Most of the time treating GD can be a matter of a few lifestyle changes. The goal is to control your blood sugar. You will need to manage your blood glucose level so that it does not become too high or stay high.
Here are a few ways to help manage blood sugar levels:
- Diet – You will need to spend more time planning your meals, how much you eat, and when you eat. A registered dietitian can help you to create a meal plan that is healthy for you and baby. They can help show you which foods are optimal and which foods are best to avoid to maintain your blood glucose levels.
- Eat regular meals and snacks to help keep your blood sugar levels steady. Three daily meals and two to three snacks are recommended.
- Physical activity – Staying active will help your body to use more glucose, which will in return lower your blood glucose level. When you are active, your body does not need as much insulin to transport the glucose. Your body will become less insulin resistant.
- Aim for 30 minutes of activity daily and keep up your exercise routine throughout your pregnancy.
- Medication – Most people do not need to take medication or insulin and can control their blood glucose levels with food and exercise. However, if you need more help your doctor will likely prescribe insulin or another medication to help assist with your blood glucose regulation. These medications will not have any negative effect on your growing baby.
In order to monitor your blood sugar levels you will have to test several times a day with a blood glucose monitor. Your healthcare practitioner will want you to keep a daily list of your levels to make sure they are being maintained properly.
You can work to avoid gestational diabetes by maintaining a healthy diet and active lifestyle before pregnancy. If you are concerned about being at risk for gestational diabetes, talk with your doctor. They can help you try your best to prevent it and monitor you closely during pregnancy.