What is gestational diabetes?
Gestational diabetes is a temporary condition that can occur during pregnancy. If you have gestational diabetes, it means you have higher blood sugar levels than normal during pregnancy.
Gestational diabetes affects approximately 2 to 10 percent of pregnancies in the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
If you do have gestational diabetes, it’s important to get treated quickly since it can cause problems for both your health and your baby’s.
The causes of gestational diabetes aren’t fully understood and it can’t be prevented entirely. But you can lower your risk of developing it. Keep reading to learn more about this condition and what you can do to decrease your risk.
Gestational diabetes is associated with a variety of risk factors, including:
- being over age 25
- being overweight
- having a close relative with type 2 diabetes
- having conditions that cause insulin resistance, such as polycystic ovarian syndrome (PCOS) and the skin disorder acanthosis nigricans
- having high blood pressure prior to pregnancy
- having gestational diabetes during a previous pregnancy
- gaining a large amount of weight during a current or previous pregnancy
- taking glucocorticoids
- being pregnant with multiples, like twins or triplets
Some ethnic groups are also at a higher risk for developing gestational diabetes, including:
- Native Americans
- Pacific Islanders
The best way to lower your risk for gestational diabetes is to stay healthy and prepare your body for pregnancy.
If you’re overweight, you can take the following steps to prepare for pregnancy:
- Work to improve your diet and eat healthy foods.
- Establish a regular exercise routine.
- Consider weight loss.
Talk with your doctor about the best way for you to lose weight, since even a few pounds can make a difference in your risk level for gestational diabetes.
If you’re inactive, regardless of whether or not you’re overweight, you should also work toward regular physical activity at least three times a week. Exercise moderately for at least 30 minutes each time. Adopt a healthy diet that focuses on vegetables, fruits, and whole grains.
Once you’re pregnant, don’t try to lose weight unless your doctor recommends it. Learn how to lose weight safely if you’re obese and pregnant.
If you’ve had gestational diabetes during a previous pregnancy and you’re planning to become pregnant again, tell your doctor. They will perform early screening to identify your risk factors and ensure you have a healthy pregnancy.
Insufficient insulin or ineffective use of insulin by your body’s cells leads to high glucose levels in the blood. As you gain weight, your body uses insulin less effectively, so it needs to produce more in order to regulate the sugar in your blood. Learn more about the effects of insulin.
In addition, when you’re pregnant your placenta produces insulin-blocking hormones. This makes sugar stay in your blood longer after a meal. Your baby gets nutrients from your blood, so it’s beneficial during pregnancy for nutrients to be in your blood longer so your baby can access them. A certain level of insulin resistance is normal during pregnancy.
Your glucose levels could get too high during pregnancy if:
- you were already insulin-resistant before becoming pregnant
- your blood glucose levels were already high before becoming pregnant
- you have conditions that put you at greater risk for becoming insulin resistant
If your glucose levels become too high, you’ll be diagnosed with gestational diabetes.
Generally, you won’t experience any noticeable symptoms of gestational diabetes. Some women may experience mild symptoms such as:
However, gestational diabetes can increase your risk of other conditions.
Gestational diabetes can also lead to your baby having low blood glucose at birth. In cases of poorly controlled gestational diabetes, your baby is at increased risk for stillbirth.
Since gestational diabetes doesn’t normally have any symptoms, it’s diagnosed by a blood test. Your doctor will order a gestational diabetes screening test during your second trimester. If you have certain risk factors, you may have the test done earlier in your first trimester.
The screening can be done in one of two ways. The first is called a glucose challenge test (GCT). During the test, you’ll drink a sugary solution and take a blood draw an hour later. You do not have to be fasting for this test. If this result is elevated, you will have to do a three-hour glucose test.
The second test option is a glucose tolerance test (OGTT). During this test, you’ll have to be fasting and have a blood draw. Then you’ll drink a sugary solution, and have your blood glucose checked at one hour and two hours later. If one of these results is elevated, you will be diagnosed with gestational diabetes.
Many women are able to manage gestational diabetes through diet and exercise, which can be very effective at controlling blood sugar levels.
You’ll need to pay special attention to your carbohydrate intake and your portion sizes. It’s also important for you to avoid eating and drinking certain items, including alcohol, processed foods, and starches such as white potatoes and white rice. Check out this food list for more tips on what you can and can’t eat if you have gestational diabetes.
Your doctor will recommend a meal plan and exercise schedule. Exercises that are safe to perform during pregnancy include:
You’ll also need to monitor your blood sugar levels to make sure your glucose isn’t too high.
If diet and exercise alone aren’t effective, you may need to take insulin as well.
To do this, you’ll use a small needle to take a sample of blood from your finger, which you’ll place on a test strip in a blood glucose meter. Your doctor will tell you what number range to look for. If your glucose is too high, call your doctor right away.
In addition to testing at home, you’ll be visiting your doctor more frequently if you have gestational diabetes. Your doctor will probably want to test your glucose levels in the office once a month to confirm your home readings.
Your doctor may also recommend induction if labor doesn’t start by your due date. This is because postdate delivery can increase your risks when you have gestational diabetes.
Gestational diabetes usually goes away on its own after you give birth. Your doctor will test your blood sugar levels 6 to 12 weeks after you give birth to make sure your levels are back to normal. If they haven’t, you may have type 2 diabetes.
Even if your blood sugar is back to normal after your baby arrives, gestational diabetes puts you at an increased risk for developing type 2 diabetes later in life. You should get tested every 3 years to make sure your blood glucose levels are normal.
If you had gestational diabetes, your baby is also at higher risk of becoming overweight or developing type 2 diabetes when they’re older. You can decrease this risk by:
Will eating sugary foods during my pregnancy increase my risk for gestational diabetes?
Eating sugary foods will not increase your risk for gestational diabetes. If you are diagnosed with gestational diabetes it will be important to manage your carbohydrate intake to best manage your blood sugar levels. This would include managing your intake of sugary foods. Some of these foods, such as soda and juice, digest more quickly than other carbohydrate foods that have fiber, and may spike blood sugar levels, especially if taken alone. Meet with a registered dietitian if you are diagnosed with gestational diabetes so you can be sure that you are managing your diet appropriately.Peggy Pletcher, MS, RD, LD, CDEAnswers represent the opinions of our medical experts. All content is strictly informational and should not be considered medical advice.