April 7th is World Health Day! Created by the World Health Organization (WHO), it’s held to commemorate the founding of WHO, and aims to raise awareness about a major topic within global health. Each year has a theme, and this year’s theme is diabetes so we thought we’d take this opportunity to bring you the facts on gestational diabetes.
During pregnancy, any woman can develop gestational diabetes, also known as GD. This occurs when blood sugar levels become elevated during pregnancy. According to the CDC, the prevalence of gestational diabetes can be up to 9.2 percent. It’s not known for certain what causes gestational diabetes, although hormones play a role. As the placenta develops and nourishes the baby, hormones from the placenta can interfere with a woman’s insulin, causing insulin resistance. When this occurs, more insulin needs to be made and used. GD develops when the body can’t make the insulin it needs during pregnancy. If there’s not enough insulin, glucose, or sugar, can’t be turned into energy, and accumulates in the blood, causing high blood glucose levels.
How Do I Know if I Have GD?
Testing for GD is done with a simple blood test, usually between 24 and 28 weeks of gestation. Most OB/GYN or midwife offices have a special sugary drink (it sort of tastes like flat soda) that you drink, and then an hour later, blood is drawn to check glucose levels. If the results come back elevated, the process is repeated, and your blood will be drawn before drinking the drink, and then every hour for three hours.
Why is Screening for GD so Important?
If glucose levels are not controlled during pregnancy, the baby will also have elevated glucose levels, causing its pancreas to make extra insulin. GD can cause your baby to have a larger body than normal because the extra glucose is stored as fat, which can cause complications with delivery. The baby is also at risk for breathing problems, jaundice, and stillbirth. Being exposed to uncontrolled GD also increases the risk of your baby becoming overweight later on, as well as developing Type 2 diabetes. While these risks are very serious, they can easily be minimized and even eliminated with proper diet, exercise, and if needed, insulin.
For you, GD can increase the risk of preeclampsia, a serious disorder that causes elevated blood pressure and excess protein in the urine. Women that develop gestational diabetes are at an increased risk of developing Type 2 diabetes later in life. If you do develop GD, you should be screened again after delivery and regularly thereafter.
Who is at risk for Developing GD?
While any woman can develop GD, some women are at higher risk, including those who are overweight, those who’ve had GD in a previous pregnancy, African-Americans, Latinas, Asian-Americans, women with PCOS (polycystic ovary syndrome), and those with immediate family members who have Type 2 diabetes.
How Can I Reduce My Risk?
Prior to getting pregnant, if you’re overweight, it’s best to adopt a healthy diet and lifestyle, along with regular physical activity. If you’re diagnosed with GD, now isn’t the time to lose weight! Your doctor or midwife will talk with you about where your blood glucose levels should be, and you’ll likely have to check your blood sugar. You might be given a recommended dietary plan, and instructed to do some exercise like walking or some sort of aerobic activity, to help control sugar levels. Insulin shots might also be necessary. The management of GD can vary from woman to woman, and everyone’s different.
Gestational diabetes isn’t something that will doom your pregnancy – it can be managed and handled, and the most important thing is awareness of it, and how to live with it so that you and your baby can stay healthy. There is a growing body of evidence that exercise is a highly effective strategy for both preventing and managing GD. Weight gain is a contributing factor to gestational diabetes and staying active can help you keep the excess pounds at bay. Even if you didn’t work out before pregnancy, starting an exercise regime now will stack the odds in your favor and help you to have a happy, healthy nine months!