Gestational Diabetes: What Is It, and What Causes It?

When women are pregnant, they can develop something called gestational diabetes. This is similar to Type II diabetes, but it only occurs during pregnancy. Gestational diabetes arises because hormones generated in the placenta (the sack that surrounds the baby in the uterus) often have side effects on the rest of a woman’s body. Gestational diabetes can be a threat to the health of the mother and her baby, but if you’re an expectant mother—or are concerned about the health of a mother—be assured: women are generally tested for gestational diabetes as they get further into pregnancy, and if they follow some sensible guidelines for protecting their health, they can expect to recover after the baby is born.

How Hormones Play a Role

Pregnancy makes the body change in some obvious and less obvious ways. One of the less obvious ways is the effect pregnancy can have on the levels of various hormones in the woman’s body. Because hormones are the chemicals that parts of the body use to signal to to other parts of the body, these changing hormone levels can make you feel moody, sick, stressed, or calmer than normal, and they may make it harder to maintain healthy eating and exercise habits, among other things. Hormones can also affect your overall health by reducing your body’s ability to process blood sugar correctly. When that happens, blood sugar rises and gestational diabetes develops. That can harm the pregnant woman, and also have serious consequences for her unborn child.

How Blood Sugar is Tested

To screen you for gestational diabetes, your doctor will test your blood sugar in the same way they would test for Type I or Type II diabetes, by taking a tiny sample of your blood and checking the amount of blood sugar present in the sample. Generally, fasting blood sugar—where your blood is taken after you’ve avoided eating for a set period of time—is the most important test, but in some cases women who are pregnant struggle with blood sugar that rises too much after eating and takes too long to return to normal. If this is an issue, it can be detected by giving you a drink with a specific level of glucose in it and then checking your blood sugar at predetermined intervals afterward. If you have higher blood sugar levels than what would be considered normal, you may have gestational diabetes and need treatment to keep healthy.

What Can Be Done About Gestational Diabetes?

Unfortunately, there isn’t much that can be done to “cure” gestational diabetes during the pregnancy. Some women are predisposed to it, and even women without risk factors may develop it. But there are proven strategies that can help you avoid complications. Just as with Type II diabetes, if you have gestational diabetes you may be able to control your blood sugar with diet and exercise. Women who are overweight may want to try to get to a healthy weight before becoming pregnant, and may want to work with their doctor to reduce how much weight they gain during pregnancy while still protecting the safety of the baby.

If you’re at risk for gestational diabetes, or if you start to develop it, you can work with your doctor on a diet and exercise plan that may help you. Most of the time, you can still safely exercise during pregnancy, although you shouldn’t start a difficult exercise routine if you haven’t been exercising before pregnancy. Eating healthy is also important, and can benefit both you and the baby during and after pregnancy.

What Happens When Pregnancy is Over?

You can generally expect your blood sugar to return to normal after you have your baby. That’s not always the case, especially for women who may be overweight, or who may have had prediabetes before becoming pregnant. Your blood sugar will likely become normal again, though, if you give it a little bit of time after your baby is born. Keep that in mind, but also work with your doctor and make sure you focus on taking good care of yourself and checking your blood sugar. Your doctor can advise you on how long your blood sugar should take to be normal again, and when to be concerned if it stays high.

Are There Specific Risk Factors?

Like Type II diabetes, gestational diabetes often comes from being overweight or obese, from eating an unhealthy diet with too much sugar, and from not getting enough exercise. These risk factors don’t affect the hormones that occur during pregnancy, but they can make it easier for a women to develop issues with high blood sugar. If you’re prediabetic and become pregnant, you may also be at greater risk of gestational diabetes, simply because you’re close to having diabetes already. The tipping point will be closer, and pregnancy hormones can cause you to tip into diabetic territory.

Reducing Complications From Gestational Diabetes

Gestational diabetes can have some serious complications. Organ damage is the most common, along with neuropathy and blindness. What’s more, the complications aren’t confined to the mother: they can also occur in the unborn baby. That can mean giving birth to a child who is already sick, or who has health problems that could have been avoided. Discovering diabetes early on in a pregnancy and controlling it quickly and carefully can reduce the chances of any complications, and that can help you feel better during your pregnancy and worry less about your baby’s health as well.

What Can Women Due to Reduce Later Type II Risk?

If you have gestational diabetes, you’ll be at a higher risk of Type II diabetes later on. In order to reduce that risk, you’ll want to have your blood sugar tested frequently. Yearly checkups will be important, and if problems are found then you should have your blood sugar tested more often. Additionally, getting to a healthy weight and staying there, eating healthy foods and reducing sugar, and making sure you get enough exercise are all very important.

That’s true of people who have Type II diabetes, and also true of people who are trying to prevent it. While taking these steps isn’t a guarantee that you won’t develop Type II diabetes, and while your risk will always be higher after having gestational diabetes, it’s important to minimize your risk as much as possible to stay healthy and take good care of your baby for years to come.

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