Gestational diabetes occurs when a pregnant woman’s blood sugar levels remain consistently higher than normal. It occurs in about 4% of pregnant women and typically begins later in pregnancy. Once diagnosed, women with gestational diabetes are considered high risk because their babies are often significantly larger than normal, and this can cause difficulties during labor and delivery.
After the baby has been delivered, they are more prone to developing low blood sugar (hypoglycemia) immediately after birth. And women who develop gestational diabetes are more likely to develop type 2 diabetes later in life.
Causes of Gestational Diabetes
As you can imagine, all of these are causes for concern and are some of the reasons why prenatal appointments are so necessary. Typically, your doctor will have you do a glucose screening test between 26 and 28 weeks of pregnancy. The results of this test determine whether or not you have high blood sugar levels, which could indicate gestational diabetes.
While certain risk factors lead to gestational diabetes, we’ve also seen women that eat impeccable diets and exercise regularly – – and wind up with gestational diabetes, so you never know. Here are some of the most common risk factors associated with gestational diabetes:
Being obese or overweight before you were pregnant
Obesity takes its toll on the pancreas, especially during pregnancy when the body is working so hard to grow and nurture a developing fetus. Extra weight makes it harder for your body to use insulin effectively. Additionally, when you are pregnant, the high levels of hormones produced by the placenta interfere further with your body’s ability to process insulin, leading to excess sugar in the blood and can eventually cause gestational diabetes.
A history of gestational diabetes in the past
If you’ve had gestational diabetes during a previous pregnancy, you’re more susceptible to developing it again in a future pregnancy. Your doctor will want to monitor your diet very carefully, and you may want to consider adhering to a diabetic diet from the time you learn you are pregnant to lower blood sugar levels from the get-go.
Previous delivery of a baby with a birth weight of 9 lbs. or more
As mentioned above, babies with a high birth weight are the norm for gestational diabetes. If you’ve given birth to a baby in the past who weighed 9 lbs. or more, there’s a chance you had gestational diabetes that flew under the radar of your health practitioner. In that case, you may be someone who had gestational diabetes in a previous pregnancy, so you’ll want to be mindful of that via diet and by ensuring blood sugar levels are tested at least once after the 26-week mark.
Your biological parent or sibling has type 2 diabetes.
Just as gestational diabetes can be a precursor for type 2 diabetes later on in life, a genetic disposition towards type 2 diabetes is a potential factor for developing gestational diabetes during pregnancy.
You’ve been diagnosed with PCOS (polycystic ovarian syndrome)
The good news is that you are pregnant! Since PCOS is one of the leading causes of female infertility, that is certainly something to celebrate. However, insulin resistance is a common side effect of PCOS, so it makes sense that women with PCOS are more prone to developing gestational diabetes. A PCOS diagnosis (hopefully) has already shifted the way you look at diet and exercise. If not, read, Foods to Alleviate PCOS Symptoms and talk to your doctor about a pregnancy diet that makes sense with your condition.
You’re considered pre-diabetic
If you’re faithful about getting your annual physical, odds are your blood sugar has been tested, especially if you are overweight or obese. Sometimes, a doctor might inform you that you are “pre-diabetic,” which means your blood sugar levels are higher than normal, heading into the type 2 diabetes range.
If this has been the case for you in the past, you are at higher risk for gestational diabetes. Now is a good time to forgo processed carbohydrates and sweet treats, focusing on sugar-free substitutes. If your OB doesn’t know you have been diagnosed as pre-diabetic, please let them know ASAP because this is important information before your glucose screening test. She will be more diligent about dietary and lifestyle recommendations and monitoring from the outset of your prenatal appointments.
Ethnicity plays a role.
Women of African, Pacific Islander, Asian, American Indian, or Hispanic descent are more prone to gestational diabetes. We aren’t 100% sure why this is the case, but some experts predict that the typical western diet, which is high in processed carbohydrates and refined sugars, may play a role. If you are descended from any of these ethnicities, pay careful attention to the pregnancy diet recommended by your doctor to minimize the risk of developing gestational diabetes.
The good news is that gestational diabetes can be controlled in most cases, but accurate diagnosis and follow-through are key. Please be diligent about scheduling and attending prenatal appointments. Haven’t found a labor and delivery team you love yet? Contact the all-women-all-the-time team here at Women’s Health Associates, and we’ll take fantastic care of you and your baby.