Everything you need to to know about gestational diabetes

Hormones have a lot to answer for, particularly when it comes to pregnancy. As your body prepares to welcome a new life into the world, fluctuating hormone levels can cause a whole host of changes; some are physical, others are mental, some will be temporary, and others might stick around.

One such change is linked to the hormone insulin. During pregnancy your body might struggle to produce enough insulin, making it hard to process glucose properly. As a result, blood sugar levels rise and when this happens, it's called gestational diabetes.

Gestational diabetes affects 4/5 out of 100 women in the UK, [1] usually in the second of third trimester. In most cases it only lasts for the duration of the pregnancy, but it's worth reading up on the condition to find out who is at risk, how to know if you have it, and what to do if you're diagnosed. This isn't just for the ladies - men, read on and share this with the women in your lives!

Who is at risk of gestational diabetes?

Some women are more at risk of developing gestational diabetes than others. You might be more at risk if you:

  • Are overweight
  • Have suffered from gestational diabetes in a previous pregnancy
  • Have a history of diabetes in your family
  • Have previously given birth to a large baby (10lbs or more)
  • Are of South Asian, Black, African-Caribbean, or Middle Eastern origin

Gestational diabetes isn't always obvious, so even if you don't fall into any of these risk categories it's still important that you attend a gestational diabetes screening appointment. This will be offered to you during your pregnancy.

Can you prevent gestational diabetes?

Gestational diabetes can't always be prevented, especially if some of the above risk factors are present. However, there are certain changes you can make to your diet and lifestyle that can reduce the risks, and help you to have a safe and healthy pregnancy.

What are the symptoms of gestational diabetes?

Many women won't have symptoms at all but if you do experience any of the following, speak to your doctor or midwife and they can arrange for you to be tested earlier in your pregnancy:

  • Dry mouth
  • Constant need to go to the toilet
  • Feeling very tired all of the time (basically all pregnancy, we know, but look out for extra exhaustion that's out of the ordinary)

You will be offered a gestational diabetes screening between weeks 24 and 28 of your pregnancy. If you fall into a risk category, this screening will happen earlier. The test is called an Oral Glucose Tolerance Test (OGTT), and monitors blood sugar levels before and after drinking a glucose drink to see how your body processes sugar.

What are the risks associated with gestational diabetes?

If you're diagnosed with gestational diabetes there are a few increased risks that you need to be aware of.

Women with gestational diabetes tend to give birth to bigger babies, which can cause complications during labour. Bigger babies are often delivered by a cesarean section, a procedure that carries increased complications and a longer recovery time than a vaginal birth.

It can also cause a condition called polyhydramnios. This happens when there is too much amniotic fluid in the womb and can cause premature labour, which is another risk of gestational diabetes. There is also an increased risk of pre-enclampsia, a condition that affects the blood supply to the arteries, causing high blood pressure and complications during pregnancy.

What to do if you're diagnosed with gestational diabetes

First and foremost, try not to worry! Easier said than done, we know, but there are steps you can take to help manage the condition. You can still have a safe pregnancy and healthy baby if you're diagnosed with gestational diabetes.

Stay positive 🙂

Pregnancy isn't always plain sailing and a diagnosis of gestational diabetes will no doubt feel quite overwhelming. Stress and anxiety can be harmful to your baby, so it's important to recognise and learn how to manage these feelings.[2]

Prioritise your mental health and surround yourself with supportive, positive people, including doctors and midwives, who you can turn to for guidance. Remember, it's okay to ask for help if you're struggling - don't suffer in silence.

Nourish your body 🍽

Try to eat a balanced diet that includes lots of fruit, vegetables, lean meats, and fish. Aim to eat small, regular meals that include complex carbohydrates such as brown rice, wholewheat pasta, and brown bread. Complex carbs have a lower glycaemic index and will release sugars more slowly than simple carbohydrates, helping to avoid massive spikes in your blood sugar.

Avoid sugary foods and drinks, and when you do have them (we all deserve a treat!), be mindful of your portion size and whether there are low- or sugar-free alternatives. Always keep an eye on food labels too, as some products may contain hidden sugars that aren't immediately obvious!

Stay active 💪

Try and do at least 30 minutes of gentle exercise every day. Regular activity is a great way to lower your blood sugar levels and look after your mental health, thanks to its mood-boosting endorphins. Exercise like yoga and swimming are great ways to get the blood pumping, strengthen the body, and increase flexibility, all of which will come in handy during labour. Gentle walking is also equally beneficial, just avoid any contact sports that could result in injury.

Keep an eye on your blood sugar levels 👀

It's important to monitor your blood sugar levels throughout your pregnancy. You will be given a blood sugar monitoring kit and it's important you test your levels throughout the day, especially after you have eaten. Your doctor or midwife will advise you what a healthy level should be.

If you can't lower your blood sugar levels through diet and exercise, you might need to take medication such as insulin. If this happens, don't panic - your medical team will support you every step of the way.

We've also written about how to navigate pregnancy if you have type 2 diabetes, so be sure to check that out for more advice on diabetes and pregnancy.

Gestational diabetes after pregnancy

For most women, gestational diabetes goes away once their pregnancy is over but in some cases there might be long-term effects, such as developing gestational diabetes again in future pregnancies, or being diagnosed with type 2 diabetes in later life.[2] You can reduce the risk of both scenarios by eating well and making sure you exercise regularly.

Around 6 weeks after giving birth you will be tested for diabetes. If your results come back normal you'll continue to be tested on a yearly basis. If you start to notice any symptoms, such as feeling very thirsty all the time or needing to urinate often, speak to your doctor to arrange for an earlier test.

Final thoughts

Being diagnosed with gestational diabetes might seem scary at first, but if managed correctly there's nothing to say you can't have a safe and enjoyable pregnancy. Look after your mind and body, eat well, exercise, and surround yourself with a loving support system that can help you navigate a healthy, happy pregnancy.

References

[1] What is gestational diabetes? Diabetes UK. Retrieved 14 September 2021. Accessible here.

[2] Craig, L., Sims, R., Glasziou, P., Thomas, R., (2020). Women’s experiences of a diagnosis of gestational diabetes mellitus: a systematic review. BMC Pregnancy Childbirth 20(76). Accessible here.

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