Gestational diabetes affects up to 10% of pregnancies in the U.S. This common diagnosis comes with some increased risks both during and after pregnancy, including a higher risk for Type 2 diabetes.
But even with gestational diabetes, with the right prenatal care, you can have a healthy pregnancy and baby. And continuing with smart lifestyle choices post-pregnancy will help you lower your risk of Type 2 diabetes down the road.
What is gestational diabetes?
Gestational diabetes is a special type of diabetes that affects people only during pregnancy. The diagnosis refers only to people who become diabetic while pregnant — not anyone who already has diabetes and then becomes pregnant.
Just as with Type 2 diabetes, people with gestational diabetes aren’t making enough insulin. Insulin is a hormone that regulates blood sugar (glucose) in your body. It allows your cells to remove glucose from your blood and convert it into energy. But hormonal changes and weight gain during pregnancy can increase your insulin resistance, a condition where your cells ignore insulin. As a result, the glucose levels in your blood rise, and your body can’t keep your blood sugar in check.
Ways to reduce your risk of gestational diabetes
Getting gestational diabetes during pregnancy can put you at higher risk for complications. These can include preeclampsia (extremely high blood pressure), premature birth and having a baby with a high birth weight.
There are risk factors for gestational diabetes that are not within your control:
- Being over age 25
- Being of African American, South and East Asian, Hispanic, Native American or Pacific Island descent
- Having a family history of Type 2 diabetes
- Having polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS)
You can, however, start healthy lifestyle habits before and during pregnancy that reduce your risk of gestational diabetes. If you are overweight, losing weight before you get pregnant is the most important step you can take toward diabetes prevention.
During pregnancy, eating a healthy diet that limits sweets and focuses on lots of vegetables and whole grains helps keep blood sugar balanced. Regular exercise throughout pregnancy can also help you manage your weight and lower your blood sugar levels.
How to know if you have gestational diabetes
People with gestational diabetes typically don’t notice any symptoms. That’s why it is very important to get tested for gestational diabetes at least once during your pregnancy.
Your health care provider will decide on the right tests for you based on your risk factors for gestational diabetes, age and overall health. Most people get tested between 24 and 28 weeks of pregnancy.
There are two types of tests for gestational diabetes:
- Glucose challenge test: Most people have this test first. You’re given a sweet liquid to drink. One hour later, you’ll have blood taken and tested. If the blood sugar is high, your provider will recommend further testing. If it’s normal, that means you do not have gestational diabetes.
- Glucose tolerance test: If your blood sugar was high after your first test, you will likely need to schedule a glucose tolerance test. After fasting overnight, you will have a blood draw to test your blood sugar levels. Then you’ll drink the same sweet liquid you had in the previous test. Your provider will draw blood again at 1, 2 and 3 hours after drinking to test your blood sugar levels.
Preventing Type 2 diabetes after gestational diabetes
After you give birth, blood sugar levels typically return to normal levels. But even though gestational diabetes goes away, health risks related to it can continue.
About 50% of people who have gestational diabetes go on to develop Type 2 diabetes later in life. You should have your blood sugar levels tested six to 12 weeks after you give birth and get them checked every one to three years after that.
The single best way to prevent Type 2 diabetes from developing after pregnancy is to lose excess weight. Returning to a healthy weight after your baby is born can greatly reduce your risk. Getting regular exercise and eating a healthy diet will help you maintain your weight — and help keep your blood sugar levels where they should be.