Pregnancy is not without its hardships. It places a significant physical toll on your muscle and joints, not to mention the fact that it can also come with several health-threatening complications. Gestational diabetes is the most common.
What is gestational diabetes?
Gestational diabetes (also known as gestational diabetes mellitus, or GDM for short) describes any form of glucose intolerance that first appears during pregnancy (Rani, 2016).
To provide a bit of background, it’s important to understand the impact that the hormone insulin has on your blood glucose levels.
Insulin is commonly known as an energy storage hormone, as it promotes the movement of glucose from your blood, into the cells of your body – where it can then be used for energy production at a later point in time.
When you eat carbohydrates, you see a subsequent rise in blood glucose levels. Under normal circumstances, insulin is then secreted, in which effectively returns blood glucose levels back to baseline levels.
However, pregnancy is associated with the development of resistance to insulin, in which it makes it less effective at normalizing your blood sugar levels.
In more severe cases, this insulin resistance can lead to chronically elevated blood glucose levels – which provides the criteria for the diagnosis.
Related Article: Maternal Nutritional Requirements for Pregnancy & Breastfeeding
What are the complications due to gestational diabetes?
Now, there is a reason that we want to check for gestational diabetes – because it has some rather severe outcomes associated with its onset (Dirar, 2017).
In fact, women who develop the disease are at much greater risk of developing type II diabetes and high blood pressure after pregnancy has concluded, which can have lasting implications for their future health.
Moreover, these same individuals are more likely to have a preterm birth or require a cesarean delivery.
Finally, the offspring of those mothers who develop diabetes while pregnant also appear to be at an increased risk of having an abnormal birth weight. With this, they will also be 8 times more likely to develop diabetes during their adult years.
In short, it has lasting negative implications for both mother and child – so it is best prevented if possible.
Who does gestational diabetes affect?
As I have already stated, gestational diabetes obviously affects women going through pregnancy (it is a gestational disease, after all).
Further considering that a completely normal pregnancy is associated with increased insulin resistance, well, pretty much any pregnant women is at some risk of developing the disease.
However, there are certain situations that will place an individual at a much higher risk of developing the disease than others.
What are the risk factors for gestational diabetes?
There are known risk factors that can contribute to an increased risk of developing gestational diabetes – some of which are obvious and unavoidable, while a number are also related to specific lifestyle factors (Alfadhli, 2015).
These risk factors include:
- Having a previous history of gestational diabetes, or a family history of type II diabetes
- Being of Asian of Indian descent
- Having previously given birth to a ‘large child’ (being over 10 pounds)
- Increasing maternal age (those aged over 40 years considered to be at significant risk)
- Has been previously diagnosed with polycystic ovarian syndrome
- Categorized as either overweight or obese (BMI > 25)
Does gestational diabetes only affect overweight women?
With all this in mind, there is a common misconception that gestational diabetes will only affect women who are overweight or obese – which as I have already suggested, isn’t entirely true.
However, it would be unrealistic to say that it isn’t an important factor.
You see, excess fat mass has been shown to contribute to an inability to manage blood glucose levels, and reduce the effectiveness of insulin – much in the same way that pregnancy-related insulin resistance does (Bloomgarden, 2010).
As a result, being overweight or obese ultimately compounds this effect, making the onset of gestational diabetes much more likely.
What are the symptoms of gestational diabetes?
So, you might be wondering ‘what are the signs of gestational diabetes?’.
And the answer isn’t a great one.
One of the hardest things about gestational diabetes is that it doesn’t really have any significant symptoms. In fact, Usually, the most severe symptoms are still extremely mild – such as being thirstier than normal or having to go to the bathroom more often than normal.
Both of which often come with simply being pregnant.
This is ultimately why the blood glucose test that most women get at 20 weeks is so extremely important – because it is the only real way to determine whether gestational diabetes is apparent, or not.
Can you prevent gestational diabetes?
If we consider some of the risk factors mentioned above, it should become pretty obvious that we cannot completely mitigate the likelihood of developing the disease (especially when we consider that both age and previous disease history are risk factors) – but there are certain steps we can take to help prevent it (Madhuvrata, 2015).
And they revolve around diet and exercise.
Exercise to prevent gestational diabetes
Exercise is hands down one of the most beneficial things you can do for your body. This holds true irrespective of whether you are pregnant or not.
You see, exercise has the ability to improve insulin resistance and lower blood glucose levels, which is of obvious importance when discussing gestational diabetes (Hopkins, 2013).
With this in mind, those individuals who participate in regular physical activity both before and during their pregnancy tend to have a significantly lower risk of developing gestational diabetes than those who do not.
Moreover, the introduction of physical activity in the early stages of pregnancy has also been shown to have a preventative effect – further reinforcing its importance in this scenario.
It is important to note that while both aerobic exercise and weights training have a positive impact when used in isolation, this effect seems to be enhanced further when they are both used simultaneously.
As a result – if your goal strictly revolves around gestational diabetes prevention – we strongly recommend trying to get in at least three sessions of exercise per week, which include both aerobic exercise and strength training (Padayachee, 2015).
Diet to prevent gestational diabetes
In conjunction with exercise, diet is the other key aspect of gestational diabetes prevention.
You see, diets that contain a large portion of high glycaemic index foods (or high GI foods) (such as bread, cereals, and sweets) cause large spikes in blood glucose after consumption. This causes a large and equivalent increase in insulin secretion.
Over time, this chronic elevation in insulin levels can actually cause the body to become resistant to its action. Resistance increases the severity of the pregnancy-associated insulin resistance that is known to contribute to the onset of gestational diabetes.
Which is why diet is so very important (Hernandez, 2013).
Research has consistently shown that diets revolving around low GI foods help to prevent against its onset. Low GI foods include lean sources of protein, legumes, beans, and green leafy vegetables
In conjunction with this, you should also try and avoid high GI foods like the plague.
Trust me when I say your health will thank you for it.
Related Article: The Benefits of Prenatal Vitamins
Do Prenatal Vitamins reduce the risk of gestational diabetes?
There is also some interesting research demonstrating that certain nutrient deficiencies can play a role in the development of gestational diabetes.
In fact, women who consume inadequate levels of folate, vitamin D, iron, selenium, and magnesium appear to be at an increased risk of developing this nasty disease (Jovanovic-Peterson, 1996; Silva-Zolezzi, 2017).
Increasing your intake of these key vitamins and minerals appears to offer a logical way of preventing its onset.
And the easiest way to go about this?
Take a good quality prenatal vitamin daily (I would recommend this great option from Forever Fit Mama) and completely cover all your nutritional bases.
Take Home Message
Gestational diabetes is the most common disease to afflict pregnant women.
It is typified by resistance to the hormone insulin, and an associated inability to manage blood glucose levels. If left unaddressed it can have serious negative health implications for both mother and baby.
Which truly reinforces why diet and exercise during pregnancy are so very important as a prevention strategy!
Rani, P. ReDDi, and Jasmina Begum. “Screening and diagnosis of gestational diabetes mellitus, where do we stand.”. Journal of clinical and diagnostic research: JCDR 10.4 (2016): QE01.
Alfadhli, Eman M. “Gestational diabetes mellitus.” Saudi medical journal 36.4 (2015): 399.
Dirar, AbdelHameed Mirghani, and John Doupis. “Gestational diabetes from A to Z.” World journal of diabetes 8.12 (2017): 489.
Bloomgarden, Zachary T. “Gestational diabetes mellitus and obesity.” (2010): e60-e65.
Madhuvrata, P., et al. Prevention of gestational diabetes in pregnant women with risk factors for gestational diabetes. A systematic review and meta-analysis of randomized trials. Obstetric medicine 8.2 (2015): 68-85.
Hopkins, Sarah A., and Raul Artal. “The role of exercise in reducing the risks of gestational diabetes mellitus.” Women’s Health 9.6 (2013): 569-581.
Padayachee, Cliantha, and Jeff S. Coombes. “Exercise guidelines for gestational diabetes mellitus.” World journal of diabetes 6.8 (2015): 1033.
Hernandez, Teri L., et al. “Strategies in the nutritional management of gestational diabetes.” Clinical obstetrics and gynecology 56.4 (2013): 803.
Jovanovic-Peterson, Lois, and Charles M. Peterson. “Vitamin and mineral deficiencies which may predispose to glucose intolerance of pregnancy.”. Journal of the American College of Nutrition 15.1 (1996): 14-20.
Silva-Zolezzi, Irma, Tinu Mary Samuel, and Jörg Spieldenner. “Maternal nutrition: opportunities in the prevention of gestational diabetes.” Nutrition reviews 75.suppl_1 (2017): 32-50.