What Exactly Is Gestational Diabetes? 7 Things to Know

Here's a scary stat: According to a recent report from the CDC, nearly half of U.S. women gain too much weight during their pregnancies—a move that can significantly increase your risk of gestational diabetes, a pregnancy-triggered blood-sugar imbalance that can affect both you and your baby's health. (Even Kim K. recently went through a gestational diabetes scare on KUWTK, basically proving that no woman is safe.)

Here's everything you need to know about how this sneaky health issue strikes—and what to do about it:

1. Up to 10 Percent of Pregnancies Are Affected Each Year
"Normal changes in pregnancy predispose women to gestational diabetes," says Stephen Thung, M.D., maternal fetal medicine specialist at The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center. During pregnancy, the placenta produces high levels of various hormones, almost all of which impair your body's ability to maintain healthy blood-sugar levels. "As the pregnancy progresses, the insulin a woman produces to balance out her blood sugar gets weaker," says Thung. "For most women, this doesn't develop into any issues, as their bodies can produce more and more insulin to compensate. But for some, this can lead to insulin resistance—where the body can't produce enough to overpower the insulin-blocking hormones. And as such, blood glucose levels get too high." Before you know it, bam: gestational diabetes strikes.

2. For Most Women, the Symptoms Aren’t Noticeable
Because the signs of gestational diabetes tend to fly under-the-radar, it's a good idea to seek out healthcare before you're knocked up so your doc can evaluate your risk of developing it. You're more likely to develop gestational diabetes if you're over the age of 25, have a family history of diabetes, are overweight, or are of a non-white race. It's unclear why, but women who are black, Hispanic, American Indian, or Asian are at a greater risk of developing gestational diabetes, according to the Mayo Clinic. "Most of these risk factors suggest a pre-existing insulin resistance that likely worsens during pregnancy," says Thung.

3. It Usually Strikes During the Third Trimester
"Gestational diabetes tends to develop early in the third trimester, when the insulin-blocking hormones are reaching peak levels and causing the greatest amount of insulin resistance," says Danielle Cooper, M.D., board-certified ob-gyn in Shreveport, Louisiana. "This is why testing during pregnancy is usually done at around 28 weeks pregnant." However, some patients may have pregestational diabetes that wasn't recognized until after the patient was pregnant, so some physicians will screen earlier in the pregnancy if the patient has certain risk factors (like the ones mentioned above).

4. The More Belly Fat You Have, the Higher the Risk
A recent study published in the journal Diabetes Care found that women with high levels of abdominal fat in their first trimester might be at an increased risk for diabetes later in the pregnancy. The study involved roughly 500 women, aged 18 to 42, who had ultrasounds to gauge their abdominal fat at 11 to 14 weeks of pregnancy. Researchers found that women who had higher levels of fat were more likely to develop diabetes at 24 to 28 weeks of pregnancy. This could mean a new way for doctors to screen for risk factors earlier in the game—and a new way for women to lower their risk by keeping their belly fat in check.

5. Left Untreated, It Can Harm Your Baby
If you don't know you have gestational diabetes or it's not under control, your baby will also have high blood glucose. This means that his or her pancreas will have to make extra insulin to control it, and the excess glucose in your baby's blood will then be stored as fat, according to the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases. This can lead to health problems, such as being born with a larger than normal body, which can make for a tricky and dangerous delivery. It can also cause your baby to be born with low blood glucose (hypoglycemia), breathing problems (respiratory distress syndrome), and a higher chance of dying before or soon after birth. What's worse, as your baby grows up, he or she will be more likely to become overweight and develop type 2 diabetes.

6. The More Healthy Habits You Establish Before Pregnancy, the Better
There are no guarantees when it comes to preventing gestational diabetes, but establishing as many healthy habits as you can before you're preggers—eating healthy, losing weight, exercising more—can go a long way in reducing your risk, says Cooper. But once you're pregnant, it's up to your doctor to decide the proper steps in keeping gestational diabetes at bay based on your specific health and lifestyle.

7. It Usually Goes Away After You Give Birth
"Once delivery occurs, insulin resistance returns to normal, and the vast majority of women don't continue to be diabetic," says Thung. But take note: "One of the most important things to understand is that women with gestational diabetes are at a very high risk for developing diabetes later in life," he says. Patients should be retested after their six-week postpartum visit to determine if their blood glucose levels have returned to normal, says Cooper, and afterward screened for diabetes every three to five years.

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