Understanding Gestational Diabetes: Causes, Symptoms, and Risk Factors

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Gestational diabetes, often referred to as GDM (gestational diabetes mellitus), is a unique type of diabetes that develops during pregnancy. It affects a significant number of expectant mothers and requires careful management to ensure a healthy pregnancy for both the pregnant person and the baby.

Causes of Gestational Diabetes

The exact cause of gestational diabetes isn't fully understood, but it is believed to be related to hormonal changes that occur during pregnancy. The placenta, which nourishes the growing baby, produces hormones that can sometimes interfere with the body's ability to use insulin effectively, leading to elevated blood sugar levels.

Oestrogen and progesterone levels rise significantly during pregnancy. While these hormones are essential for the healthy development of the baby, they can also impair insulin function in some women, resulting in gestational diabetes.

Gestational Diabetes Symptoms

Gestational diabetes may not always present noticeable symptoms, which is why routine testing is crucial during pregnancy. However, some women may experience the following symptoms:

  • Increased thirst
  • Frequent urination
  • Fatigue
  • Blurred vision

If you suspect you have any of these symptoms, it's important to discuss them with your healthcare provider for proper evaluation and testing.

Risk Factors for Gestational Diabetes

While any pregnant woman can develop gestational diabetes, certain factors may increase the risk:

  • Being overweight or obese before pregnancy
  • Having a family history of diabetes
  • Being over the age of 25
  • Previously giving birth to a large baby (over 4.5 kg)
  • Having polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS)
  • Ethnic background (some groups are more at risk)

Regular prenatal check-ups and glucose testing during pregnancy can help identify and manage gestational diabetes early on.

Supporting a Healthy Pregnancy

While managing gestational diabetes is essential, there are several other steps you can take to support a healthy pregnancy:

1. Balanced Nutrition

Follow a gestational diabetes diet plan prescribed by your healthcare provider. Focus on consuming whole grains, lean proteins, fruits, vegetables, and monitoring carbohydrate intake to help control blood sugar levels.

We recommend your diet including foods that provide essential nutrients for both you and your baby, such as folic acid, iron, calcium, and omega-3 fatty acids. We've put together some ideas for delicious meals that can help support you here. Consult a registered dietitian for personalised guidance.

2. Regular Exercise

Engage in moderate physical activity as advised by your healthcare team. Exercise can help improve insulin sensitivity and contribute to better blood sugar control. However, different types of exercises may be recommended over others to ensure safety for you and your baby. We have put together ideas for types of exercises for each trimester so you can make informed choices. Read more here.

3. Blood Sugar Monitoring

Consistently monitor your blood sugar levels as recommended and keep a record of your readings. This information is valuable for adjusting your diet and treatment plan as needed. Your healthcare provider will provide guidance on when and how often to check your blood sugar levels.

4. Medication if Necessary

If diet and exercise alone are insufficient to manage gestational diabetes, your healthcare provider may prescribe medication to help control blood sugar levels. Always follow their guidance and take medication as prescribed. Common medications include insulin and oral medications like metformin.

5. Emotional Well-being

Manage stress and prioritise your emotional well-being. Stress can impact blood sugar levels, so relaxation techniques such as deep breathing, meditation, and prenatal mindfulness can be beneficial. Seek support from loved ones and consider joining a support group for expectant mothers with gestational diabetes to share experiences and coping strategies.

6. Nutritional Supplements

In addition to a balanced diet, some supplements may support a healthy pregnancy for women with gestational diabetes. Suggested supplements may include:

  • Folate: Important for foetal development and reducing the risk of birth defects.
  • Iron: Helps prevent anemia, which is common during pregnancy.
  • Calcium: Essential for bone development in the baby.
  • Omega-3 Fatty Acids: Support brain and eye development in the baby.
  • Vitamin D: Aids in calcium absorption and bone health.

For personalised advice on which supplements may best support you, book a free 1:1 with our nutrition team here.

Understanding gestational diabetes, its causes, symptoms, and risk factors is essential for expectant mothers. By following a tailored management plan, adopting a healthy lifestyle, and seeking support as needed, you can navigate gestational diabetes and support a successful, healthy pregnancy for you and your baby.

Further reading

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