What is gestational diabetes?

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 Photo: Getty Images

During my first pregnancy I relished in the fact that I was fit and well, suffered little morning sickness or tiredness, and was growing the miracle of life.  

So when I was told that I wasn't as healthy as I thought at 28 weeks, it came as something of a shock. I was told that all my sweet indulgences had to stop, and all that continual 'eating for two' needed much closer monitoring.  

The reason? Gestational diabetes. 

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Around 5-10 per cent of women are affected by gestational diabetes. While most will be able to control this by careful monitoring of their diet, others will require insulin.

All women affected will be at further risk of developing diabetes type 2 at a later stage in life. 

Associate professor Steve Robson, from the Royal Australian and New Zealand College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists, says that the body's insulin is produced in the pancreas. Its job is to remove sugar from the bloodstream and store it in the body's tissues.

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"Hormones that come from the placenta upset the normal mechanisms that control a woman's blood sugar," he explains.

"Gestational diabetes is diagnosed when the blood sugars become too high because the body can't respond properly to insulin."

For most healthy women, the body performs careful checks and balances to keep blood sugar within a normal range. However, there are some women who are more at risk of developing the disease.

"It is more common in women who are carrying a bit of extra weight, who are in twin pregnancies, in older mums, and those who have a family history of diabetes," says Prof Robson.

As gestational diabetes is a silent disease, it can only be diagnosed via testing during pregnancy. This is done via blood tests, after drinking a glucose drink. 

If the diagnosis is positive, women need to monitor their blood glucose levels daily at home. In most cases, healthy eating and physical activity will be enough to control the diabetes. Insulin injections are only necessary in more extreme cases.

Despite this, there are still some risks for expectant women and their babies.

"The risks of gestational diabetes occur around the time of birth," says Prof Robson. "Those babies tend to be larger and there's more water around them. There's also a tendency for the baby's maturity to lag at bit – for example, babies don't breathe as well if they are born early."

Prof Robson adds that women with gestational diabetes are also more likely to have a caesarean delivery, as the large baby might be injured during a difficult birth. 

Additionally, women with gestational diabetes are more likely to become diabetic later in life.

So is there a way we can lower our risk of developing this disease? Yes and no, says Prof Robson.

"Some women develop gestational diabetes despite their best efforts with eating healthily and exercising," he says.

"However, trying to maintain a normal healthy weight, eating a healthy balanced low-GI diet, and taking exercise – brisk daily walks, for example – are all sensible ways of reducing the risk."

Prof Robson advises that women should take the same approach when it comes to reducing their risk of developing diabetes later in life.

"You can't help your genes and family history, and this is definitely part of the risk. But women can make healthy choices with eating and exercising, and do their best to maintain a healthy weight," he says.