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The Ins and Outs of Gestational Diabetes

Vanessa Wells knew something was up with her pregnancy when she realized she simply wasn't putting on any weight. "I was joking with the nurse while at the doctor one day taking tests to find out what was wrong that I was really craving a doughnut," Vanessa said. "The nurse looked at me and said, 'You're probably not having a doughnut for a long time.'"

Turns out Vanessa had gestational diabetes—a condition that Dr. Vik Sachar, Maternal Fetal Medicine Expert and ob-gyn in Lynwood, California, estimates approximately 12 to 15 percent of pregnant women have. "There's a fine line between how much sugar a pregnant woman's blood should have, and when it gets above a certain threshold, then we call it gestational diabetes."

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So how can you tell if you've contracted gestational diabetes? And if you've tested positive, should you be worried? Here's what you need to know:

What Are the Symptoms for Gestational Diabetes?

"Unfortunately, there usually aren't too many symptoms, so that's why all pregnant women are screened for gestational diabetes during their pregnancy," says Dr. Ronald Woodlard, an ob-gyn in Glendale, CA. "It's so important to get these screenings when you're pregnant because of the hormone changes that take place. A woman's blood sugar tends to rise a little more when she's pregnant anyway, but this becomes exaggerated when a woman has gestational diabetes."

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What's the Test Like?

The test for gestational diabetes, known as a glucose screening test or glucose challenge test, is normally given between 24 and 28 weeks, says Sachar. "The woman is given this sugary orange drink, and we test her body's response to blood sugar one week after that. If it's high, she'll need another test for diagnosis, called a glucose tolerance test."

What's My Course of Action If I Test Positive?

Testing positive isn't the end of the world, says Sachar—you and your doctor will just need to come up with a plan to keep both you and the baby healthy. "It's about attempting to control your blood sugar with a specific diet," he says. "Women with gestational diabetes are given foods with a low glycemic index: things like salads, chicken and more natural foods. It's best to avoid the foods that are more floury and refined, like pizza, pasta and lasagna. I tell my patients it's a caveman diet."

Another thing to remember: It's a misconception that gestational diabetes is all about how many sweets a person eats, says Sachar. "You won't become a diabetic by having cake once in a while, but it's when a person is eating lasagna for lunch and spaghetti for dinner every day—over time, that's where you'll run into trouble."

Exercise is also an important part of the routine. "I always tell my patients they can do most of the same exercises they could do before they were pregnant, and the more you do, the better you are," adds Sachar. "Even just a walk after dinner will lower blood sugar by 10 points. It's better than taking any medicine, too, because every medication has side effects. Plus, walking is free."

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Is Gestational Diabetes Bad for My Baby?

It doesn't have to be, if you stick with a healthy diet. Without the proper care, though, babies born to mothers with gestational diabetes are receiving extra doses of sugar and could become larger in size. "These babies have been funneling sugar into their systems before they're even born, and then, after birth, this supply is suddenly gone," says Sachar. "The baby's response to this is to continue making insulin, and this is where the problem comes in and the baby can get sick."

"In extreme cases," Woodlard adds, "it can even damage the blood vessels in the uterus and impair placental function, making it difficult for the baby to get nutrients from the mother. But these are extreme cases, and that's why we test early to catch the problem, if one exists, and to work with it."

If I Have Gestational Diabetes, Will I Be a Diabetic the Rest of My Life?

The minute the baby is delivered, you are no longer treated as a diabetic, says Sachar. "However, you should always be cautious," he adds. "Gestational diabetes, and pregnancy in general, is a test of the endocrine system, and if you are diagnosed with gestational diabetes, your chances of becoming a real diabetic are much higher, about 50 percent, over the next couple of years. That's why it's important to continue to keep a lookout for what you're eating, even after you give birth."

For Vanessa's part, the new mom says she went on a tour of food when she had her baby. "Clams and white wine. Oysters and beer. Macaroni and cheese. Sushi. I had my meals planned for a month after I had my baby. I finally realized it was time to scale back and be sensible when I was eating cake at a birthday party and I realized I had eaten cake every day since I gave birth."

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