Being pregnant is hard enough. Adding the looming threat of gestational diabetes, a form of high blood sugar during pregnancy, can seem downright unfair. The cause of the condition is unknown; and risk factors aside, there’s also a good amount of randomness involved in how your body personally responds to that pregnancy.
But gestational diabetes isn’t the end of the world, nor should it be a source of shame or fear.
Most risk factors are out of your control
Gestational diabetes isn’t the result of being lazy or eating poorly. In a lot of ways, it can be random that your body decides that the beta-cells in your pancreas aren’t going to work right during the pregnancy. Known risk factors are having diabetes already, having a family history of diabetes, being an older mother (sadly, this is considered to be anyone over age 35), and being overweight or obese at the start of your pregnancy.
If you’re concerned about your risk of developing gestational diabetes, or if you’ve had it before and hope to avoid it in a subsequent pregnancy, the only thing you may be able to do is to optimize your body weight before getting pregnant. It’s worth mentioning, however, that it’s important to do so in a way that honors your body and focuses on healthy outcomes, rather than targeting a number on the scale or a BMI range. (As women, especially those who are pregnant and postpartum, we need to focus on better markers of health than BMI, a population-based scale. Glucose and insulin levels, blood pressure, heart rate, and inflammation are all far more reflective of true health than BMI ever will be.)
If you’re already pregnant, you can’t change any of these factors. But you can work to help your body handle glucose and insulin better during pregnancy with diet and exercise. More on that below.
Stress may play a role
It can’t really be shocking anymore when we discover that stress may play a role in health challenges. But stress isn’t entirely avoidable, so it’s not realistic to tell yourself you must not be stressed at all during your pregnancy. I’ve had three children, and let me tell you, even under good circumstances, pregnancy is stressful. The hormonal mood swings alone make it anything but a peaceful ride.
So, it’s not about having no stress—it’s about having a way to process your stress.
Research continues to prove that mindfulness is a simple yet excellent way to help your body respond to stress in a better way during pregnancy. Diaphragmatic breathing, which is a focused way of breathing with your belly, can help reduce stress hormones and give positive results in a short amount of time. Plus, it’s what Lamaze classes are based on, and is an excellent way to prepare for labor and delivery.
Diet helps . . . a lot
I get that eating during pregnancy is complicated: I was sick for every day of all three of my pregnancies. Nausea medication took the edge off, but I did not find true relief until the babies were born. It’s difficult to eat a balanced diet with lots of vegetables when nearly all food seems unappealing or disgusting.
Still, working to overcome these aversions in any possible way can help you avoid or address gestational diabetes. Fiber and vegetables are one of the most important dietary components for keeping blood sugar steady, along with regular protein intake (which you need, anyway, as the literal building blocks for your baby!). Healthy fats also help to keep you from snacking as much and can have positive effects on blood sugar, too.
The best simple tricks for diet are:
- Eat a low-carb, protein snack right before bed. This will keep your blood sugar levels stable through the night, and help prevent middle-of-the-night hypoglycemia or high fasting numbers in the morning (when your blood sugar is higher than the normal range). With all of the beef jerky options out there, you may be able to find a flavor and texture that work for you. I loved the Duke’s Hatch Green Chile sticks during my pregnancies because I could only handle meat if it was spicy enough that I couldn’t really taste the actual meat. With 7 grams of protein per serving and no grams of sugar, it’s a great snack. The only downside was that after I reached 35 weeks, my heartburn was so bad all the time that I couldn’t eat these (or anything) right before bed.
- Use flaxseed oil in smoothies. Research shows that in women with gestational diabetes, it helps with insulin, lipids, cholesterol, inflammation, and cellular stress when used for at least six weeks.
- Eat almonds, which provide fiber, protein, and fat, throughout the day for snacks. They’re simple enough that you can eat a few here and there, but they’re a great food for pregnancy blood sugar balance. If you are allergic to tree nuts, avocado has a similar benefit!
Exercise is obviously good
You don’t have to view gestational diabetes as the reason you’re forced into exercise. Every pregnant woman should be getting some form of movement on a regular basis. Even just gentle daily walks are a good idea. Not only does this help your body respond to insulin and keep your blood glucose levels in check, but it also promotes good blood flow, blood pressure, and reduces aches and pains associated with pregnancy.
The big thing is that we tend to associate exercise with weight loss or with staying in shape. It’s not really about either of those things. Your body was designed to move, to be active, and never is this more true than in the lead-up to laboring and delivering a baby. (I had three C-sections, so yes, this is still true even if you aren’t going to physically push the baby out!)
Your recovery after birth, regardless of how you deliver, will be better if you were somewhat active during pregnancy and if you don’t wait too long to get back to walking when you’re postpartum.
Being diagnosed with gestational diabetes can feel like a shock. Even though it adds some complication to your pregnancy, you didn’t do anything to deserve it, and there are plenty of ways to ensure that you and baby stay healthy throughout. And even if you don’t have gestational diabetes, these healthy measures are a good idea for any pregnant woman!