Gestational diabetes diagnoses increased during pandemic, Upstate doctor says

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GREENVILLE, S.C. (WSPA) – Bon Secours maternal and fetal medicine physician Dr. Erin Dickert, who specializes in high-risk pregnancies, said she has noticed an increase in pregnant women with gestational diabetes since the coronavirus pandemic began. She believed the reason could be tied to a widespread change in lifestyle.

“Over the past year, as people are quarantining and not getting out and about as much, we are seeing an increase in people who have failed the glucose screening test or who have developed signs of glucose intolerance later in the pregnancy.” she said. “It’s really skyrocketed since everybody went into lockdown and not going out and doing things and eating more takeout,” she said. “Traditionally, we see about 7 percent of pregnancies have gestational diabetes. We’re seeing probably closer to 12 to 15 percent when we include those who develop it later in the third trimester,” she explained.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, gestational diabetes is a type of diabetes that develops in women who did not have diabetes before becoming pregnant.

The CDC explained that all pregnant women have some insulin resistance during late pregnancy, but that some women have insulin resistance even before they get pregnant. It said these women start pregnancy with an increased need for insulin and are more likely to have gestational diabetes.

Overweight and older pregnant women are among those who have an increased risk, according to the CDC. If you are at risk, it said you may be able to prevent gestational diabetes before getting pregnant by losing weight if you’re overweight and getting regular physical activity.

Still, Dr. Dickert added that anyone can develop it, including those who have a normal BMI or have no known risk factors. She further explained that gestational diabetes is the result of a woman’s reaction to hormones released from the placenta.

“[The placenta] produces a growth hormone to tell baby to grow,” she said. “That also acts in such a way that mom’s body reads it as insulin. So, mom doesn’t produce as much insulin, so her blood sugar is going to go up.”

She said that gestational diabetes is not exactly caused by poor diet or lack of exercise, but said lifestyle choices can influence a person’s blood sugar levels. She believes the pandemic is making it more difficult for some to eat a healthy diet and get enough exercise.

“It’s not the cause, it just makes it worse,” she said. “If she is somebody who is more sensitive to [the hormones], she is going to have to be harder-working about counteracting lifestyles. Throughout the last few decades, people have used pregnancy as an excuse to eat whatever they want… those are the people who are more likely to have issues with blood sugar and blood sugar controls than those who maintain good lifestyle choices. [If] you’ve paid attention to your diet for the past ten years and then suddenly, boom you’re pregnant and its a “free for all” – that’s a sure way of getting gestational diabetes or a 10 pound baby,” she said.

However, she encouraged those who have been diagnosed to remember that a diagnosis is not their fault, and added that the condition can be controlled by making changes. “‘I’ve caused this, this is all my fault, my baby is going to have diabetes, I’m going to have diabetes forever – those are all common things moms who come in say to us. Really, this isn’t anything mom did,” she said. “This is simply the body trying to do its best to produce a healthy baby. But in our current lifestyle, some of us are more sensitive to hormones that have been in our bodies for thousands of years, so we have to work a little bit harder to keep those hormones from going overboard.”

She stressed that for those who are more sensitive to hormones released by the placenta during pregnancy, the diagnosis should be taken seriously.

“I really tell people to take it seriously. Don’t blow this off. We know that uncontrolled diabetes in pregnancy leads to larger babies, more fluid around babies, [and] babies who have higher blood sugar are more likely to be required to go to the neonatal intensive care unit because their blood sugar drops so low. They’re at higher risk of illness after delivery as well as an increased risk of death before delivery,” she said.

The CDC reported that having gestational diabetes can increase your risk of high blood pressure during pregnancy. It can also increase your risk of having a large baby that needs to be delivered by cesarean section (C-section).

It said that if you have gestational diabetes, your baby is at higher risk of:

  • Being very large (9 pounds or more), which can make delivery more difficult
  • Being born early, which can cause breathing and other problems
  • Having low blood sugar
  • Developing type 2 diabetes later in life

Dr. Dickert reminded those with gestational diabetes that blood sugar levels can be controlled with proper diet and moderate exercise, and, if necessary, with medication.

“Eat more vegetable-based carbohydrates as well as protein and fat,” she advised those who are pregnant. “Focus on proteins and fats earlier in the day. Cut down on high sugar fruits like pineapple, raisins, dried fruits. Focus on fruits that have more fiber than sugar in them like apples or oranges. [If you eat] bananas in cereal, your body treats them like candy. People think, ‘Oh, I’m eating so healthily. I ate this great breakfast of cereal and banana and milk and juice,’ and your body just thinks you ate a lot of sugar.”

For exercise, she recommended being more intentional about being active throughout your day, by taking part in online exercise classes designed for pregnant women, going for walks routinely or even just parking at the back of the parking lot when going to the grocery store.

Your blood sugar levels will usually return to normal after your baby is born, the CDC said. However, about 50% of women with gestational diabetes go on to develop type 2 diabetes.

It said you can lower your risk of developing type 2 diabetes by reaching a healthy body weight after delivery, and by visiting your doctor to have your blood sugar tested 6 to 12 weeks after your baby is born, then every 1 to 3 years to make sure your levels are on target.

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