During my first pregnancy I lived on a Caribbean island, and paid out of pocket for all of my prenatal care. It was expensive, so when my doctor told me to come in for an oral glucose tolerance test to check for gestational diabetes I decided to skip it. I thought, “I’m thin, fit, and young- I wouldn’t get it!” I wanted to save the money instead. I ended up going back to the States towards the end of my pregnancy and with insurance to cover costs, I completed the test. I was shocked when I got the call saying I failed and had to come back in for the three hour test. (For the test, you guzzle a super sugary drink, and get your blood glucose level tested an hour after consumption to see how your body metabolized it. If your level is above the normal range, you will be called in for a follow up test where they check your blood not only once, but four times during a three hour period. If two of the four blood samples are high, then gestational diabetes is diagnosed.) With my first pregnancy, I passed the three hour test, but with my second I wasn’t so lucky.
I was certain the results would be the same: I’d fail the one hour test and pass the three hour one. When I saw the number of the doctor’s office light up on my phone at 7pm, I assumed the sweet nurse was just being diligent and reassuring. I didn’t expect her to say in a hushed tone, “You failed the three hour test and have gestational diabetes. We must schedule an appointment for you to come in for nutrition counseling and to learn how to check your blood sugar.”
Tears welled up in my eyes because I couldn’t wrap my mind around what was going wrong in my body. Why me? Overweight, older, nonwhite mothers have a greater risk of developing gestational diabetes, but there I was- 27, athletic, and pale as a leprechaun. I had this revelation that unfortunate things can happen to anyone, but my (doctor) husband encouraged me. He said having gestational diabetes isn’t that bad. As long as the woman is aware of it and keeps it under control, the baby and mother will be just fine. Plus, it typically goes away shortly after giving birth, so it’s just a temporary condition. I ended up finding my diagnosis of gestational diabetes to be a blessing in disguise for the lessons it taught me.
GD usually gets detected towards the end of the second trimester. Experts suspect that the hormones from the growing placenta, which support the baby, interfere with the production and utilization of the mother’s insulin. When the body is unable to make and use all the insulin needed, glucose isn’t able to leave the blood and convert to energy. Ongoing high blood sugar can damage nerves, blood vessels, and organs.
Gestational diabetes taught me that taking care of myself isn’t optional- it’s absolutely necessary. It’s important to regulate glucose levels in the bloodstream, and one of the best ways to do so is exercise. I used to work out with left over time in my day, or if my toddler was cooperative and happy in his stroller. However, after my diagnosis, my view of exercise shifted. It became something I needed to plan for and prioritize, and something my whole family needed to respect and support me in. I started valuing my personal needs a little more.
Gestational diabetes also taught me a lot about diet. I used to think eating consciously was about having the body I wanted. Now I know it isn’t just about how my body appears, but its actual health. Just because I’m thin doesn’t make it okay to eat a bunch of ice cream covered cookies. No, they might not give me immediate love handles, but the sugar will negatively impact my health. My diagnosis made me view my eating in a different way. It’s not about how much crap I can eat without bloating, it’s about what I should eat to help my body function properly.
An important part of treating my gestational diabetes was controlling my diet. I was advised to eat small meals throughout the day to maintain glucose levels. Snacks should not have more than 15g of carbs. Needless to say, I became a label reader and a mindful muncher. It was important to pair carbohydrates with protein and healthy fats because the combination slows the release of glucose. Carbohydrates alone cause more spikes in blood sugar. I focused on eating whole foods, avoided processed sugar, and drank tons of water. I was finally eating well, not just for the sake of looking good, but being well. I learned that I could eat what I wanted to, but only in reasonable portions. The good news is when you’re eating mindfully, a small portion goes a long way. Fully savoring a single bite of ice cream can be more satisfying than devouring a large bowl while distracted. Also, being aware of the negative effects of too much sugar dulls my desire for whole bowls of ice cream. In reality, I’ve had plenty of sweets and treats since I’ve delivered my baby (I’m human, people), but I now get up and do some push ups or jumping jacks shortly after to get the sugar moving. What I learned while pregnant has not left me.
I also learned to always connect with others. Upon my diagnosis, I joined Facebook groups and other online communities for women with the gestational diabetes. These women shared recipes, insight, encouragement, and support. I also became much closer with moms who I knew had the condition when they were pregnant. They were loving, informative, and comforting. Sometimes bad things bring you closer to other people, and that was just one of the silver linings to having gestational diabetes.
I was startled when I discovered I had gestational diabetes, but I now see it was a blessing in disguise. It made me more health conscious, not just during my pregnancy, but in general. I committed myself to exercising and eating well so I gained just the right amount of weight and felt great throughout my pregnancy. My sister used to ask me how she could have legs like mine when I was 9 months pregnant, and I told her to eat like she has GD.