Your Coffee Habit May Lower Your Risk of Type 2 Diabetes

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Almost half of all people diagnosed with diabetes in pregnancy (gestational diabetes) will develop type 2 diabetes. Are you trying to figure out how you can lower your risk of type 2 diabetes? You have probably already read about the importance of regular exercise, maintaining a healthy body weight, and eating a nutritious diet, but did you know that your daily latte could help too? Keep reading to learn how to fit your caffeine habit into your type 2 diabetes prevention plan.

Gestational diabetes mellitus (GDM) impacts about one out of every five pregnancies. Gestational diabetes occurs when your body can’t make enough insulin during your pregnancy. Your pancreas produces the hormone insulin to control how your cells use sugar in your bloodstream for energy. People with gestational diabetes do not have diabetes before pregnancy. If you have been through a pregnancy with gestational diabetes, you know what a steep learning curve it can be. Counting carbs, meal planning, testing your blood sugar, more appointments, and testing during your pregnancy can be a lot to adjust to in just nine months.

Most pregnant people adapt to these changes because they want healthy pregnancies and babies. 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). If you have gestational diabetes, your baby is also at higher risk of being born early, which can cause breathing and other problems, having low blood sugar; and developing type 2 diabetes later in life.

Given the stress of having gestational diabetes and a high-risk pregnancy, most postpartum parents are excited to put life as a diabetic behind them after delivery. Unfortunately, although most pregnant people’s blood sugar levels return to normal after delivery, their risk of having to live with diabetes later in life does not. If you have gestational diabetes with one pregnancy, you are more likely to have it in subsequent pregnancies. Research has found the risk of recurring GDM with future pregnancies to be higher in Asian Pacific Islanders and Hispanics. The risk of developing type 2 diabetes later in life may also increase with each pregnancy you have with GDM.

Compared to the general female population, women with gestational diabetes may have ten times the risk for type 2 diabetes. Like gestational diabetes, type 2 diabetes means your body can’t use insulin correctly. Your cells don’t react to insulin in the way they should. Insulin is the hormone that acts as a key – opening your cells and allowing them to use sugar from your bloodstream for energy. With type 2 diabetes, your cells develop insulin resistance – the key doesn’t fit in the lock as well anymore. Like gestational diabetes, some people can control their blood glucose (blood sugar) levels with healthy eating and exercise, but others need medication or insulin to manage it.

If you had gestational diabetes, lowering your risk of type 2 diabetes starts with your postpartum visit 6 to 12 weeks after your baby is born. A healthcare provider should check your blood sugar levels at these postpartum visits and then every 1 to 3 years to make sure your levels are on target. Regular screening check-ups are important because diabetes can harm your health before you have any noticeable symptoms. High blood sugar damages your body, leading to other serious health problems like heart disease, vision loss, and kidney disease.

Beyond regular health check-ups, following a healthy diet and regular physical exercise are two proven ways to reduce type 2 diabetes risk if you have had gestational diabetes. New research shows that a healthy diet should include a couple of cups of coffee daily. According to a new study published in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition in December, having two to five cups of java daily lowered people’s risk of type 2 diabetes. The study findings suggest that caffeinated coffee, when consumed properly (2 to 5 cups per day, without sugar and without whole-fat/high-fat dairy), could be a part of a healthy postpartum lifestyle for people with a GDM history. Past studies have already shown that drinking 2 to 5 cups of caffeinated or decaf coffee daily was healthier than artificially and sugar-sweetened drinks.

In this most recent study, compared to those who drank no coffee, those who sipped four or more cups a day after their pregnancies had a 53 percent lower risk of type 2 diabetes. According to the study findings, those who drank 2 to 3 cups lowered their risk by 17 percent, and those who drank 1 cup or less had a 10 percent lower risk. Those who drank decaffeinated coffee did not see the same risk reduction, so caffeine is part of the diabetes prevention magic of coffee.

Coffee is a known source of polyphenols. Some fruits, vegetables, nuts, oils, and whole grains also contain polyphenols. Researchers hypothesized coffee’s bioactive components and naturally occurring plant micronutrients might be to thank for its diabetes-fighting powers. So, those caffeine-rich energy drinks will not have coffee’s same diabetes-fighting effect.

Before you fire up your espresso machine or get daily full-cream, sugar-flavored specialty coffees from the mega-chain whose name starts with an “S,” remember that the health benefits of coffee vary. Coffee’s health benefits depend on the type and the amount of condiments (sugar, milk, cream, flavorings) that you add to your coffee.

Additionally, more is not always better when it comes to caffeine and coffee. It is safe for most people at low to moderate amounts (one to five cups of coffee daily – a cup is approximately 8 ounces, not those mega-mugs). However, overdosing on caffeine can cause your heart to race, increase your blood pressure, and cause you to feel anxious. It can also cause digestive problems, urinary frequency, urinary urgency, and trouble sleeping – not always the most welcome side effects when raising young children.

Research has shown that genes determine how our body handles too much caffeine, so don’t compare yourself to your other java-guzzling postpartum mom friends. Instead, talk honestly with your healthcare provider about how much coffee you drink, especially if you want to know if coffee is the cause of some of your unwelcome postpartum symptoms, like anxiety, difficulty sleeping, or digestive problems.

Also, remember that if you are breastfeeding, your caffeine consumption might make it harder for you and your baby to get the sleep you desperately need in the first years of their life. While only one percent of the caffeine you drink makes it into your baby’s body through your breastmilk, pediatricians and OGBYNs recommend limiting yourself to 2-3 caffeine-containing beverages a day while breastfeeding. Just as moms’ bodies react differently to caffeine, so too do infants’ bodies – you might find that your newest baby is more sensitive to your coffee-drinking habit than your prior child was.

So, if you were one of the twenty percent of people who had or have gestational diabetes and are also a coffee lover, then you will be happy to know that your daily java jolt may help lower your type 2 diabetes risk. Staying well-hydrated with water and steering clear of sweetened and artificially-sweetened beverages are safe bets for keeping your blood sugars balanced and staying hydrated postpartum and beyond. In addition, making healthy choices about diet, activity level, and the beverages you drink (including coffee) are steps you can take to live a long and healthy life, even if you have had gestational diabetes or develop type 2 diabetes.

Amy Harris
Amy Harris is a certified nurse-midwife with a Master's Degree in Maternal and Child Health from Harvard Chan School of Public Health. Her passions are health literacy and women's reproductive health. A recent two-year sabbatical with her family in Spain was the impetus for becoming a freelance women's health writer. An exercise nut, she is happiest outdoors and on adventures abroad.

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