Gestational diabetes occurs only during pregnancy. Learn what gestational is diabetes and why it’s crucial to treat the condition to help protect mom and baby.
Unless you already have a diagnosis of diabetes when you become pregnant, you may assume diabetes is not something you need to be concerned about while you’re expecting. Unfortunately, that’s not the case.
Gestational diabetes is a form of the disease that develops only during pregnancy. It causes high blood sugar levels that can affect both your health and that of your baby. Gestational diabetes is not uncommon, either.
About one to two percent of women in the U.S. who are expecting a baby already have either type 1 or type 2 diabetes before they conceive. Another six to nine percent of pregnant American women develop gestational diabetes, even though their blood sugar (also called blood glucose) was previously normal.
Causes and risk factors for gestational diabetes
Type 1, type 2, and gestational diabetes all cause higher than normal glucose levels.
Type 1 diabetes is an autoimmune condition in which the pancreas fails to produce enough insulin, a hormone needed to move glucose into cells for energy.
Type 2 diabetes is primarily caused by lifestyle (being overweight and not getting enough exercise), occurring when the body is resistant to insulin. Like type 2 diabetes, gestational diabetes develops when your body doesn’t use insulin normally, so blood sugar rises, according to the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention.
That doesn’t mean, however, that gestational diabetes has the same causes as type 2 diabetes (although it shares a few risk factors). In fact, the reason some women develop gestational diabetes while others do not isn’t fully understood.
Researchers believe the condition is sometimes related to the hormonal changes of pregnancy that make your body less able to use insulin normally. Genetic factors and extra weight may also play a role, the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases points out.
Although any pregnant woman can develop gestational diabetes, these factors raise your risk:
- You’re over the age of 25.
- You’ve been diagnosed with prediabetes prior to becoming pregnant, indicating your blood glucose levels are higher than normal but not high enough to be diabetes
- You have a parent, brother, or sister who has diabetes.
- You’re overweight or obese and tend to be sedentary.
- During a prior pregnancy, you developed gestational diabetes or had an unusually large baby (macrosomia).
- You have high blood pressure.
- You’ve been diagnosed with heart disease.
- You have polycystic ovarian syndrome (also called PCOS), a hormone imbalance that can affect your reproductive and metabolic health.
Testing for gestational diabetes is important
Gestational diabetes often has no symptoms. You might also assume symptoms, such as being thirstier than normal or having to urinate frequently, are a normal part of being pregnant.
If the condition develops, it usually shows up in the middle of pregnancy. Doctors typically test pregnant women for the condition at 24 to 28 weeks of pregnancy. If you have risk factors for gestational diabetes, your doctor may test earlier.
If your blood sugar is higher than normal, you’ll have a glucose tolerance test to verify whether you have developed gestational diabetes, the March of Dimes explains.
If you are diagnosed with gestational diabetes, it’s important to work with your doctor to control the condition because high blood sugar levels can cause serious problems for you and your baby, including premature birth.
Your baby may experience hypoglycemia (low blood sugar) immediately after birth, as well as breathing problems. The risk your baby will develop type 2 diabetes as he or she gets older is also increased.
What’s more, uncontrolled high blood sugar increases your odds of miscarriage. Gestational diabetes also makes you likely to develop preeclampsia. The condition is a serious and potentially life-threatening complication that includes extremely high blood pressure and, often, problems with kidney and liver function associated with high protein levels in the urine.
Takes steps to control gestational diabetes
If you are diagnosed with gestational diabetes, don’t panic. The condition usually goes away after you give birth, although it does raise your risk for developing type 2 diabetes later.
Once you are diagnosed with gestational diabetes, you can work with your doctor to help prevent problems for you and your baby. You can also learn what steps to take after you give birth — such as losing weight and being physically active — to reduce your chances of having type 2 diabetes later.
Sometimes a woman with gestational diabetes needs to take insulin. Yet, you can often control the condition with a nutritious eating plan and regular exercise that’s appropriate for you. Your healthcare team will teach you how to monitor your blood sugar levels and explain when to contact your doctor if your glucose levels are too high or low.
It’s extremely important to keep all prenatal care appointments, too, and you may need more frequent visits if have gestational diabetes. Your doctor will monitor you closely to make sure you and your baby are doing well, and your blood sugar is under control.
August 10, 2023