Gestational diabetes is a type of diabetes developed during pregnancy. Learn what causes this common condition and what it means for you and baby.
Have you been diagnosed with gestational diabetes? If so, don’t panic. As many as 9.2 percent of pregnant women in the United States struggle with this common condition, according to a study published in Preventing Chronic Disease. While it’s not always possible to prevent gestational diabetes, your doctor can help you manage it by altering your eating and exercise habits.
“The key thing to be aware of when told that you have gestational diabetes is that you have the right information,” says Paul Grant, author of Gestational Diabetes: Your Survival Guide to Diabetes in Pregnancy. “The vast majority of women with GDM have a safe and normal pregnancy and everything goes well with the delivery. However it can be very difficult to predict who is likely to have the mild, moderate or more severe forms of the condition and there is no clear way of predicting the eventual outcome at the time of diagnosis.”
During pregnancy, the placenta produces hormones that cause a buildup of sugar in the bloodstream. The pancreas usually produces enough insulation to handle the excess sugar. However, pregnancy can change the way that the body responds to hormones. If the pancreas no longer produces an adequate amount of insulin, blood sugar levels continue to rise causing gestational diabetes.
What the Experts Say
“The complications of gestational diabetes are manageable and preventable. The key to prevention is careful control of blood sugar levels just as soon as the diagnosis of gestational diabetes is made.”
– Understanding Gestational Diabetes, DIANE Publishing Company
“The cause of gestational diabetes is not fully understood. It is known that placental hormones, which help the baby grow, cause insulin resistance in the mother’s body. Subsequently, the mother develops hyperglycemia as glucose levels rise in her blood. Gestational diabetes usually subsides after delivery.”
– Diseases in a Flash, Sharon Eagle
“Once a woman has had gestational diabetes, her chances are two in three that it will return in future pregnancies. In a few women, pregnancy reveals preexisting type 1 or type 2 diabetes that requires ongoing treatment after pregnancy. Forty to 60 percent of women who had gestational diabetes will develop type 2 diabetes later in life.”
– Nutrition, Paul Insel, Don Ross, Kimberley McMahon
“During your pregnancy, you can acquire gestational diabetes because the growing fetus and the placenta create various hormones to help the fetus grow and develop properly. Some of these hormones have other characteristics, such as anti-insulin properties, that decrease your body’s sensitivity to insulin, increase glucose production, and can cause diabetes.”
– Diabetes for Dummies, Alan L. Rubin
“Four out of every one hundred pregnant women who never had diabetes develop a form of the disease called gestational diabetes. Women with this condition have blood sugars between normal and levels high enough to diagnose diabetes in those who are not pregnant. The higher-than-normal blood sugars can cause problems during delivery and during the baby’s first few weeks of life.”
– Complete Idiot’s Guide to Diabetes, Mayer B. Davidson, Debra L. Gordon
Common Signs & Symptoms
If you have yet to be diagnosed with gestational diabetes but suspect that you may have it, look for signs and symptoms that could indicate a problem. Red flags include:
- Excessive thirst
- Blurred vision
- Numbness or tingling in the hands and/or feet
- Extreme fatigue
- Frequent urination
- Slow healing sores
Diagnosing Gestational Diabetes
Most obstetricians recommend that all women be tested for gestational diabetes after the 24th week of pregnancy. The first test involves two parts. First, you will be asked to drink a liquid containing 50 grams of sugar. One hour later, a blood sample is taken. If you are found to have a lot of sugar in your blood, you’ll be asked to come back for an oral glucose tolerance test.
You will be asked to refrain from eating or drinking for at least eight hours prior to the second test. During the first part of the test you’ll be asked to drink a liquid containing 100 grams of sugar. Three hours later, a blood sample is taken to see how much sugar is in your blood. If there is a lot of sugar found, you may have gestational diabetes.
Treatment & Management
Proper treatment of gestational diabetes is crucial to avoid complications such as an increased risk of preeclampsia, high blood pressure, and type 2 diabetes after pregnancy. Treatment typically begins by altering your diet and engaging in regular exercise to achieve better glucose control. Your OB may suggest testing your blood glucose at home after meals to ensure that your levels are within acceptable limits.
If diet and exercise alone are not enough to manage your gestational diabetes, insulin therapy may be recommended. Currently, insulin is the only medication that has been approved for treatment of gestational diabetes in the United States.
The good news is that most women who have gestational diabetes during pregnancy go on to deliver healthy babies. Managing your condition from early on in pregnancy can significantly lower your risk of developing complications. Talk to your OB if you have any questions or concerns about your condition.