Pregnancy Articles

Gestational Diabetes: The Facts

Signs, Symptoms and Treatment for This Pregnancy Ailment

What is it?

Gestational diabetes is a condition that occurs during pregnancy. Like other forms of diabetes, gestational diabetes affects the body's ability to maintain proper levels of glucose, which is the body's main source of fuel. Insulin is a hormone that is needed to convert glucose and other food into energy. Diabetes of any kind raises blood sugar levels, which can be harmful to mother and fetus. If diabetes is not treated, the fetus receives too much blood sugar and grows larger than it should.

Large babies often can't be delivered vaginally and must be delivered via C-section, which poses its own set of risks for mother and baby. After birth, babies can have breathing problems, low blood sugar and jaundice. (Jaundice is a yellowing of the skin and tissues caused by excess bilirubin in the blood, which is produced by the normal breakdown of red blood cells.)

Unlike Type 1 diabetes, or juvenile diabetes, which is caused by the body not producing insulin, and Type 2 diabetes, the most common form, where the body does not produce enough insulin or the cells ignore it, gestational diabetes usually goes away after pregnancy.

Find more information on gestational diabetes here.

Signs and symptoms

Gestational diabetes affects about 4% of all pregnant women--about 135,000 cases are diagnosed in the U.S. each year.

Most women have no symptoms, but extreme hunger, thirst or fatigue can be signs of gestational diabetes. Women are screened for gestational diabetes between the 24th and 28th week of pregnancy, or earlier if they are at risk.

Prevention

There are two things a woman can do to help prevent developing gestational diabetes.

1. Achieve a healthy weight BEFORE pregnancy through exercise and healthy eating.

2. Keep your weight gain within a healthy range during pregnancy.

If you think you are at risk for gestational diabetes, see a dietitian or certified diabetes educator in order to begin a carbohydrate-controlled diet, which will keep your blood sugars in control and prevent the need for medication and/or insulin during your pregnancy.

Treatment

Any woman who suspects she might be at risk for or experiencing gestational diabetes should contact her health care provider immediately.

A special diet and exercise may be enough to control blood sugar levels. A health care provider may also suggest that regular blood sugar checks, by using a special needle stick or a blood sugar meter. Some women with gestational diabetes get insulin injections.

Gestational diabetes usually goes away soon after delivery. But women who have gestational diabetes are at high risk of having it again in subsequent pregnancies. They also have an increased risk of developing diabetes later in life. Exercise, a low-sugar diet and losing weight may reduce the risk of diabetes later in life.

Risk Factors

According to the American Diabetes Association, a woman may be at increased risk for gestational diabetes if:
  • She is older than 30.
  • She is overweight.
  • She has one or more family members with diabetes.
  • She is Latino, Native American, Asian or African-American. These ethnic groups have higher rates of diabetes than other groups.
  • She had gestational diabetes in her last pregnancy. (Chances are 2 in 3 that it will return.)
  • She gave birth to a baby who weighed more than 9 pounds or was stillborn.
  • She has gum disease. Pregnant women with gum disease may be more likely to develop the condition than women with healthy gums, according to research.
Not all women who develop gestational diabetes have any of these risk factors. Many women with gestational diabetes have no known risk factors.

The cause of gestational diabetes is unknown, but it seems to start when the body is not able to make and use all the insulin it needs for pregnancy. It seems that the hormones secreted by the placenta that help the baby develop also block the action of insulin in mom. Since glucose cannot leave the blood and be changed to energy without adequate insulin, it builds up in the blood to high levels or hyperglycemia. This phenomenon could also be called pregnancy-induced insulin resistance.

Tanya Jolliffe, a BabyFit nutritionist, reviewed this article.

Sources: BabyFit research, the American Diabetes Association, the Mayo Clinic
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About The Author

Stepfanie Romine
A former newspaper reporter, Stepfanie now writes about nutrition, health and fitness, with an emphasis on whole foods and from-scratch cooking. She is a certified Ashtanga yoga teacher who enjoys Spinning, international travel and vegetables of all kinds. See all of Stepfanie's articles.

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