If you’ve never had issues with your blood sugar levels, a diagnosis of gestational diabetes may come as a (very unwanted) surprise. The truth is that only women who have never had diabetes before pregnancy can have gestational diabetes.
Thankfully, gestational diabetes is a completely manageable condition during pregnancy. It carries increased risks of complications with pregnancy and delivery, but following your healthcare provider’s advice will help keep you and your baby safe.
Let’s talk about diabetes, how it affects blood glucose levels, and how gestational diabetes differs from other forms of diabetes.
What Is Diabetes Mellitus?
For someone who has never had any problems with their blood sugar, diabetes can seem hard to understand. It all starts with how our body uses the foods we eat. When we eat certain foods, the body breaks them down into small, usable molecules for energy called glucose.
Glucose is a simple sugar our cells need to perform cellular functions. We need insulin, a hormone released by the pancreas, to get glucose out of our bloodstream and into our cells.
Insulin removes glucose from the bloodstream and carries it to the cells that need it. Any unused glucose is stored in the liver or muscles as glycogen, which can convert back to glucose for later use. Some glucose may also be stored as lipids in fatty tissue.
A person with diabetes has a pancreas that doesn’t produce enough insulin for the glucose in their blood, and/or may also have cells that have become resistant to the insulin their body produces.
There are three main types of diabetes.
Type 1 Diabetes
This autoimmune disorder is often diagnosed during childhood or adolescence, but not always. Type 1 diabetics do not produce insulin, which means they are insulin dependent. There’s no cure for type 1 diabetes, but a type 1 diabetic can lead a long and healthy life with daily insulin and blood glucose testing.
Type 2 Diabetes
Most diabetics (about 90 to 95 percent) have type 2 diabetes. Unlike type 1 diabetes, this condition develops over time. People with type 2 diabetes don’t produce enough insulin to keep up with the glucose in their blood and/or have cells that have become insulin resistant.
It’s unclear what causes type 2 diabetes, but two predominant predictors are obesity (having a BMI over 30) and a sedentary lifestyle. There’s no cure for type 2 diabetes, but with diet, exercise, and weight loss (if necessary), a type 2 diabetic can lead a long and healthy life.
Someone who has never had diabetes and becomes pregnant may develop gestational diabetes. During pregnancy, the body grows an organ called the placenta. The placenta functions like an endocrine organ, releasing hormones that affect processes in the mother’s and baby’s bodies.
These hormones can cause excess glucose retention in the blood. If the pancreas cannot produce enough insulin to remove the glucose, or if the cells have become resistant to the glucose, the pregnant woman may develop gestational diabetes.
This condition refers to blood sugar levels that are high but not so high they are considered diabetic. Prediabetes is a reversible condition that can be corrected with lifestyle changes like diet and exercise.
If you have or have had prediabetes before becoming pregnant, you’re at higher risk of developing gestational diabetes.
Does Gestational Diabetes Go Away?
Even if your gestational diabetes has gone away, it will be important for you to get a blood test every one to three years to make sure your levels remain healthy.
How Is Gestational Diabetes Diagnosed?
It isn’t likely you’ll have any symptoms from gestational diabetes, although some women complain of increased thirst and more frequent urination. Your healthcare professional will administer a glucose tolerance test sometime during the second trimester or early third trimester of your pregnancy (usually between 24 and 28 weeks of pregnancy).
The oral glucose tolerance test is a fasting test that involves consuming a glucose drink, with subsequent blood draws about 20 minutes later. The test is safe for you and your baby, and most women do not have negative side effects.
Who Can Get Gestational Diabetes?
Any pregnant woman who has never had diabetes can get gestational diabetes. However, some factors increase your risk of gestational diabetes, including:
- Being overweight
- Having had gestational diabetes during a previous pregnancy
- Being inactive
- Having a family history of diabetes or gestational diabetes
- Being African American, Hispanic, Pacific Islander, Asian American, or American Indian
- Having polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS)
- Not having access to proper prenatal care
- Being diagnosed with high blood sugar that is not diabetic (prediabetes)
Just because you have one or some of these conditions does not mean you’ll automatically develop gestational diabetes, but your risk will be higher. If you plan to become pregnant, making certain lifestyle changes (like adopting a healthy diet, becoming physically active, and maintaining a healthy weight) can help lower your risk.
What Are the Pregnancy Risks With Gestational Diabetes?
Certain risks are associated with gestational diabetes for both your body and your baby.
Risks to Your Baby
Babies born to mothers who have gestational diabetes that is not well managed are at risk of developing:
- Jaundice or hypoglycemia. When babies are born, they may have one or both of these issues when they are born. Jaundice and hypoglycemia, or low blood sugar, are usually easily resolved with glucose water and immediate feeding (formula or breastfeeding) after birth.
- Childhood obesity. Babies born to mothers with gestational diabetes are more likely to find it difficult to maintain a healthy weight during childhood. They are also at higher risk of developing type 2 diabetes as a child.
- Birth complications. Certain birth complications, like premature birth, stillbirth, and birth trauma, are possible but rare. It’s important to talk to your doctor about ways to ensure your blood sugar levels are regulated during pregnancy to avoid these complications.
Risks for Your Body
- High blood pressure. Gestational diabetes may raise your blood pressure levels. This can lead to preeclampsia, which requires immediate medical attention.
- Type 2 diabetes. Your risk of developing type 2 diabetes increases if you have gestational diabetes. Type 2 diabetes can lead to other negative health conditions like heart disease and can impact the outcomes of future pregnancies.
The best way to care for yourself and your baby is to listen to your doctor and take action to keep your blood sugar levels healthy while pregnant.
Staying Healthy With Gestational Diabetes
- Physical activity. Regular exercise is important for any pregnancy unless otherwise directed by your doctor. The American Diabetes Association recommends 150 minutes of exercise per week.
- Healthy eating. Adopting a meal plan that monitors your carbohydrate intake and includes a balanced diet will help you maintain a healthy pregnancy if you have gestational diabetes.
- Listening to your doctor. When you have gestational diabetes, monitoring your blood sugar and following up with your doctor if you notice any changes is important. They can help you decide if you need to take any action or if you need insulin injections while pregnant.
It may seem like a challenge to stick to a healthy diet and exercise plan when pregnant, but you can do it with a little effort and the support of your healthcare team.
Healthy Pregnancies and Beyond
Gestational diabetes is a condition that affects the way a pregnant woman’s body processes the glucose in her blood. It usually goes away on its own, but a history of gestational diabetes is a risk factor for developing type 2 diabetes later in life.
For more information and to get answers to frequently asked questions about pregnancy, check out our blog. Here, you’ll find tips and tricks on staying healthy and comfortable during pregnancy and even information about fertility if you hope to become pregnant.
References, Studies and Sources:
Fact Checked and Editorial Process
Diabetic.org is devoted to producing expert and accurate articles and information for our readers by hiring experts, journalists, medical professionals, and our growing Diabetic.org community. We encourage you to read more about our content, editing, and fact checking methods here. This was fact checked by Camille Freking and medically reviewed by Dr. Angel Rivera.
Owner, entrepreneur, and health enthusiast.
Chris is one of the Co-Founders of Diabetic.org. An entrepreneur at heart, Chris has been building and writing in consumer health for over 10 years. In addition to Diabetic.org, Chris and his Acme Health LLC Brand Team own and operate Pharmacists.org, Multivitamin.org, PregnancyResource.org, and the USA Rx Pharmacy Discount Card powered by Pharmacists.org.
Chris has a CFA (Chartered Financial Analyst) designation and is a proud member of the American Medical Writer’s Association (AMWA), the International Society for Medical Publication Professionals (ISMPP), the National Association of Science Writers (NASW), the Council of Science Editors, the Author’s Guild, and the Editorial Freelance Association (EFA).
Our growing team of healthcare experts work everyday to create accurate and informative health content in addition to the keeping you up to date on the latest news and research.