On your list of pregnancy expectations, gestational diabetes might not top your list. This diagnosis might make you wonder if you’ll have to make significant changes for the remainder of your pregnancy. There’s also the concern for your baby and how gestational diabetes will affect them.
Together, we’ll discuss how diabetes affects your blood sugar, how gestational diabetes differs from other types of diabetes, and whether or not preterm labor should be a concern. We’ll talk about risk factors to consider if you have gestational diabetes and give you tips on remaining healthy throughout your pregnancy.
How Does Insulin Work?
We eat food to fuel our bodies to carry out functions. The foods we eat matter because they contain calories, nutrients, and vitamins that our bodies need to work properly. Some foods we eat, called carbohydrates, are broken down into small, usable packets of energy called glucose.
Glucose is a simple sugar our cells need to perform cellular functions. When we eat carbohydrates, our blood sugar levels rise, triggering the pancreas to release a hormone called insulin.
Insulin works like a transport tool, carrying glucose molecules to the cells that need them. This helps lower your blood sugar and ensure the cells get the energy needed.
Excess glucose that is not immediately needed is stored in the liver and muscles as glycogen, which converts back into glucose for later use. Additional glucose may be stored in adipose tissue as lipids.
Someone who has diabetes has blood sugar levels that are too high. High blood sugar happens when the pancreas cannot produce enough insulin to keep up with the glucose in the blood. In addition, the cells may not be able to use the insulin; a condition called insulin resistance.
There are several different types of diabetes.
Type 1 Diabetes
Type 1 diabetics do not produce insulin because the immune system incorrectly attacks the pancreas cells, resulting in an inability to produce enough insulin for the body to use. People with type 1 diabetes will be insulin-dependent for their entire lives, meaning they depend on outside sources of insulin like insulin injections to manage their blood sugar levels.
Type 2 Diabetes
- The pancreas cannot produce enough insulin to efficiently move enough glucose out of the bloodstream and into the cells for use, contributing to high blood sugar levels
- The cells become unable to use the insulin efficiently, again contributing to high blood sugar levels
This condition describes someone with high blood sugar levels that are not high enough for them to be considered diabetic. Prediabetes places you at higher risk of developing type 2 diabetes later in life. If you have been diagnosed with prediabetes before becoming pregnant, you will be at a higher risk of developing gestational diabetes.
Prediabetes is a reversible condition that can be managed with diet, exercise, and weight loss if you are overweight.
What Is Gestational Diabetes Mellitus?
Only pregnant women who have never had type 1 or type 2 diabetes can be diagnosed with gestational diabetes. During pregnancy, the body grows an organ called the placenta that supports the development of a healthy baby. The placenta is a fully-functioning endocrine organ that can release hormones.
The hormones released by the placenta can affect both the mother’s body and the baby’s. These hormones can cause excess glucose to be stored in the blood and may even lead to insulin resistance.
If the pancreas can’t produce enough insulin to keep up with the increased blood glucose level, the mother may be diagnosed with gestational diabetes.
What Are the Symptoms of Gestational Diabetes?
Most of the time, you won’t have symptoms of gestational diabetes. While some women report increased thirst and more frequent urination, these are common symptoms during pregnancy, so they may be unlikely to notice them.
Who Is at Risk of Gestational Diabetes?
Researchers aren’t sure why some pregnant women develop gestational diabetes, and some do not.
However, certain factors may make you more likely to develop this condition than others. These include:
- Weight. If you are overweight or obese (having a BMI over 30), you are at higher risk of developing gestational diabetes.
- Activity level. Women who are not physically active are more likely to develop gestational diabetes.
- Race or ethnicity. Certain races are more likely to develop gestational diabetes, including African Americans, Asian Americans, Hispanics, Pacific Islanders, and American Indians.
- Certain ovarian conditions. These can include polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS).
- Family history. Close family members who have had or currently have diabetes or had gestational diabetes during pregnancy.
- Previous diagnosis. Gestational diabetes during a previous pregnancy.
If you are thinking of becoming pregnant and are concerned you could develop gestational diabetes, you can reduce your risk by maintaining a healthy weight, eating a healthy diet, and getting plenty of physical exercise.
Does Gestational Diabetes Go Away?
Normally, gestational diabetes goes away after your pregnancy, with no additional treatment needed. Having gestational diabetes places you at higher risk of developing type 2 diabetes later in life, so you must take care of yourself and get regular checkups with your healthcare provider.
After pregnancy, you’ll want to ensure you get blood draws to test your blood sugar levels and ensure they are within a healthy range.
How Is Gestational Diabetes Diagnosed?
If you receive proper prenatal care, your doctor will screen you for gestational diabetes. This test is usually administered when you reach about 24 weeks of pregnancy. You will receive an oral glucose tolerance test that involves drinking a glucose solution and having a blood draw.
Gestational Diabetes Risks
You can dramatically reduce the risks to your body and baby by taking care of your body and following your obstetrician’s recommendations. If your gestational diabetes is not managed properly, there are risks to both you and your baby.
Risks to the Baby
Babies born to mothers with unmanaged gestational diabetes are at risk of developing several negative health conditions, both in utero and after birth.
- Macrosomia. Babies that receive too much glucose from their mother may develop too quickly. A large baby (weighing over 8 pounds, 13 ounces) can trigger preterm labor and is also at risk of developing birth injuries.
- Birth trauma. Large babies are more likely to become injured during birth. Shoulder dystocia, a condition in which the baby’s shoulders become caught on the mother’s pelvis during birth, can cause injuries and permanent nerve damage.
- Hypoglycemia. Babies accustomed to higher blood sugar levels from their mothers may be born with low blood sugar. If your baby’s blood sugar is low after birth, immediate formula, breastfeeding, or glucose supplementation can help regulate it.
- Increased risk of health problems later in life. Having gestational diabetes during pregnancy places your baby at higher risk of developing type 2 diabetes later in life or having issues with maintaining a healthy weight.
The risks to your baby are great, but there are risks to your body and your pregnancy.
Risks to the Mother
- High blood pressure. Elevated blood sugar levels (hyperglycemia) place you at higher risk of developing high blood pressure. While pregnant, high blood pressure can lead to preeclampsia, a condition requiring immediate medical attention.
- Cesarean delivery. Your baby’s and your own health are considered during delivery, and your doctor may feel it is better to have a C-section rather than a vaginal birth.
- Preterm labor. Babies that are too large in utero may trick your body into thinking you are closer to your due date than you are. This can lead to pressure on the uterus, causing preterm labor.
With proper diabetes care, you can have a healthy pregnancy and lower your risk of these gestational diabetes complications.
How Can I Manage Gestational Diabetes?
As soon as you discover you have gestational diabetes, talk to your healthcare provider about meeting with a diabetes educator or a dietitian to discuss your next steps. You’ll need an entire team to help you achieve healthy pregnancy goals and ensure you can carry your baby to 37 weeks.
Maintaining a diet filled with healthy foods, getting plenty of physical exercise, and staying within your doctor’s suggested weight goals will play a huge role in keeping you and your baby healthy during your pregnancy.
Healthy Pregnancies and Beyond
Gestational diabetes may place you at a higher risk of having your baby early, but you can lower the risk by taking care of yourself and maintaining healthy blood sugar levels.
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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 Jacqueline Hensler and medically reviewed by Dr. Angel Rivera.
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