Gestational Diabetes and Headaches: What’s the Connection?

Is it a tension headache or something else? If you have gestational diabetes, your headaches could be a side effect. …(continue reading)

Learning you have gestational diabetes can cause stress and make it harder for you to focus on the enjoyable parts of your pregnancy. 

If you’ve recently been diagnosed, we can help. We’ll help you understand how diabetes affects your blood sugar, what can happen if you don’t manage your gestational diabetes properly, and whether or not those headaches you’ve been having are a symptom. 

We’ll also offer tips to help you manage your gestational diabetes and have a happy and healthy pregnancy that supports your body and your baby.

What Is Diabetes?

We eat food to fuel our bodies. Some foods, like carbohydrates, are broken down into glucose, a simple sugar your cells need to function. When glucose enters our bloodstream, it raises our blood sugar levels

A rise in blood sugar levels triggers the pancreas to produce insulin. Insulin is a hormone that helps remove glucose from the bloodstream and deliver it to the cells that need it. 

For our bodies to effectively use glucose and for our blood sugar levels to remain stable, two important functions need to happen:

  1. The pancreas must produce enough insulin to remove the glucose from our bloodstream.
  1. The cells in our bodies must respond effectively to insulin to obtain the necessary glucose.

For someone who has diabetes, one or both of these functions does not occur. Let’s look closer at different types of diabetes and how they affect the body.

Type 1 Diabetes

Someone with type 1 diabetes has an autoimmune disorder that prevents their pancreas from producing insulin. This type of diabetes is most frequently diagnosed during childhood, but not in every case. 

Someone who has type 1 diabetes is insulin-dependent, which means they must take daily insulin injections to maintain the movement of glucose into the cells for energy. There’s no cure for type 1 diabetes, but people with this condition can have a healthy and enjoyable life with proper self-management. 

Type 2 Diabetes

The most common form of diabetes is type 2 diabetes. This type of diabetes develops over time. For someone with type 2 diabetes, the pancreas cannot produce enough insulin to keep up with the amount of glucose in the blood, or the cells cannot effectively use the insulin, a condition called insulin resistance.

There’s no cure for type 2 diabetes, but with diet, exercise, and regular blood sugar testing, a type 2 diabetic can reduce their reliance on medication and lead a healthful life

Prediabetes

Blood sugar levels that are high but not so high as to be considered type 1, 2, or gestational diabetes may result in a diagnosis of prediabetes. Prediabetes is a condition with high blood sugar levels, and a person is at higher risk of developing type 2 diabetes

Prediabetes is a reversible condition that can be remedied with diet and exercise. However, being diagnosed with prediabetes places a person at a higher risk of developing type 2 diabetes later in life

What Is Gestational Diabetes Mellitus?

Only pregnant women who have never had diabetes can develop gestational diabetes. This condition occurs only during pregnancy and usually resolves (goes away) postpartum. 

What Causes Gestational Diabetes?

Researchers aren’t sure why some women get gestational diabetes, and others do not. However, hormonal changes caused by the placenta can cause glucose to be stored in the blood excessively. At the same time, the hormones released by the placenta may also cause cells to become insulin resistant. 

Women who develop gestational diabetes must take special precautions during the remainder of their pregnancies to help regulate their blood sugar and ensure the safety and health of their bodies and their babies.

Who Is at Risk of Gestational Diabetes?

There’s no way to know if you will develop gestational diabetes, but certain conditions may place you at higher risk. 

  • Obesity, or having a BMI over 30
  • Having an inactive, sedentary lifestyle
  • Being African American, Asian American, Pacific Islander, Hispanic, or American Indian
  • Having polycystic ovary syndrome, or PCOS
  • Having a family history of diabetes
  • Having gestational diabetes during a previous pregnancy
  • Giving birth to a large baby that weighs more than eight pounds 13 ounces previously 

You may not be able to prevent the development of gestational diabetes, but leading a healthy lifestyle and maintaining a healthy weight before becoming pregnant can help reduce your risk.

How Is Gestational Diabetes Diagnosed?

When you reach approximately 24 weeks of pregnancy, your doctor will typically administer an oral glucose tolerance test to determine if you have gestational diabetes. This test involves consuming a glucose drink and then having your blood drawn. 

A blood test is the only way to determine whether or not you have gestational diabetes, since some women may not show any outward signs of gestational diabetes. If you aren’t getting proper prenatal care, talk to your healthcare provider to ensure you are screened for this condition. 

Be prepared to discuss any risk factors that you believe may put you at an increased risk for gestational diabetes. If you have gestational diabetes, your doctor may recommend that you work with a registered dietitian to monitor your diet.

What Are the Side Effects of Gestational Diabetes?

While there are no symptoms of gestational diabetes, you may experience some side effects if you cannot properly manage your blood sugar. 

The most common side effects of unregulated blood sugar are:

  • Feeling lightheaded or faint
  • Headaches
  • Blurred vision
  • Rapid heartbeat
  • Excessive hunger or thirst
  • Frequent urination
  • Feeling weak
  • Tiredness and lethargy

These symptoms are warnings that your blood sugar levels need attention. Your doctor will talk to you about what to do when and if you experience these symptoms so that you can quickly take action to remedy them. 

If left untreated, gestational diabetes can also increase your risk for additional complications like preeclampsia or preterm labor.

What Causes Headaches During Pregnancy?

Not everyone experiencing trouble with their blood sugar levels will experience headaches, but some people will. Researchers believe that the connection lies with the fluctuating levels of certain hormones, particularly epinephrine and norepinephrine

When blood sugar levels rise too high or fall too low, these hormones may change and constrict blood vessels. The constriction of blood vessels may result in headaches, neck pain, and even muscle aches. 

In addition, rising glucose levels may also cause hypertension or high blood pressure. When this occurs, headaches may coincide. 

How Do I Manage Headaches With Gestational Diabetes?

If you were not pregnant, taking any over-the-counter solution would usually be a simple way to deal with your headache. Unfortunately, pregnancy makes it a bit more complicated. 

While many over-the-counter pain relievers are safe when pregnant, you should avoid others. 

You can deal with gestational diabetes headaches naturally with these helpful tips:

  • Test your blood sugar. If you develop a headache, it could be a sign your blood sugar needs attention. Test your blood sugar to determine if your levels are too high or too low. Hypoglycemia, or low blood sugar, is a common cause of headaches.
  • Drink plenty of water. Headaches can also be a sign of dehydration. Try drinking a glass of water at the onset of a headache.
  • Remedy your sugar levels. If your blood glucose levels are too high or too low, take steps to remedy the situation as directed by your doctor. This may mean taking medication or eating a particular food. 
  • Go for a walk. Exercise can help get your blood flowing and cause your blood vessels to expand, which may help reduce the tension of a headache. In addition, physical activity is a great way to help manage your gestational diabetes
  • Lie down. If you can lie down for a few minutes, you may be able to alleviate your headache. Try lying down in a cool, dark room for 15 minutes. You can also apply a cold compress to your forehead. 

If these remedies don’t work, know that headaches don’t last forever and will eventually pass. 

When To Call the Doctor

You should call your doctor if you have certain other symptoms, with a headache, while you have gestational diabetes. These include:

  • Blurry vision
  • Trouble staying awake
  • Rapid heartbeat or trouble breathing
  • A fruity or sweet scent to your breath without eating foods that would produce this effect
  • Disorientation 
  • Gastrointestinal pain or discomfort

Experiencing any of these symptoms and a headache can indicate that your blood sugar levels need immediate medical attention, and your doctor can discuss treatment options for further diabetes care. 

Healthy Pregnancies With Gestational Diabetes

Having gestational diabetes means you’ll need to pay closer attention to your diet while pregnant. Your doctor may also want you to test your blood sugar regularly. 

Headaches while pregnant are common, and if you have gestational diabetes, you may experience more headaches. You can try natural remedies to alleviate headaches, but if you experience certain other side effects, you must contact your doctor immediately. 

For more information, check out Diabetic.org’s articles on Gestational Diabetes. Here, you’ll find answers to some of the most frequently asked pregnancy-related questions and information on diabetes and keeping healthy for a lifetime.  

References, Studies and Sources:

Polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS) – Symptoms and causes – Mayo Clinic 

Hyperglycemia: Causes, Symptoms, Treatments & Prevention|Cleveland Clinic.org 

Migraine in adults with diabetes; is there an association? Results of a population-based study – PMC 

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. 

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