What Is Gestational Diabetes? - Signs, Risk Factors, Prevention

5 min read

Key Points

  • Gestational diabetes is a condition in which a pregnant woman experiences high blood sugar levels
  • The exact cause of gestational diabetes is unclear
  • Insulin cannot cross the placenta
  • Babies are at a higher risk of developing type 2 diabetes and obesity if they have excess insulin at birth

Gestational diabetes is a condition in which a pregnant woman experiences high blood sugar levels with the potential to cause serious complications for the baby. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention statistics, the incidence of gestational diabetes is alarming, affecting about 9.2% of pregnant women. Proper prenatal care can help prevent and treat the condition that can occur at any stage of pregnancy, especially after the second trimester.


What Is Gestational Diabetes?

Pregnant women often suffer from gestational diabetes. Their body cannot produce enough insulin to control blood glucose resulting in a spike in sugar levels. Although the exact cause of gestational diabetes is unclear, it could be due to the growing needs of the baby in the womb. Hormones from the placenta help in the growth of the baby. But these hormones tend to resist the action of insulin in the mother’s body. 


During pregnancy, your body becomes more resistant to insulin to ensure that the baby gets an adequate supply of glucose for nourishment. Due to resistance, the pregnant woman’s body is not able to effectively produce or use insulin. 


As your body’s need for insulin grows during pregnancy, gestational diabetes sets in with the body failing to make and use the insulin required to meet the increased needs. Without enough insulin, glucose continues to flow in the blood and is not transformed into energy. This causes a glucose buildup in the blood, resulting in gestational diabetes. 



How Does Gestational Diabetes Affect the Baby?

Typically this should not be a problem for most moms-to-be, as the pancreas secretes more insulin to keep a check on the glucose levels in the blood.


However, in some pregnant women, the pancreas cannot produce enough insulin to meet the body's increased demand, primarily due to genetics or any other medical condition. As a result, their blood sugar levels spike, and the woman experiences gestational diabetes symptoms. While insulin cannot cross the placenta, extra glucose passes through it along with other nutrients, raising the baby’s blood glucose levels. As a result, the baby's pancreas starts producing extra insulin to rid their body of excess glucose. With the baby’s body getting more than the required amount of energy, the extra energy is stored in the form of fat. So, the baby is at risk of being born overweight. 


Damage to the shoulders during birth is one of the most common problems for larger babies. Additionally, the baby is at a high risk of developing type 2 diabetes and obesity if they have excess insulin at birth. 


Some babies have a very low blood glucose level at the time of birth due to the extra insulin made by their pancreas. Though they are free from diabetes or overweight risks, they may end up developing breathing problems. 


Gestational Diabetes Risk Factors 

Although any woman can develop symptoms of gestational diabetes, the risk increases if

  • you have a family history of diabetes – either of your parents or siblings has diabetes
  • you are overweight, with a body mass index exceeding 30 
  • you previously delivered a baby weighing more than 9.9lbs at the time of birth
  • you have glucose intolerance that makes diabetes more likely
  • you have polycystic ovarian syndrome (PCOS)
  • you are above 35 years of age
  • you take certain medications that can raise your risk of diabetes, such as blood pressure drugs, antipsychotic drugs, or asthma medication 

An oral glucose tolerance test is done around 24-28 weeks of pregnancy to look for signs of gestational diabetes. This involves two tests – one test on an empty stomach and another one after 2 hours of drinking glucose syrup. Women also have the option of opting out of the glucose tolerance test by committing to recording the results of a multi-series blood-sugar test (via prick) for multiple days to allow your Obstetrics to review. This is not allowed in every case but is an option that mothers are not often briefed in regards.


Gestational Diabetes Symptoms

There are usually no symptoms associated with gestational diabetes, though some women may experience hyperglycemia if their sugar levels are too high. Some of the symptoms include:

  • a dry mouth
  • fatigue
  • increased thirst
  • excessive urination

Luckily, gestational diabetes is not permanent. Your blood glucose levels will likely return to the normal range after your baby’s birth. However, women with gestational diabetes are at a high risk of type 2 diabetes in the future. It may also have the following adverse effects.

  • There may be some complications in delivery.
  • There is a risk of premature birth due to the increased level of amniotic fluid that surrounds the baby.
  • The baby may grow larger than normal, which increases the likelihood of induced delivery.
  • The baby is at risk of hypoglycemia or low blood glucose levels at birth.
  • You may be at risk of pre-eclampsia which raises blood pressure during pregnancy and may result in complications if left untreated.
  • Your baby may develop jaundice after birth.

By adopting a healthy lifestyle, maintaining a healthy weight, and following a healthy eating plan, you can prevent or lower your risk of developing gestational diabetes. Combine it with a moderate exercise routine as suggested by your doctor to ensure a healthy pregnancy and safe delivery.

Sun, Jan 30, 22
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