Pregnancy can be an exciting and engaging time in your life though not without its challenges. Many mothers experience a change in hormone levels which can contribute to gestational diabetes. 2 While gestational diabetes occurs in approximately 2-10% of all pregnancies in the United States every year, it is completely preventable and can be tested for during your pregnancy.1
What is It?
Diabetes that is diagnosed for the first-time during pregnancy or the gestational period is called gestational diabetes.1 Similar to other classifications of diabetes, the cell’s use of glucose is negatively
impacted causing high blood sugar that can affect both the pregnancy and the baby’s health.2
What Causes It?
Currently there is no known root cause for gestational diabetes. However, this type of diabetes occurs when the body can no longer produce enough insulin during pregnancy.2 The pancreas creates the hormone insulin to manage the flow of blood sugar into the cells. That blood sugar is then used for energy in your body. During pregnancy, the placenta provides nutrients and water to the fetus while also producing other hormones such as estrogen, cortisol and human placental lactogen.3 These additional hormones have the potential to cause the body to enter into an insulin resistance phase. It is important to note that pregnant women typically experience insulin resistance during the latter stages of pregnancy.1
However, women who begin their pregnancy with insulin resistance are more likely to develop gestational diabetes.
What are the risks and symptoms/warning signs?
The list of potential risk factors associated with gestational diabetes mirrors the risk factors of other types of diabetes. 3 This list includes:
- Pregnant women who are 26 and older have a greater risk of developing gestational diabetes.3
- Family history of diabetes
- Gestational diabetes during a previous pregnancy
- Polycystic Ovary Syndrome (PCOS)
- Polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS) is a medical condition dealing with hormonal issues that occur during reproductive years in a woman. Common symptoms include irregular periods and polycystic (larger) ovaries.4
- Prediabetes is a health condition in which blood sugar levels are higher than normal levels but not high enough to be diagnosed as type 2 diabetes.5
- Previously delivering a baby weighing more than 9 pounds
- Pregnant women who are African-American, American Indian, Asian American, Hispanic, Latino, or Pacific Islander are at a higher risk for developing gestational diabetes.3
Gestational diabetes does not normally cause notable signs and/or symptoms. Possible symptoms could include an increase in thirst and/or urination. A doctor may note risk factors based on medical history and suggest a gestational diabetes test be performed. Screening for gestational diabetes is typically conducted between weeks 24 and 28 of pregnancy.3
How does gestational diabetes affect your pregnancy and your baby?
Gestational diabetes can increase the risk of high blood pressure during pregnancy as well as an increased risk of having a large baby. Developing a large baby during pregnancy also increases the likelihood of a cesarean (C-section) birth.2
Babies have a higher risk of developing obesity or type 2 diabetes later in life. They also have a higher risk of:
- Early birth
- Early or preterm birth can either be a result of high blood sugar or it could be a recommendation because of excessive birth weight. Serious breathing issues (respiratory distress) can also occur. 2
- Excessive birth weight
- Hypoglycemia (low blood sugar) can occur shortly after birth. Hypoglycemic episodes in infants can cause seizures. 2
- If gestational diabetes goes untreated the results could be an infant death before or shortly after birth.2
Treatment options for women diagnosed with gestational diabetes strive to lower the blood glucose level. Special meal plans, regular physician visits, increased physical activity or possibly insulin injections and daily blood glucose testing are all possible treatment options for gestational diabetes. Depending on your glucose levels, some women may have to take insulin while others develop tailored plans with their healthcare provider to prevent and/or manage their gestational diabetes. Consult a physician for your specific glycemic goals.
Prevention methods often used to lessen the risk of gestational diabetes include maintaining a healthy body weight, regularly engaging in physical activity, early detection, increasing fiber intake, and having a balanced diet.2 Consult a physician to discover a healthy weight before and during pregnancy. If you are overweight, before or after pregnancy, know that losing 5 to 7 percent of body weight can significantly reduce the risk of diabetes. The best way to do this is to engage in physical activity on a regular basis. This can aid in keeping glucose levels.1
Ask your doctor if your blood sugar levels are healthy as a measure of prevention. In addition, changing your diet to include fiber (fruits, vegetables, whole grains, etc.) and limiting desserts.
Remember, a diagnosis of gestational diabetes is treatable. There are prevention and managing methods that will help ensure a healthy pregnancy for both mom and baby. Consult your physician to develop a personalized prevention or management plan.
Blog writer: Taylor Neither, MPH
Blog reviewed by: Dr. Krista Mincey, MPH, Dr.PH, MCHES
- CDC. (2022). https://www.cdc.gov/diabetes/basics/gestational.html#:~:text=Gestational%20diabetes%20is%20 a%20type,pregnancy%20and%20a%20healthy%20baby
- MAYO Clinic. (2022). https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/gestational-diabetes/symptoms-causes/syc-20355 339
- Johns Hopkins Medicine. https://www.hopkinsmedicine.org/health/conditions-and-diseases/diabetes/gestational-diabetes
- CDC. (2022). https://www.cdc.gov/diabetes/basics/pcos.html#:~:text=Diabetes%E2%80%94more%20than%20 half%20of,and%20risk%20increases%20with%20age
- CDC. (2022). https://www.cdc.gov/diabetes/basics/prediabetes.html
- Diabetes Association. https://www2.diabetes.org/diabetes/gestational-diabetes/how-to-treat-gestational-diabetes#:~:text =Treatment%20for%20gestational%20diabetes%20aims,glucose%20testing%20and%20insulin% 20injections