Gestational Diabetes

By:    Published: May 25, 2012

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Gestational diabetes is a very common problem for many pregnant women, but it doesn't have to be as scary as what it might initially seem. By knowing the facts about gestational diabetes, pregnant women, with the help of their doctor, can create a gestational diabetes diet plan, stay healthy and have perfectly healthy, happy babies.

What Is It?

Gestational diabetes is the term used to describe high blood sugar levels in pregnant women. Like other types of diabetes, gestational diabetes affects how the body processes sugars. If it is not managed properly, it can affect the health of the mother and the child. However, just because someone develops gestational diabetes does not mean that they will develop diabetes later in life. Typically, the diabetes will resolve itself after birth. (For more diabetes information, be sure to check out Diabetes in the Diseases & Conditions section.)

Gestational diabetes usually occurs in the last half of the pregnancy. It is typically diagnosed during a routine screening, which for most women occurs between 24 and 28 weeks of gestation. There are some significant risk factors for developing gestational diabetes, and women with these risk factors may be evaluated earlier in the pregnancy, sometimes as soon as their first prenatal visit. These risk factors include:

  • Age (over 25 years old)
  • Personal history or family history of pre-diabetes or diabetes
  • Previous birth of a large baby (over nine pounds)
  • Unexplained stillbirth
  • Overweight
  • Ethnicity other than white

Causes And Complications

The exact cause of gestational diabetes, like other types of diabetes, is not completely known. It is thought that a number of factors affects whether or not someone will develop gestational diabetes. One of the most important aspects of how gestational diabetes develops is how pregnancy affects the way the body processes glucose.

As the body digests the food that is eaten, glucose is produced. This glucose enters the bloodstream and in response, the pancreas produces insulin. Insulin is a hormone that enables glucose to move from the blood stream into the cells of the body where it can be used as energy.

During pregnancy, the baby's placenta produces many hormones that hinder the action of insulin, causing blood sugar levels to rise. As the pregnancy progresses, the placenta produces more and more of those hormones. After approximately the 20th week of pregnancy, insulin's action can be impaired enough to be dangerous to the health of the mother and child.

Because gestational diabetes doesn't usually develop until later in the pregnancy, after the baby is fully formed, it doesn't cause the same type of birth defects that other forms of diabetes can, such as in cases where the mother was diabetic before the pregnancy. But gestational diabetes does still present some risk to the unborn baby.

The excess glucose from the mother crosses the placenta to the baby, but insulin does not. The baby's pancreas has to produce insulin for the baby. When the baby's pancreas produces extra insulin to keep up with the excess sugar, the sugar that the baby's body does not use is stored as fat. Because of this, women with gestational diabetes have a significantly higher risk of having a baby with macrosomia, or a "fat baby".

While it may not seem all that serious at first, baby's who are born with macrosomia face significant health problems. They can have problems being born due to their large size, including difficulty passing through the pelvis and birth canal due to their large size, premature birth, breathing problems, low blood sugar after birth, and an elevated risk for obesity and type 2 diabetes as adults.

Symptoms

Most women experience no symptoms associated with gestational diabetes. Occasionally women may report excessive thirst or increased urination, but in pregnancy these are very common even in women who do not have gestational diabetes.

Because there are no symptoms, all women will be screened for gestational diabetes at some point in their pregnancy.

Treatment

Like other forms of diabetes, there is no one specific treatment for gestational diabetes, but rather several different things that people can do to help keep their blood sugar under control.

  • One of the best ways to keep blood sugar under control is by eating according to a gestational diabetes diet plan developed with the help of a doctor or nutritionist. By eating the right foods, blood sugar spikes can be avoided.
  • Monitoring blood sugar will help give a more complete picture of blood sugar spikes. This is simple to do and the doctor can give the pregnant woman detailed instructions as to how she should monitor her blood sugar.
  • Exercise is also an important part of keeping blood sugar stable. Exercise stimulates the body to move glucose into cells and increases the cells sensitivity to insulin. Exercise is also great for relieving some of the aches and pains associated with pregnancy and can help the expectant mother build endurance that is essential during delivery.
  • For those who are still having trouble controlling their blood sugar, their doctor may prescribe some type of medication like oral medications that lower blood sugar or injected insulin. Some doctors tend to lean toward insulin because they are concerned about the safety of oral medications during pregnancy.

Gestational diabetes is something to be taken very seriously, but a mother should not panic about it. By taking good care of herself during pregnancy, a mother can minimize the risks to the baby and give the little one the best start possible.

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