Gestational Diabetes Causes, Symptoms and Treatments

Medically Reviewed by Kelsey Powell, MS, Medical Sciences

Photo Courtesy Jose Luis Pelaez Inc/DigitalVision/Getty Images

Gestational diabetes is the term used to describe high blood sugar levels during pregnancy. Like other types of diabetes, gestational diabetes affects how the body processes sugars. Without effective management, it can affect the health of both the pregnant parent and the developing fetus. However, just because someone develops gestational diabetes doesn’t mean that they’ll also develop diabetes later in life. Typically, gestational diabetes resolves itself after birth, but while it’s active, it does require treatment to lessen its potential health effects.

Causes, Risk Factors and Symptoms of Gestational Diabetes

Most people don’t experience any symptoms associated with gestational diabetes. Occasionally, people may report excessive thirst or increased urination, but these are often common symptoms of pregnancy itself. Because there are no symptoms, all pregnant parents are screened for gestational diabetes at some point during their pregnancy.

The exact cause of gestational diabetes, like other types of diabetes, isn’t completely known. During pregnancy, changes in hormone levels and weight occur, making it harder for a pregnant person’s body to efficiently process sugar.

Normally, when people eat food, sugars from that food enter the bloodstream and prompt the pancreas to produce the hormone insulin. Insulin enables glucose to move from the bloodstream into the cells of the body so the glucose can be used as energy. However, hormones produced in the placenta during pregnancy may hinder the action of insulin. In addition, other changes, such as weight gain, may cause cells to become less responsive to insulin, which results in a condition called insulin resistance. These effects can result in elevated blood sugar levels and the development of gestational diabetes.

Various factors are thought to contribute to the development of gestational diabetes, including:

  • Being overweight or obese
  • Excessive weight gain during pregnancy
  • Age (>30 years old)
  • Physical inactivity
  • A family history of diabetes
  • High blood pressure
  • Heart disease
  • Polycystic ovarian syndrome (PCOS)
  • Previous gestational diabetes

Without careful management, gestational diabetes may cause various complications that may affect the parent and/or the baby. Some complications include:

  • High blood pressure and preeclampsia: Gestational diabetes increases the pregnant parent’s risk of high blood pressure and preeclampsia, which is a serious complication that can endanger both the parent and the baby.
  • C-section: The need for surgical delivery increases with gestational diabetes due to the various complications that may occur.
  • High birth weight: High glucose levels during pregnancy can cause babies to grow to an excessive size (>9 lbs), which can result in complications during delivery or birth injuries.
  • Preterm birth: Early labor and delivery may occur due to elevated glucose levels, or an early delivery may be necessary if the baby becomes too large.
  • Neonatal breathing complications: Preterm babies may experience respiratory distress syndrome.
  • Hypoglycemia: Gestational diabetes may cause babies to be born with low blood sugar levels (hypoglycemia), which may lead to seizures in severe cases.
  • Obesity and Type 2 diabetes: Both the baby and parent are at a higher risk of developing obesity and/or Type 2 diabetes in the future after gestational diabetes.
  • Stillbirth: Untreated gestational diabetes can cause neonatal death either before or shortly after delivery.

Diagnosing Gestational Diabetes

Gestational diabetes usually occurs in the second half of pregnancy. It’s typically diagnosed during a routine screening, which for most pregnant people occurs between 24 and 28 weeks of gestation. There are two tests used to diagnose gestational diabetes:

  • Glucose challenge test: This test is also referred to as a glucose screening test. During this test, a doctor takes a blood sample to measure the patient’s blood sugar levels one hour after consuming a glucose-containing beverage.
  • Oral glucose tolerance test: This test requires fasting for at least eight hours. Then, the doctor takes a blood sample at the initial fasting stage and takes further samples one, two and three hours after drinking the glucose-containing beverage.  

Treatments for Gestational Diabetes

Like other forms of diabetes, there’s no one specific treatment for gestational diabetes, but rather several different things that can help keep blood sugar levels 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, it’s possible to avoid blood sugar spikes. Monitoring blood sugar levels will help give a more complete picture of blood sugar spikes. This is simple to do, and a doctor can provide detailed instructions about the process.

Exercise is also important when it comes to maintaining healthy blood sugar levels because it stimulates the body to move glucose into cells and also increases the sensitivity of the cells to insulin.

If diet and exercise aren’t enough to manage gestational diabetes, the doctor may prescribe oral medication or injected insulin to lower blood sugar levels. Some doctors tend to lean toward insulin because they’re concerned about the safety of oral medications during pregnancy.

Gestational diabetes is something to take very seriously, but an expecting parent shouldn’t panic about it. If you’re diagnosed with gestational diabetes, close monitoring of the baby’s growth and development is vital. Routine follow-ups after the baby is born are also very important to ensure that your gestational diabetes has resolved and hasn’t resulted in Type 2 diabetes. By taking good care of yourself before and during pregnancy, you can minimize the risks to yourself and your child.

Resource Links:

https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/gestational-diabetes/symptoms-causes/syc-20355339

https://www.cdc.gov/pregnancy/diabetes-gestational.html

https://www.diabetes.org/diabetes/gestational-diabetes

https://www.niddk.nih.gov/health-information/diabetes/overview/what-is-diabetes/gestational

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4653418/

https://www.marchofdimes.org/complications/gestational-diabetes.aspx