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What is Gestational Diabetes? Symptoms, Causes, Treatment

Gestational diabetes develops during pregnancy and disappears after the baby is born. Read about gestational diabetes symptoms, risk factors, and treatment on HealthyPlace.

Gestational diabetes is a temporary form of diabetes that develops in some women during pregnancy. Like other types of diabetes, gestational diabetes involves blood glucose (sugar) levels that are too high. This condition is called hyperglycemia, and during pregnancy, it poses risks to both the mother and the developing baby. Learning about what gestational diabetes is can help you have a healthy pregnancy even if you are diagnosed with this troubling health condition.

Gestational Diabetes Definition

To better understand gestational diabetes, it’s helpful to know a bit about diabetes versus normal metabolism. When the body digests carbohydrates, it breaks them down into a sugar called glucose. The glucose enters the bloodstream where it’s delivered to cells to be used for energy. Because glucose can’t get into the cells by itself, the body makes a hormone called insulin that serves as a key to let glucose into cells. In diabetes, including gestational diabetes, there is a problem with insulin, glucose can’t enter cells, and the person experiences hyperglycemia.

Gestational Diabetes Causes: Where Does It Come From, and What Happens?

Gestational diabetes develops between the twenty-fourth and twenty-eighth weeks of pregnancy because of hormonal activity in the placenta (the organ that nourishes the unborn baby). As a normal part of pregnancy, the placenta makes hormones that happen to make it hard for the mother’s cells to absorb glucose. In most cases, the mother’s body compensates by making more insulin so glucose doesn’t accumulate in the bloodstream. In less than 10 percent of pregnancies, the mother’s body doesn’t make enough insulin to compensate for the hormones made by the placenta. The result is gestational diabetes.

Although doctors don’t yet know why some women don’t produce insulin to make up for the insulin-blocking hormones of the placenta, they do know one thing with certainty: gestational diabetes is a hormonal condition, and a woman with hyperglycemia during pregnancy has done nothing wrong to cause diabetes of this type. If you or someone you know develops gestational diabetes, it’s not your fault.

Gestational Diabetes Symptoms

In most cases, a woman has no symptoms or warning signs that she has gestational diabetes. Occasionally, someone might have some gestational diabetes symptoms; however, they are usually subtle and are similar to the normal experiences of pregnancy:

  • Excessive thirst and dry mouth
  • More frequent urination
  • fatigue

Because symptoms of gestational diabetes are almost unnoticeable, doctors automatically screen women as part of their prenatal checkup between weeks 24 and 28. The test is the oral glucose tolerance test (OGTT).

After a woman has fasted, she is asked to drink a liquid containing glucose. Her blood is drawn before the test and again an hour later. Gestational diabetes is diagnosed when the blood glucose level is above 140 mg/dl. Sometimes, doctors will order another, longer, OGTT just to be sure that results are accurate ("How to Diagnose Diabetes: Criteria, Tests for Diabetes Diagnosis ").

While there are no glaring symptoms to alert you to gestational diabetes, there are some known risk factors.

Gestational Diabetes Risks, Risk Factors and Treatment

Some women are at a higher risk than others of developing diabetes during pregnancy. Risk factors include:

  • being older than 25
  • being overweight before pregnancy
  • a family history of diabetes
  • high blood pressure
  • unhealthy cholesterol
  • poor nutrition
  • sedentary lifestyle
  • smoking

The more of these risk factors a woman has, the higher her chances of developing gestational diabetes.

In addition to risk factors, gestational diabetes also presents health risks to mother and baby. Among the risks to the mother:

  • increased risk of developing prediabetes and type 2 diabetes later in life
  • preeclampsia (toxemia), a dangerous pregnancy complication
  • urinary tract infections
  • increased chance of gestational diabetes in future pregnancies

Gestational diabetes risks to the baby include:

  • high birthweight (macrosomia, or large baby)
  • hypoglycemia (low blood sugar) after birth
  • jaundice
  • breathing problems because of larger birthweight
  • increased risk for childhood obesity
  • increased risk for type 2 diabetes when older

While these risks are real and can be frightening, the good news is that gestational diabetes can be treated and managed and the negative consequences diminished ("Are There Natural Diabetes Treatments? ").

Gestational diabetes treatment focuses on blood glucose monitoring and lifestyle management. Usually, following a healthy meal plan, exercising, and keeping an eye on blood sugar by monitoring it at home are sufficient to reduce hyperglycemia.

Typically, gestational diabetes isn’t treated with medication. However, in some cases, insulin is needed because healthy lifestyle habits aren’t enough to keep blood glucose levels within a healthy range.  

Knowing about gestational diabetes can help ensure a healthy pregnancy, baby, and mother now and into the future. A helpful gestational diabetes definition is high blood sugar that starts during pregnancy and disappears within several weeks of giving birth. It’s an illness that has health risks to both mother and baby, but it’s also an illness that can be treated and managed so that mother and baby remain healthy.

article references

APA Reference
Peterson, T. (2019, January 8). What is Gestational Diabetes? Symptoms, Causes, Treatment, HealthyPlace. Retrieved on 2019, July 19 from https://www.healthyplace.com/diabetes/main/what-is-gestational-diabetes-symptoms-causes-treatment

Last Updated: May 8, 2019

Medically reviewed by Harry Croft, MD

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