Gestational diabetes is considered a mild form of diabetes that can develop during a pregnancy. In our previous post, we covered how insulin works and the role it plays in diabetes. During a normal pregnancy, the female body prompts the pancreas to make a lot of extra insulin to provide energy to the baby. Gestational diabetes occurs when the pancreas cannot produce enough insulin to offset the hormones that are released from the placenta. These hormones cause insulin resistance, which prevents the insulin from doing its job properly, causing blood sugar levels to rise.
A normal-functioning pancreas can usually produce enough insulin to overwhelm the pregnancy hormones so that the baby gets all the insulin it needs. A family history of type 2 diabetes definitely puts a pregnant woman at risk of not having a normal-functioning pancreas. Additionally, women who are 25 or older also face a greater risk of gestational diabetes because the functionality of the pancreas reduces with age. The risk factors associated with diabetes itself are quite similar to that of gestational diabetes. If a woman is overweight prior to conception or has had big babies in the past, she is more at risk of developing gestational diabetes. It is completely normal (and essential) during a pregnancy to gain weight, but if TOO much weight is gained, and if it is gained quickly, the risk of gestational diabetes increases significantly.
What are the health problems associated with gestational diabetes for both mother and baby? Pregnant women who have high blood sugar can cause a lot of health problems for the baby growing inside them. It seems as though these babies convert these sugars into fat, which can often result in abnormally large babies. This can make the delivery far more difficult and/or risky for both mother and child. Babies who have been exposed to excessive amounts of blood sugar in the womb can not only be less mature and have stunted fetal development, but they can also often suffer from low blood sugar after birth, and can go through what some may describe as a blood sugar withdrawal. While these babies might be considered full-term on paper, they can often show similar symptoms to that of premature babies, suffer from jaundice and other premature baby-related conditions. Additionally, some evidence suggests children exposed to gestational diabetes are at an increased risk of obesity and glucose intolerance. Although it is typical for babies born to mothers with gestational diabetes to NOT be born with diabetes, untreated or uncontrolled gestational diabetes has been known to slightly increase the risk of stillbirth.
For the women herself, gestational diabetes usually goes away after the baby is born. However, gestational diabetes causes the pancreas to stress out and may cause the development of diabetes in the long term. A proper diet and adequate exercise can reduce this risk. As mentioned above, gestational diabetes is a mild form of diabetes, so pregnant women rarely feel the same symptoms as diabetics do, if they experience any symptoms at all. That being said, pregnant women with gestational diabetes typically must urinate even more frequently than they normally would while pregnant and may experience fatigue. What’s confusing is that the symptoms associated with gestational diabetes and pregnancy are quite similar. This is why it is so important for pregnant women to consult a physician and get screened for gestational diabetes. This should be particularly true for women who are overweight, have a family history of type 2 diabetes, have a history of having larger babies and/or are over the age of 25. But all pregnant women should screen themselves for gestational diabetes, regardless of these associated risk factors.