Gestational diabetes is when the blood sugar level is high in a pregnant woman. Learn about its causes, symptoms, risk factors, and complications.
The type of diabetes that affects pregnant women is called gestational diabetes. It affects how the cells use glucose in the body. It also results in hypertension (high blood pressure), which can affect the health of the mother and her baby. Most pregnant women can control blood sugar by eating healthily, exercising, and taking medicines.
Here, blood sugar generally returns to normal after delivery, but it increases the risk of type 2 diabetes. So women who had gestational diabetes are advised to keep monitoring their blood glucose levels every three years after delivery. Gestational diabetes if left untreated, can cause complications for your baby during pregnancy or delivery. It affects women between the 24th and 28th week of pregnancy.
Generally, pregnant women do not show any sign of gestational diabetes. It is diagnosed during routine prenatal screening. But when the sugar levels are too high, some women experience the following symptoms:
If you are pregnant and experience unusual symptoms, get immediate medical help. Your doctor will diagnose and treat your condition promptly.
Normally, glucose is produced and released in the blood when the food gets digested. When the pancreas detects glucose in the blood, it produces insulin to move sugar from the blood to the cells. The cells use this glucose for energy.
But in pregnancy, the placenta produces high levels of human placental lactogen (hPL) and other hormones, which cause insulin resistance. These hormones impair the action of insulin and raise blood sugar levels. As these hormones are produced more as the baby grows, gestational diabetes usually develops during the second or third trimester.
There are two forms:
Class A1 - Gestational diabetes that can be controlled through diet.
Class A2 - Gestational diabetes that needs insulin or oral medications.
The factors that increase the risk of gestational diabetes are:
Mother over 25 years of age.
Family history of diabetes.
Overweight before pregnancy.
Gain a lot of weight during pregnancy.
Previous gestational diabetes.
Women on glucocorticoids.
Polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS).
If the blood sugar level is too high, and if it is left uncontrolled, it can result in complications.
Baby can grow too big - As glucose level is high in the mother’s blood, more glucose reaches the baby through the placenta. This makes the baby’s pancreas produce more insulin. As a result, the baby grows too big, which is called macrosomia.
Respiratory distress syndrome - Babies born early have breathing difficult, as the lungs are not mature. Such babies need breathing assistance until the lungs mature.
Low blood sugar - Shortly after birth, some babies develop hypoglycemia (low blood sugar). Severe hypoglycemia can result in seizures.
Risk of type 2 diabetes and obesity - Later in life, babies have a higher risk of developing obesity and type 2 diabetes.
Sudden death - In rare cases, untreated gestational diabetes can result in the unexpected death of the baby during pregnancy or delivery.
C-section - If the baby weighs more than 9 pounds, C-section might be required.
Early labor - High blood sugar causes preterm delivery.
Preeclampsia - High blood sugar results in high blood pressure and preeclampsia. Preeclampsia is a condition caused by high blood pressure, which can be fatal for both the mother and her baby.
Type 2 diabetes - Women with gestational diabetes are at risk of developing type 3 diabetes as they age.
Screening for gestational diabetes is done between the 24th and 28th week, if you are not a known diabetic or if your blood sugar level was normal during early pregnancy tests. The tests done are:
Glucose challenge test - Here, the pregnant woman is made to drink a glucose solution, and the blood sugar level is tested after an hour. Blood glucose level below 130 to 140 mg/dL is considered normal.
Glucose tolerance test - If the result of the glucose challenge test is abnormal, then the doctor performs glucose tolerance test every three hours. Firstly, blood glucose is checked after fasting overnight, and then after drinking a sweet solution, which contains a higher concentration of glucose than in glucose challenge test. Then the doctor takes blood glucose readings every hour for three hours. The normal readings at every hour are:
Fasting blood sugar level equal to or more than 95 to 105 mg/dL.
One-hour blood sugar level equal to or more than 180 to 190 mg/dL.
Two-hour blood sugar level equal to or more than 155 to 165 mg/dL.
Three-hour blood sugar level equal to or more than 140 to 145 mg/dL.
Amongst these readings, even if two readings show high blood glucose, the diagnosis of gestational diabetes is made.
Keeping the blood sugar level under control is crucial for the mother’s and baby’s health. The treatment options include:
Continuous Testing of Blood Sugar - During pregnancy, blood sugar is checked for four to five times a day. It has to be checked early in the morning and after meals. Mother’s can use a home blood glucose meter to monitor their blood glucose levels.
Healthy Eating - Eating a healthy diet, which is low in refined carbohydrates and high in fiber and protein can help control blood sugar. Consume a lot of fruits, vegetables, and whole grains. Consult a dietician or a nutritionist online to create a personalized diet plan.
Exercise - Exercising daily helps lower blood pressure and blood glucose by making the glucose move into the cells, which is then used as energy. It also increases insulin sensitivity. Apart from these benefits, regular exercise can help relieve back pain, cramps, swelling, and constipation. Try walking, cycling, and swimming during pregnancy.
Medicines - If the blood glucose levels are not controlled even after maintaining a proper diet and exercise, your doctor might prescribe antidiabetic medicines or insulin shots.
A healthy lifestyle can help prevent gestational diabetes to an extent. Be active and eat healthily to avoid complications. To know more about this condition, consult a diabetologist online.
Even though it is not always possible to prevent gestational diabetes, you can try the following tips to reduce the risk.
- Maintain a healthy weight.
- Exercise regularly.
- Avoid refined carbohydrates and sweets.
- Consume more protein and fiber.
Babies of women with gestational diabetes can grow too big in the womb, have difficulty breathing on birth (respiratory distress syndrome), might have low blood glucose, and can die suddenly during pregnancy or delivery. Such babies are at risk of developing obesity and type 2 diabetes.
High blood sugar during pregnancy is detected in 3 to 5 % of all pregnancies. Meaning, 1 in every 20 pregnant women has gestational diabetes.
Gestational diabetes is typically managed with eating healthily and exercising. If still the blood sugar is not controlled, then antidiabetic medicines or Insulin shots are prescribed.
Yes, gestational diabetes is a serious condition. If left untreated, it can cause high blood pressure, urinary tract infections, and preeclampsia, which can be life-threatening for the mother and her baby.
Yes, high blood sugar levels can result in early labor and premature birth.
Yes, as gestational diabetes can affect the health of both mother and baby, it is considered a high-risk pregnancy.
You can control blood glucose levels naturally by eating a healthy diet and exercising. Consume protein, fruits, vegetables, and fiber-rich food. Avoid processed, spicy, and oily food. Avoid sweets and refined carbohydrates.
Last reviewed at:
03 Oct 2019 - 5 min read
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