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Gestational Diabetes: Are You at Risk?

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By Eirish Sison 


From morning sickness to insomnia, pregnancy has its share of annoyances. But for 135,000 pregnant women each year, a more serious issue will occur: gestational diabetes.

Like other types of diabetes, gestational diabetes affects how well your body uses sugar (glucose) - your cell's main source of fuel. Gestational diabetes causes high blood sugar levels that can affect your health and that of your growing baby. But healthy habits that include eating right, exercising and maintaining a healthy weight go a long way toward preventing gestational diabetes and treating it if you develop it.

Learn more about the causes and complications of gestational diabetes, plus steps you can take to prevent it.

What is gestational diabetes?

Gestational diabetes mellitus (GDM) is a temporary form of diabetes that is diagnosed during pregnancy (gestation), usually between weeks 24 and 28, and affects about 4 percent of all pregnancies, according to the American Diabetes Association. Gestational diabetes means that your blood sugar (also called blood glucose) is too high. In most cases, your blood sugar will return to normal soon after delivery. However, too much glucose in your blood during pregnancy can increase your risk of developing type 2 diabetes later in life and can also cause future health problems for your baby.

How does gestational diabetes occur?

The placenta, the organ that transfers hormones and nutrients from you to your baby via the umbilical cord, is responsible for your baby's growth and development. Hormones in the placenta block the action of your insulin, a regulatory hormone that controls the amount of glucose in blood. This dilemma, called insulin resistance, forces the pancreas to produce up to three times as much insulin for the body to function properly. Normally, your body is able to meet this challenge and your blood sugar levels normalize. Gestational diabetes occurs when your body doesn't produce enough insulin during pregnancy to combat insulin resistance, resulting in high blood sugar levels, or hyperglycemia.

What are the signs of gestational diabetes?

For most pregnant women, gestational diabetes does not cause any noticeable physical symptoms. When gestational diabetes symptoms do occur, they are usually mild and not life threatening. These include:

  • Blurred vision
  • Frequent infections
  • Increased thirst
  • Increased urination
  • Unexplained weight loss

How does gestational diabetes affect you and your baby?

Because gestational diabetes develops later in pregnancy, after your baby's organs have formed (around week 13), it does not pose the risk of serious birth defects that can occur earlier in pregnancy. Most women are able to control their blood sugar without causing any harm to themselves or their baby. However, poorly controlled blood sugar can cause complications for both you and your baby.

Complications of gestational diabetes in babies:

  • High birth weight. When you have gestational diabetes, your body produces extra insulin to control your high blood sugar (glucose), but the insulin doesn't lower your blood sugar level sufficiently. While insulin does not cross the placenta, glucose and other nutrients do. This causes your baby to have high blood glucose levels as well, forcing the baby's pancreas to make extra insulin to transport the glucose out of the blood stream and into the cells. Once in the cells, this extra glucose is stored as energy in the form of fat, causing your baby to grow too large (macrosomia).
  • Delivery complications and increased risk for cesarean section (C-section). Sometimes babies develop shoulder dystocia, meaning their shoulders have gotten so large that regular delivery is difficult. This, along with increased birth weight, makes the need for delivery by C-section more likely.
  • Low blood sugar at birth. Your baby is more likely to have low blood sugar during the first few days of life, as it will no longer be receiving excess blood sugar from you.
  • Preterm (early) labor. Your high blood sugar may increase your risk of going into labor early and delivering your baby before its due date.
  • Breathing problems. Babies born early may experience respiratory distress syndrome - a condition that makes breathing difficult. Babies with this syndrome may need help breathing until their lungs become stronger.
  • Increased risk for obesity and type 2 diabetes in childhood and adulthood.

 

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