Affecting about 4% of all pregnancies, gestational diabetes is not a common condition but one that should be taken seriously. With about 135,000 new cases of gestational diabetes diagnosed each year, it is enough of a concern that all pregnant women are tested for it between weeks 24 and 28 of their pregnancy.
While not totally sure of all the causes of gestational diabetes, studies have revealed some of the clues as to why this condition happens.
The fetus’ growth is supported by the placenta, and it is hormones in the placenta which help the baby develop. However, these hormones can interrupt the natural function of insulin in the mother’s body. When this occurs it is called insulin resistance and when this happens it becomes difficult for the mother’s body to effectively use insulin and she may end up needing as much as three times the normal amount of insulin.
When the mother’s body is unable to make and effectively use all the insulin needed for pregnancy, glucose cannot be changed into energy when it leaves the blood, and as a result the glucose can build up to high levels.
Due to the fact that gestational diabetes does not affect the mother until late in pregnancy and until well after the fetus’ body and organs has been formed, the gestational diabetes will not cause birth defects that can sometimes result from pregnancies with pre-existing diabetes.
Untreated or mismanaged gestational diabetes can however, harm your baby. With this condition your body will signal your pancreas to work harder to produce more insulin, but this insulin is not effective in lowering the mother’s blood glucose levels. Even though this extra insulin will not cross through the placenta to the baby, the higher levels of glucose will. This will cause the baby’s pancreas to create extra insulin in order to get rid of the extra glucose. As a result, the baby gets more energy than needed and this extra energy can be stored as fat. This process can lead to a condition called macrosomia, or ‘fat’ baby. This condition can lead to damage to the baby’s shoulders during delivery, or due to the extra insulin the newborns may have low blood sugar levels and can be at risk for breathing issues. Finally, babies born from mothers with gestational diabetes often become children who are at higher risk for obesity and become adults with a higher risk for developing type 2 diabetes.
The good news is that gestational diabetes usually disappears after birth. However, once having had this condition, a woman is more likely to develop it again in future pregnancies. In some rare cases type 2 diabetes results from having gestational diabetes, or in other cases pre-existing diabetes is caught due to the screening process while pregnant.
While not cause for serious alarm, gestational diabetes can result in dire repercussions to the baby if not managed properly. The doctor or health care provider will advocate a strict course of diet, exercise and sometimes medication, in order to properly control blood sugars and to manage a diagnosis of gestational diabetes.