Gestational diabetes is a condition that occurs during pregnancy. Like other forms of diabetes, gestational diabetes involves a defect in the way the body processes and uses sugars (glucose) in the diet. Gestational diabetes, however, has a number of characteristics that are different from other forms of diabetes.
Glucose is a form of sugar that is present in many foods, including sweets, potatoes, pasta, and breads. The body uses glucose to provide energy. It is stored in the liver, muscles, and fatty tissue. The pancreas produces a hormone (a chemical produced in one part of the body, which travels to another part of the body in order to exert its effect) called insulin. Insulin is required to allow glucose to enter the liver, muscles, and fatty tissues, thus reducing the amount of glucose in the blood. In diabetes, blood levels of glucose remain abnormally high. In many forms of diabetes, this is because the pancreas does not produce enough insulin.
In gestational diabetes, the pancreas is not at fault. Instead, the problem is in the placenta. During pregnancy, the placenta provides the baby with nourishment. It also produces a number of hormones that interfere with the body's usual response to insulin. This condition is referred to as "insulin resistance." Most pregnant women do not suffer from gestational diabetes, because the pancreas works to produce extra quantities of insulin in order to compensate for insulin resistance. However, when a woman's pancreas cannot produce enough extra insulin, blood levels of glucose stay abnormally high, and the woman is considered to have gestational diabetes.
About 1–3% of all pregnant women develop gestational diabetes. Women at risk for gestational diabetes include those who:
- are overweight
- have a family history of diabetes
- have previously given birth to a very large, heavy baby
- have previously had a baby who was stillborn, or born with a birth defect
- have an excess amount of amniotic fluid (the cushioning fluid within the uterus that surrounds the developing fetus)
- are over 25 years of age
- belong to an ethnic group known to experience higher rates of gestational diabetes (in the United States, these groups include Mexican-Americans, American Indians, African-Americans, as well as individuals from Asia, India, or the Pacific Islands)
- have a previous history of gestational diabetes during a pregnancy
Causes and symptoms
Most women with gestational diabetes have no recognizable symptoms. However, leaving gestational diabetes undiagnosed and untreated is risky to the developing fetus. Left untreated, a diabetic mother's blood sugar levels will be consistently high. This sugar will cross the placenta and pour into the baby's system through the umbilical cord. The unborn baby's pancreas will respond to this high level of sugar by constantly putting out large amounts of insulin. The insulin will allow the fetus's cells to take in glucose, where it will be converted to fat and stored. A baby who has been exposed to constantly high levels of sugar throughout pregnancy will be abnormally large. Such a baby will often grow so large that he or she cannot be born through the vagina, but will instead need to be born through a surgical procedure (cesarean section).
Furthermore, when the baby is born, the baby will still have an abnormally large amount of insulin circulating. After birth, when the mother and baby are no longer attached to each other via the placenta and umbilical cord, the baby will no longer be receiving the mother's high level of sugar. The baby's high level of insulin, however, will very quickly use up the glucose circulating in the baby's bloodstream. The baby is then at risk for having a dangerously low level of blood glucose (a condition called hypoglycemia).
Since gestational diabetes most often exists with no symptoms detectable by the patient, and since its existence
When the screening glucose level is over 140 mg/dl, a special three-hour glucose tolerance test is performed. This involves following a special diet for three days prior to the test. This diet is set-up to contain at least 150 grams of carbohydrate each day. Just before the test, the patient is instructed to eat and drink nothing (except water) for 10–14 hours. A blood sample is then tested to determine the fasting glucose level. The patient then drinks a special solution containing exactly 100 grams of glucose, and her blood is tested every hour for the next three hours. If two or more of these levels are elevated over normal, then the patient is considered to have gestational diabetes.
Treatment for gestational diabetes will depend on the severity of the diabetes. Mild forms can be treated with diet (decreasing the intake of sugars and fats, in particular). Many women are put on strict, detailed diets, and are asked to stay within a certain range of calorie intake. Exercise is sometimes used to keep blood sugar levels lower. Patients are often asked to regularly measure their blood sugar. This is done by poking a finger with a needle called a lancet, putting a drop of blood on a special type of paper, and feeding the paper into a meter which analyzes and reports the blood sugar level. When diet and exercise do not keep blood glucose levels within an acceptable range, a patient may need to take regular shots of insulin.
Many babies born to women with gestational diabetes are large enough to cause more difficult deliveries, and they may require the use of forceps, suction, or cesarean section. Once the baby is born, it is important to carefully monitor its blood glucose levels. These levels may drop sharply and dangerously once the baby is no longer receiving large quantities of sugar from the mother. When this occurs, it is easily resolved by giving the baby glucose.
Prognosis for women with gestational diabetes, and their babies, is generally good. Almost all such women stop being diabetic after the birth of their baby. However, some research has shown that nearly 50% of these women will develop a permanent form of diabetes within 15 years. The child of a mother with gestational diabetes has a greater-than-normal chance of developing diabetes sometime in adulthood, also. A woman who has had gestational diabetes during one pregnancy has about a 66% chance of having it again during any subsequent pregnancies. Women who had gestational diabetes usually are tested for diabetes at the post-partum checkup or after stopping breastfeeding.
There is no known way to actually prevent diabetes, particularly since gestational diabetes is due to the effects of normal hormones of pregnancy. However, the effects of insulin resistance can be best handled through careful attention to diet, avoiding becoming overweight throughout life, and participating in reasonable exercise.
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Lowe, Ernest, and Gary Arsham. Diabetes: A Guide to Living Well. Minneapolis: Chronimed Publishing, 1997.
Bartholomew, Sallie P. "Make Way for Baby." Diabetes Forecast 50, no.12 (Dec. 1997): 20+.
Morrison, John C. "Prediction of Continued Glucose Intolerance in Women with Gestational Diabetes." Clinical Diabetes 14, no. 6 (Nov./Dec. 1996): 156.
Pasui, Kristine and Kay F. McFarland. "Management of Diabetes in Pregnancy." American Family Physician 55, no.8 (June 1997): 2731+.
Weller, Kenneth A. "Diagnosis and Management of Gestational Diabetes." American Family Physician 53, no. 6 (1 May 1996): 2053+.
American Diabetes Association. 1701 North Beauregard Street, Alexandria, VA 22311. (800) 342-2383. <http://www.diabetes.org>.
Rosalyn Carson-DeWitt, MD
Glucose—A form of sugar. The final product of the breakdown of carbohydrates (starches).
Insulin—A hormone produced by the pancreas that is central to the processing of sugars and carbohydrates in the diet.
Placenta—An organ that is attached to the inside wall of the mother's uterus and to the fetus via the umbilical cord. The placenta allows oxygen and nutrients from the mother's bloodstream to pass into the unborn baby.