When your body is working properly, enzymes and acids in your stomach convert food into glucose (a.k.a. sugar). Your stomach then delivers the glucose into your bloodstream.
Your pancreas closely monitors the levels of glucose in your bloodstream. Specialized pancreatic cells, known as beta cells, check your blood’s glucose level every few seconds.
How does insulin work?
The pancreas doesn’t just closely monitor blood sugar levels. It also regulates those levels, by means of a hormone called insulin. Insulin sends a signal which causes cells to open a pathway for glucose. Once inside a cell, glucose is either promptly converted into energy that enables the body to do all the things a body does, or stored for future use.
When your body’s blood sugar levels are too high, your pancreas responds by emitting more insulin. This causes your blood sugar level to drop, as the extra insulin causes the excess glucose to be infused into cellular structures.
When your blood sugar levels are too low, your pancreas will produce less insulin. This keeps the glucose in your bloodstream, enabling your blood sugar to rise to normal levels.
What causes gestational diabetes?
When a woman gets pregnant, her body changes the way it metabolizes glucose. The placenta produces hormones that are designed to help the baby develop. But these hormones can also impede the ability of insulin to regulate blood sugar levels. This condition is known as insulin resistance. It may cause an expectant mother to need up to 3 times as much insulin as she did before her pregnancy.
The hormonal changes of pregnancy can lead to gestational diabetes
When a pregnant woman’s pancreas can’t meet her body’s increased needs for insulin, excess glucose will remain in her blood, instead of being used to energize the body’s activities. This condition is known as hyperglycemia. Conversely, excessive supplies of insulin can lead to dangerously low blood sugar (hypoglycemia).
Symptoms of gestational diabetes
Perilously high or low blood sugar levels are the primary symptoms of the condition known as gestational diabetes. Gestational diabetes doesn’t produce any signs or signals that you can observe on your own, so it’s very important to have your blood sugar levels consistently monitored throughout your pregnancy.
What are the risks of gestational diabetes for the baby?
When it’s diagnosed early and treated properly, gestational diabetes isn’t a threat to either mother or child. But if it isn’t flagged early, or if the treatment is somehow inadequate, the effects of diabetes can have serious consequences to your baby. These risks for the baby include:
Excessive birth weight
Extra glucose in the mother’s bloodstream can cross the placenta into the baby’s circulatory system, where it will signal the baby’s pancreas to make extra insulin. This can lead to the baby’s cells being packed with glucose. Larger cells make larger babies. Very large babies are more likely to incur birth injuries, cause birth problems to the mother, or require a C-section.
Preterm births and respiratory distress syndrome
A mother’s high blood sugar may increase the risk of premature birth. Babies born too early can experience breathing difficulties, and diabetes can even cause respiratory distress in full-term babies.
Low blood sugar
A baby’s inherited high insulin production can scrub the glucose out of their bloodstream, leading to dangerously low blood sugar levels.
Type 2 diabetes in later life
As they grow older, babies born to mothers with gestational diabetes have a higher risk of developing both obesity and type 2 diabetes.
What are the risks of gestational diabetes for the mother?
The risks of gestational diabetes for the mother include:
Gestational diabetes can cause high blood pressure in a prospective mother. This may in turn lead to preeclampsia, a serious complication which can threaten the lives of both mother and child.
Repetitive gestational diabetes
Gestational diabetes makes it likely that it will recur during any subsequent pregnancy.
Eventual incurrence of type 2 diabetes
A pregnant woman with gestational diabetes is more likely to develop type 2 diabetes as she ages. (CDC link)
How to treat gestational diabetes
An OB/GYN will be certain to monitor a pregnant patient’s blood sugar levels throughout the pregnancy. A diagnosis of diabetes will lead to even more thorough and consistent testing.
For some mothers-to-be with diabetes, adhering to a healthy diet and a dedicated exercise regimen will be sufficient to control it. For others, medication (either oral, such as Metformin, or injections of insulin) may be necessary.
“Gestational” diabetes is an esoteric and intimidating name for a condition that isn’t really that scary. Prompt diagnosis, and a mother’s willingness to do whatever is necessary in the way of diet and exercise (sometimes coupled with a medication regimen) will nearly always eliminate harm to either mother or child.
About Dr. Thaïs Aliabadi
As one of the nation’s leading OB-GYNs, Dr. Thaïs Aliabadi offers the very best in gynecological and obstetric care. Together with her warm professional team, Dr. Aliabadi supports women through all phases of life. She fosters a special one-on-one relationship between patient and doctor.
We invite you to establish care with Dr. Aliabadi. Please click here to make an appointment online or call us at (844) 863-6700.