Like type 2 diabetes, gestational diabetes is believed to be caused by a condition known as insulin resistance. Insulin is a hormone that helps the body regulate blood sugar or blood glucose levels. When we eat, our bodies convert food to sugar so it can be used by cells as a source of energy. This sugar or glucose is carried by the bloodstream to cells all over the body.
Insulin acts as a key to open the door for cells to draw in glucose from the blood. Insulin resistance occurs when the pancreas produces insulin but the cells do not respond to it and are unable to access the glucose. This causes glucose to build up in the blood, which triggers the pancreas to produce even more insulin to coax the cells into opening up. If the pancreas cannot produce enough insulin, blood sugar becomes too high and diabetes results.
Researchers do not fully understand why gestational diabetes develops. One accepted theory places the blame on hormones which are produced by the placenta during pregnancy such as estrogen, cortisol, and human placental lactogen. As pregnancy progresses, these hormone levels rise until they reach a level that interferes with the body’s ability to use insulin. This usually happens in the middle of pregnancy, around 24 weeks. To counteract this affect on insulin use, the pancreas may need to produce as much as three times the normal amount of insulin while a woman is pregnant.
Diabetes is considered to be “gestational” when it develops during pregnancy. This type of diabetes usually goes away soon after the baby is delivered. In women who were already prone to develop diabetes, pregnancy may trigger the onset of type 2 diabetes which remains after delivery.
Doctors typically test for gestational diabetes around week 24 of pregnancy. You may be at higher risk if:
- You are 25 years or older.
- You had gestational diabetes in a previous pregnancy.
- Your had a previous baby born weighing more than 9 pounds (4 kg).
- You weighed more than 9 pounds at birth.
- You are obese or physically inactive.
- You are prediabetic.
- You have a family history of diabetes.
If you are diagnosed with gestational diabetes, careful control of blood sugar levels is critical for your health and the health of your baby. This may be achieved through diet and exercise. Carbohydrates are easily converted to sugar, so your diet will probably be low in processed carbs and high in fruits, vegetables, and whole grains. You will also need to monitor your blood sugar levels many times a day and may need to take medications or inject insulin to help keep your sugar levels under control. You should also be tested to be sure diabetes goes away after you give birth to your baby.
Maintaining tight control over blood sugar levels is critical to the health of your baby. If you have any questions or concerns, be sure to talk to your healthcare professional.
Denise DeWitt is a freelance writer for EmpowHER.com.
University of Maryland Medical Center. Gestational Diabetes. Web. March 26, 2012.
American Diabetes Assocation. Gestational Diabetes. Web. March 26, 2012.
MSN Health. Gestational Diabetes – Treatment Overview. Web. March 26, 2012.
Mayo Clinic. Pregnancy and diabetes: Why lifestyle counts. Web. March 26, 2012.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Diabetes and Pregnancy. Web. March 26, 2012.