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What is gestational diabetes?

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Gestational diabetes is a relatively common pregnancy complication—each year, as many as 10% of pregnancies occurring in the United States are affected by it, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

If you are pregnant or thinking about becoming pregnant, it's important to be aware of this condition so you'll know what to look for and how to manage it. 

Defining gestational diabetes

Diabetes is a group of health conditions that affect the way the body uses blood sugar (glucose). Gestational diabetes is a specific type of diabetes that develops during pregnancy in people who didn't previously have diabetes. 

When a person has gestational diabetes, changes in the way their body produces and responds to certain hormones makes it difficult for blood sugar to get into cells where it can be used as energy. This causes blood sugar to build up in the blood—a condition called hyperglycemia. High blood sugar can have harmful effects on the pregnant individual and her baby. 

Risk factors for gestational diabetes

It's not fully clear what causes gestational diabetes or why certain women are affected, but being overweight or obese prior to pregnancy may play a role. Other known risk factors for this pregnancy complication include:

  • Sedentary lifestyle (not being physically active)
  • Family history of diabetes, especially an immediate relative (e.g., parent or sibling)
  • Personal history of gestational diabetes in a prior pregnancy, or a history of delivering a large baby (more than 9 pounds)
  • Polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS)
  • Certain racial and ethnic backgrounds, including American Indian, Asian American, Black and Hispanic

Gestational diabetes complications

Gestational diabetes usually goes away after pregnancy, but it can cause complications for pregnant individuals as well as their babies. 

For pregnant women, gestational diabetes can increase the risk of: 

  • Type 2 diabetes (the CDC estimates that about half of women who develop gestational diabetes will go on to develop type 2 diabetes)
  • High blood pressure, as well as a serious pregnancy-related complication known as preeclampsia
  • Delivery via cesarean section (C-section)


Babies born to individuals with gestational diabetes have an increased risk of: 

  • Excessive birthweight
  • Preterm (early) birth and associated problems, including trouble breathing
  • Low blood sugar levels shortly after birth 
  • Obesity and type 2 diabetes later in life
  • Death before or shortly after birth


I was diagnosed with gestational diabetes—now what? 

Gestational diabetes doesn't usually come with any obvious signs or symptoms; a person might notice excessive thirst or urination. Fortunately, doctors routinely screen pregnant women for gestational diabetes as part of normal prenatal care (usually around the 24th to 28th week of pregnancy). 

If you were diagnosed with gestational diabetes, it's important to work with your health care provider closely. He or she will be able to guide you on the important steps you need to take to control your blood sugar and minimize the risk of complications for you and your baby. Treatment for gestational diabetes generally includes dietary modifications, exercise, closer and more frequent monitoring (including at-home daily blood sugar monitoring—your doctor will teach you how to do this) and medications if necessary. 

Can gestational diabetes be prevented? 

Good news—healthy lifestyle choices before and during pregnancy may reduce your likelihood of developing gestational diabetes (even if you've had it before) and can improve outcomes for you and your baby in general! Here's what the research recommends: 

  • Get to a healthy weight prior to pregnancy 
  • Stay active before and during pregnancy (with your health care provider's supervision)
  • Eat the right amount and kind of foods to avoid gaining too much weight during pregnancy and to consume enough nutrients for yourself and your baby (think: whole grains, veggies and fruit, lean protein and healthy fats like nuts and avocado) 

Would you like to speak with a health care provider about gestational diabetes? 

If you're pregnant and have concerns about gestational diabetes or other common pregnancy complications, find a doctor at SIU Medicine today. 

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