How Common Is Gestational Diabetes?

Nearly everyone has heard of diabetes as a medical condition. Many are aware of the differences between type 1 and type 2 diabetes as well. Fewer may have heard of gestational diabetes, but those who have may be wondering how common it is among pregnant women.

In this post, we'll describe the condition for those who are unaware and take a look at how concerned women should be about developing gestational diabetes during pregnancy. 

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We make it easy for you to participate in a clinical trial for Gestational diabetes, and get access to the latest treatments not yet widely available - and be a part of finding a cure.

What is gestational diabetes?

Diabetes, in general, is a condition that affects how your body processes blood sugar. When your blood sugar goes up, your pancreas releases insulin in response. The insulin allows your body to absorb blood sugar into the bloodstream and convert it into energy.

Diabetes causes the body to either not produce enough insulin or not process the insulin efficiently. The end result is that the body is left with too much blood sugar.

During pregnancy, the body goes through changes that can increase insulin resistance. These changes include the weight gain and hormonal changes associated with pregnancy. While all women experience some insulin resistance during pregnancy, some experience it to a greater degree than others.

If the pregnant body's resistance to insulin gets too high, the result is gestational diabetes.

Symptoms

The symptoms of diabetes and how fast they develop vary depending on the type of diabetes. Symptoms can come on quickly for type 1 diabetes. Type 2 diabetes, in contrast, can take several years to develop.

Because gestational diabetes only lasts for about as long as a pregnancy, symptoms often don’t have time to develop. As such, there are typically no indicators associated with this condition. Instead, doctors check for gestational diabetes as a routine part of care during pregnancy.

Those who have higher risk factors for gestational diabetes may be checked earlier or more often.

Risk factors

There are a number of factors associated with an increased risk of developing gestational diabetes. These risk factors include:

  • Having developed gestational diabetes in a previous pregnancy

  • Having given birth to a baby over 9 pounds

  • Being over 25 years old

  • Being overweight

  • Having a family history of type 2 diabetes

  • Having polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS)

How gestational diabetes affects pregnancy

If your body isn't regulating blood sugar as well as it should be, this can have some negative impacts during pregnancy. A doctor will monitor your condition if you're found to have gestational diabetes to ensure that the pregnancy goes as smoothly as possible. Some of the problems that can occur in women who have gestational diabetes include:

Larger baby

A mother whose blood sugar is too high will cause her fetus to have high blood sugar too. This can cause the baby to grow larger than it would under normal circumstances. A baby that becomes too large could result in the need for a C-section to safely deliver.

There's also an increased risk for a condition known as shoulder dysplasia, which is when the baby's shoulder gets stuck on the mother's pubic bone during delivery and nerves are damaged.

High blood pressure

Preeclampsia is a condition in which pregnant women develop high blood pressure during their pregnancy. It is similar to gestational diabetes in that it usually goes away shortly after the pregnancy is over.

Women who have diabetes are more likely to have high blood pressure, which extends to gestational diabetes and preeclampsia. High blood pressure during pregnancy can result in a premature baby or even seizures or stroke.

Low blood sugar

Although diabetes itself causes high blood sugar, it must be treated in some way. It's possible, during treatment, that the problem can be overcorrected and the blood sugar can get too low. 

This is why it's vital to monitor blood sugar regularly and inform your doctor of any changes to make appropriate adjustments to your treatment. Low blood sugar in the mother during pregnancy can result in the baby having low blood sugar when it's born.

Increased risk of type 2 diabetes

Although gestational diabetes will go away after childbirth, it does present a risk factor for developing type 2 diabetes at a later point. This risk extends to both the mother and the child. In addition, children born to a mother with gestational diabetes are more likely to experience obesity as they are growing up.

Testing

Because gestational diabetes usually develops around the 24-week mark, doctors often test pregnant women for the condition between weeks 24 and 28.

An expecting mother who has one of the risk factors for gestational diabetes may be tested earlier. There are two simple blood tests used to screen for the condition. Both involve drinking a solution that contains glucose.

The first test measures the blood sugar in your blood after drinking. The second measures the blood sugar levels before and after drinking. These two tests allow doctors to see your blood sugar levels and glucose tolerance.

Prevention

Many of the risk factors for gestational diabetes are things you have little control over. However, being overweight is something that you can control. Before getting pregnant, you may be able to reduce the chance that you'll develop diabetes during pregnancy by getting down to a healthy weight.

A combination of diet and exercise can help achieve that goal. Keep in mind that trying to lose weight during pregnancy isn't a good idea. You'll need to gain weight as a result of the pregnancy for the baby to be born healthy.

How common is gestational diabetes?

Gestational diabetes is not something that occurs in most pregnancies. However, that doesn't mean it is a rare condition either. Every year, gestational diabetes affects 2-10% of pregnancies.¹ Of course, the various risk factors will play a role in how likely an individual is to develop the condition.

Treatment

Although the doctor may put you on medication to help manage your blood sugar, that likely won't be the first step. There are many steps a person can take to manage their diabetes without the need for medicine.

Making diet changes

The problem with diabetes is that your body ends up with too much blood sugar. The easiest way to prevent an excess of blood sugar is to control how much sugar enters the body in the first place.

For this reason, people with diabetes of any kind need to be careful about the amount of carbohydrates they consume. There are two common methods of keeping carb intake under control:

  • Carb counting - This is a more accurate but more involved method. By talking to your doctor and a dietitian, you can determine how many carbs you should have per day or meal. You can then use that data and the nutritional information on the foods you consume to make sure that you stay under that target.

  • The plate method - A less accurate but still effective way of controlling carb intake is called the plate method. This method assumes you are eating off of a typical 9-inch dinner plate. Half the plate should be filled with non-starchy vegetables. A quarter should contain protein foods, and another quarter should include carb foods.

Exercising

Regular exercise can help you lose weight to reduce the chances of gestational diabetes, but it can also help after the fact. Exercise helps to lower blood sugar and decrease insulin resistance. This is a powerful tandem effect for keeping diabetes under control. Discuss any exercise program with your doctor to ensure that it's safe for your pregnancy.

Monitoring the condition

Controlling diabetes is ultimately about controlling blood sugar. During the remainder of your pregnancy, after your diagnosis, you should regularly check your blood sugar.

This will let you know whether your current methods are working or whether you and your medical team need to make further adjustments. Your doctor will also monitor the baby’s development to ensure its growth and if the development is on track.

The lowdown

Because women experience an increase in insulin resistance during pregnancy, it isn't uncommon for that resistance to get high enough that a form of diabetes develops during their pregnancy. Gestational diabetes doesn't present any outward symptoms, but it's something that doctors know to check for, particularly in patients who have risk factors for the condition.

While it isn't something that most pregnant women experience, gestational diabetes is also not a rare condition. Women who are planning to get pregnant can reduce their risk of gestational diabetes by losing weight and exercising before the pregnancy.

Should gestational diabetes develop during pregnancy, there are several ways to manage it through diet, exercise, and proper monitoring of the condition by medical staff.

  1. Gestational diabetes | Center for Disease Control and Prevention

Other sources:

Have you considered clinical trials for Gestational diabetes?

We make it easy for you to participate in a clinical trial for Gestational diabetes, and get access to the latest treatments not yet widely available - and be a part of finding a cure.

Joining community groups and exercise programs for my condition made me feel empowered – but I want to be part of finding a cure.
Peter, 64

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