Last Update: 09/11/2006 Printer Friendly Printer Friendly   Email This Page Email This Page  

What is gestational diabetes?

Gestational diabetes (pronounced jess-TAY-shun-ul die-uh-BEET-eez) is one of the most common health problems for pregnant women. It affects about 5 percent1 of all pregnancies, which means there are about 200,000 cases each year. If not treated, gestational diabetes can cause health problems for mother and fetus.

The good news is that gestational diabetes can be treated, especially if it's found early in the pregnancy. There are some things that women with gestational diabetes can do to keep themselves well and their pregnancies healthy. Controlling gestational diabetes is the key to a healthy pregnancy.

This booklet gives patients, women who have been diagnosed with this condition, the information they need to talk to health care providers, dietitians, and family members and friends about gestational diabetes. 

couple and toy bear Gestational Diabetes is a kind of diabetes that only pregnant women get. In fact, the word gestational means "during pregnancy." If a woman gets diabetes or high blood sugar when she is pregnant, but she never had it before, then she has gestational diabetes. Its medical name is gestational diabetes mellitus (pronounced MELL-eh-tiss) or GDM. To learn what gestational diabetes is,
you need to know a few things about diabetes in general.

What is diabetes?

Diabetes means your blood sugar is too high. Diabetes is a disease of metabolism, which is the way your body uses food for energy and growth. Your stomach and intestines break down (or digest) much of the food you eat into a simple sugar called glucose (pronounced GLOO-kos). Glucose is your body's main source of energy. 

mother After digestion, the glucose passes into your bloodstream, which is why glucose is also called blood sugar. This booklet uses the terms glucose and blood sugar to mean the same thing. Once in the blood, the glucose is ready for your body cells to use. But your cells need insulin (pronounced IN-suh-lin), a hormone made by your body, to get the glucose. Insulin "opens" your cells so that glucose can get in. When your metabolism is normal, your body makes enough insulin to move all the glucose smoothly from your bloodstream into your cells.

If you have diabetes, your insulin and glucose levels are out-of-balance. Either your body doesn't make enough insulin, or your cells can't use insulin the way they should. Without insulin, the glucose that can't get into your cells builds up in your bloodstream. This is called high blood sugar or diabetes. After a while, there is so much glucose in the blood that it spills over into your urine and passes out of your body. The medical name for diabetes, diabetes mellitus, means "sweet urine."

If not treated, gestational diabetes can lead to health problems, some of them serious. The best way to promote a healthy pregnancy if you have gestational diabetes is to follow the treatment plan outlined by your health care provider.

Why didn't I have diabetes before?

Remember that only pregnant women get gestational diabetes. When you're pregnant, your body goes through a lot of changes. In this case, being pregnant changed your metabolism. Now that you're pregnant, the insulin in your body can't do its job. Your body can't get the sugar out of your blood and into your cells to use for energy.

Why isn't the insulin doing its job?

The placenta, a system of vessels that passes nutrients, blood, and water from mother to fetus, makes certain hormones that prevent insulin from working the way it is supposed to. This situation is called insulin resistance. To keep your metabolism normal, your body has to make three times its normal amount of insulin or more to overcome the hormones made by the placenta.

For most women, the body's extra insulin is enough to keep their blood sugar levels in the healthy range. But, for about 5 percent of pregnant women, even the extra insulin isn't enough to keep their blood sugar level normal. At about the 20th to the 24th week of pregnancy, they end up with high blood sugar or gestational diabetes.

It takes time for insulin resistance to affect your body in a way that health care providers can measure, which is why tests for gestational diabetes are usually done between the 24th and 28th week of pregnancy.