Affecting about 3-5% of all pregnancies, gestational diabetes is one of the top concerns related to pregnancy. But if you are diagnosed with gestational diabetes (sometimes referred to as "glucose intolerance"), there is no need to panic; it is a condition that is manageable with diet and exercise and should disappear after you deliver.

However, this condition can have adverse effects on you and your baby, so it is important to take care of yourself and follow your doctor’s recommendations.

What is gestational diabetes?

Gestational diabetes is a form of diabetes that occurs in pregnant women, generally in the third trimester. Diabetes is a condition in which the body cannot process the sugar, or glucose, in the blood properly. This results in a buildup of sugar – or glucose – in the blood.

Normally, glucose is processed into energy that is then used by the body. During gestational diabetes, this process does not occur. Since gestational diabetes can cause problems, it is carefully monitored.

Why does gestational diabetes happen during pregnancy?

Although science has not given definitive answers as to why gestational diabetes occurs, there is a theory that placental hormones generated by pregnancy block the proper functioning of insulin, creating an "insulin resistance." Since insulin is needed to process sugar in the bloodstream, a buildup of sugar results in elevated blood sugar levels. Am I at risk?

The following factors could raise your risk of developing gestational diabetes:

• If you had gestational diabetes in a previous pregnancy.

• If you have a family history of diabetes.

• If you are overweight.

• If you are over 30.

• If you have had a baby who weighed more than 9 pounds at birth.

What are symptoms of gestational diabetes?

In most cases, there are no noticeable symptoms. In rare cases, you could experience unusual thirst, frequent urination, or blurred vision. (Other signs like fatigue and nausea could easily be confused with the fatigue and nausea caused by… pregnancy!)

Will I be tested for gestational diabetes?

Each time you visit your doctor, you will probably be asked for a urine sample. While they use these samples to monitor your sugar levels throughout your pregnancy, an oral glucose test will be administered between your 24th and 28th week.

You might have heard about the intensely sweet drink – comparable to orange soda syrup without the carbonated water – that you’ll need to chug on an empty stomach. (While you don't need to fast, it's probably not the best idea to wolf down a big breakfast right before the test.) Preliminary results will either put you in the clear or indicate that a second test is necessary.

What can I do if I’m diagnosed with gestational diabetes?

Your doctor will outline a diet and exercise regimen and possibly have you monitor your own blood glucose levels. In extreme cases, you might even need insulin therapy.

It can be frustrating to be on a specific diet when you’re craving ice cream and macaroni and cheese, but untreated gestational diabetes can have adverse effects on you and your baby. Additionally, it has been observed that women who develop gestational diabetes have a greater chance of developing Type II diabetes later on. For both of these reasons, it is best to start managing your condition as soon as possible.

Can gestational diabetes hurt my baby?

With proper care, adherence to your doctor’s suggested diet and exercise plans, and steady monitoring of your blood sugar levels, there is no reason why you shouldn’t deliver a healthy baby. Since gestational diabetes occurs late in the pregnancy, after your baby’s body is developed, it is unlikely that this condition could contribute to any birth defects. Even if treatment beyond diet and exercise is required, proper treatment and medical care should keep you and your baby healthy.

Unfortunately, if the condition is not treated, your pancreas will be working extra hard to produce the necessary insulin. With your blood sugar levels still elevated, the glucose can cross the placenta and increase your baby’s blood sugar level. Since your baby cannot use the glucose, it will be turned into fat, resulting in a heavier baby. There is then the potential of your baby developing macrosomia (excessive birth weight), leading to a possible "shoulder dystocia" during birth, where your OB has to do some maneuvering to ease your baby's shoulders out. Complications, such as a broken humerous or clavicle, can occur during this procedure, but are deemed acceptable compared to the alternative of brain damage (which could occur from the baby remaining partially in the birth canal, trying to draw oxygen from a compressed umbilical cord). Additionally, by not treating gestational diabetes, you might have a more difficult labor, and your baby could be at a higher risk for breathing problems or jaundice. Long term, babies born with too much insulin in their blood are prone to developing obesity and Type II diabetes.

Breathe Easy

If you are diagnosed with gestational diabetes, try not to worry. It’s easier said than done, but stress has its own adverse effects on an individual’s health. Remember that gestational diabetes is treatable. It does not necessarily portend that you will develop Type II diabetes. And, most importantly, babies born to mothers with gestational diabetes can be born healthy and without any problems.

This article was reviewed by Anthony Chin, MD. Dr. Chin is an OB/GYN in Beverly Hills, California.