Diabetes can be particularly hard on pregnant women. It can affect both the mother and her unborn child.

Known as gestational diabetes, this condition is now more common than ever. In the United States, it is estimated to affect up to 1 in every 10 pregnancies.

The rate is said to be similar in Australia, with new cases of gestational diabetes rising a whopping 21% between 2000 and 2010.

Fortunately with early diagnosis and treatment, any negative health effects on mother and child can be significantly minimised.

In this article, HealthEngine looks at the health risks and early warning signs of gestational diabetes.

What is gestational diabetes?

Gestational diabetes is the term given to expecting mothers diagnosed with pre-diabetes (otherwise known as Glucose Intolerance) during their pregnancy.

The risk of glucose intolerance – and therefore gestational diabetes – is greatly increased during pregnancy because the efficiency of insulin (the hormone required to remove sugar from our bloodstream) naturally declines during this period.

Less efficient insulin means sugar can become ‘stuck’ in our bloodstream, which leads to many health issues. For this reason, added sugar is basically hazardous to health during and immediately after pregnancy.

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What are the health risks of gestational diabetes?

Being diagnosed with gestational diabetes does not mean you had diabetes before falling pregnant, or that you will have diabetes after pregnancy.

But it does mean you need to be extra mindful of the foods you eat to ensure both you and your baby remain healthy.

The risks of poorly managed gestational diabetes are serious:

The early signs of gestational diabetes

Many women develop gestational diabetes during the second trimester, usually around the 24th week.

This is not always the case though, and the sooner it gets flagged the better.

Unfortunately, the early signs of gestational diabetes tend to overlap with typical symptoms of pregnancy, which is why it can go unnoticed for weeks.

The early signs of gestational diabetes include:

 

  1. Extreme fatigue and lethargy
  2. Urge to urinate increases to extremes
  3. Extremely dry mouth and constant thirst
  4. Feeling extreme nausea (maybe even vomiting) after eating
  5. Unusually strong cravings for sweet foods and drinks
  6. Blurred vision
  7. Tingling in the hands or feet

 

1. Extreme fatigue and lethargy

While not uncommon to feel tired during pregnancy, unmanaged diabetes will leave you feeling exceptionally weak and drowsy.

It is best described as extreme fatigue or lethargy, where you even feel like resting in bed during the middle of the day.

Why does this happen? With diabetes, sugar remains in the blood instead of entering the cells to provide energy. As a result you literally have less energy.

2. Urge to urinate increases to extremes

While there is great variability depending on the individual, most expecting mothers need to pee frequently. A dramatic increase in how often you urinate (known as Polyuria) can also be a sign of high blood sugar.

Urinating every single hour of the day, including throughout the night, is a common red flag.

Why does this happen? The kidneys work to expel any excess sugar remaining in the bloodstream. Any sugar the kidneys are unable to absorb must be urinated out.

3. Extremely dry mouth and constant thirst

Having an alarmingly dry mouth during the day is a glaring symptom of gestational diabetes.

As a result you may be inclined to drink exorbitant amounts of water each day, upwards of 5 litres or more. This habit feeds back into the excessive urination cycle… The more you drink, the more you pee.

Why does this happen? This is the body’s natural response to increased fluid loss. Excessive urination leaves us extremely dry and thirsty.

4. Feeling extreme nausea (maybe even vomiting) after eating

This is usually a symptom that occurs when you have had elevated blood sugar levels for a lengthy period of time. Eating a regular sized meal almost always makes you feel sick, even though you are feeling hungry.

Why does this happen? As the body is unable to use sugar for energy (which is why sugar remains in the bloodstream) it breaks down fat to use as an energy source instead. The by-product of this process are compounds called ketones, which build up in the blood and urine. It’s these ketones that may cause you to feel more nauseous than what is normal during pregnancy.

5. Unusually strong cravings for sweet foods and drinks

While big meals may leave you feeling sick, sugary snacks can have the opposite effect. Those with diabetes can have what seems to be a relentless appetite for sweets.

Why does this happen? Diabetes leads to dramatic fluctuations in blood sugar as the body loses much of its ability to self-regulate levels. When these levels drop, the brain thinks it is starving and craves quick and easy calories.

6.  Blurred vision

A very noticeable yet less common symptom of gestational diabetes is blurred vision. Fortunately the symptoms are typically reversible once sugar levels have been corrected.

Why does this happen? Excess blood sugar pulls fluids out of your cells and tissue. This can happen to the lens of your eye too, causing it to swell and disrupt its ability to focus.

7. Tingling in the hands or feet

A tingling sensation (‘pins and needles’) in the hands and feet is another sign of gestational diabetes. Similarly to blurred vision, it is more noticeable because it is not a typical symptom of pregnancy.

Why does this happen? Excess sugar in the blood can start damaging nerves and nerve-endings. The nerves in the hands and feet tingle most because they are furthest from the heart, making them harder for the body to access and repair.

When to see your doctor or midwife

While your doctor should check for gestational diabetes as part of your prenatal care, frequent check-ups (at least fortnightly) usually only begin after week 28.

The time at which someone can develop gestational diabetes varies greatly between individuals, and can even happen during the first week.

If you experience any new symptoms between prenatal checks, use HealthEngine to make a booking with your regular GP or find a convenient appointment nearby, to get tested as soon as possible.

It’s better to be safe if something doesn’t feel right.

Next steps

This article is for informational purposes only and should not be taken as medical advice. If in doubt, HealthEngine recommends consulting with a registered health practitioner.

 

A: Use HealthEngine to find and book your next Obstetrician appointment. Click on the following locations to find a Obstetrician clinic in your state or territory.

 

This article is for informational purposes only and should not be taken as medical advice. If in doubt, HealthEngine recommends consulting with a registered health practitioner.