Gestational Diabetes May Increase Risk of Metabolic Disease in Children

Children born to mothers with gestational diabetes have altered fat cells.

Findings from a new study suggest that gestational diabetes may impact the fat cells of fetuses, and can lead to metabolic diseases later in life, according to a report in Reuters. Fetuses of mothers with gestational diabetes are exposed to high blood glucose levels during gestation, called fetal hyperglycemia.

“Fetal hyperglycemia affects fat stem cells and these defects can be detected several years later,” said lead study author Ninna Schioler Hansen.

In the study, which was published by the Journal of Clinical Endocrinology and Metabolism, the offspring of mothers with gestational diabetes were found to have increased quantities of fat cells and leptin, a hormone created by fat cells that regulates appetite.

“If (high blood sugar) or diabetes is present during pregnancy, our study supports the importance of aiming at normal blood glucose levels to reduce the negative impact on the cells of the unborn baby,” Hansen told Reuters via email.

The study authors suggest preventing gestational diabetes through healthy eating and increasing physical activity prior to pregnancy. These interventions may greatly reduce the chances of offspring developing metabolic diseases, such as diabetes.

Included in the study were 206 adults whose mothers did not have diabetes during pregnancy, had diabetes prior to pregnancy, or developed gestational diabetes.

The authors said that children of women with diabetes during pregnancy had significant changes in the size of their fat cells, fat storage, and leptin production, according to the study.

The authors warn that these changes could possibly be explained by other occurrences during development. However, the findings may indicate why children born to mothers with gestational diabetes are more likely to develop diabetes later in life.

Findings from another study found that fetuses of mothers with diabetes had more blood flow to the placenta, diverting more blood from the brain compared with fetuses in the control group. Fetuses of diabetic mothers were also seen to have lower placental resistance and compliance, lower blood flow to the arteries in the brain, reduced flow to the brain, and a lower cardiac output, which can significantly impact health.

Preventing fetal hyperglycemia is important in preventing adverse events experienced by children later in life.

Mothers can do so by starting pregnancy at a healthy weight, and prevent extreme weight gain during pregnancy. The CDC recommends that women with normal weight gain 25 to 35 pounds during pregnancy, but overweight mothers should not gain more than 25 pounds.

Alterations in adipose cells can increase the likelihood of fat storage, which also increases the risk of diabetes. Additionally, if leptin is overproduced, patients are more likely to consume larger quantities of food, and drastically increase blood glucose levels.

“Taken together, these findings show that intrinsic epigenetic and functional changes exist in preadipocyte cultures from individuals exposed to fetal hyperglycemia who are at increased risk of developing metabolic disease,” the authors wrote.