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Gestational diabetes has been linked with sleep apnea (photo credit: bigstockimages.com)

Gestational diabetes has been linked with sleep apnea (photo credit: bigstockimages.com)

A new study indicates that pregnant women with gestational diabetes may be at a higher risk for obstructive sleep apnea.  Since it is common for pregnant women to struggle with disrupted sleep during pregnancy, this finding may make it more likely that sleep apnea gets diagnosed and treated rather than overlooked as a typical side effect of pregnancy.

Gestational diabetes occurs in 4-8 of every 100 U.S. women who become pregnant.  The condition occurs when the level of glucose in the woman’s bloodstream rises above normal levels and it generally develops during the second trimester.   It is generally treated with a special diet and exercise program, but in some cases it may require glucose testing and insulin injections.  If left untreated, gestational diabetes can result in very large babies that require cesarean deliveries.  While gestational diabetes generally goes away after the baby is born, the American Diabetes Association indicates that many women who have gestational diabetes during pregnancy will develop type 2 diabetes later in life.

Sleep apnea is a sleep disorder that causes the person to stop breathing over and over during sleep.  Each of these instances is called an apnea and each apnea can last from a few seconds to a minute or more.  Those with the condition can have as many as 30 apneas in an hour.  In addition to increasing the risk for cardiovascular problems, sleep apnea causes excessive daytime sleepiness, problems with alertness and cognitive function, and moodiness.  Taken together, it is easy to see why the symptoms of sleep apnea could easily be seen as standard side effects of pregnancy.

The new study, which will be published in the Journal of Clinical Endocrinology & Metabolism, was conducted at Rush University Medical Center in Chicago.  It included 45 participants separated into three groups of 15.  One group was pregnant women with gestational diabetes, one group was pregnant women without gestational diabetes, and one was made up of women who were not pregnant and did not have diabetes.  Although the study size was small, the findings were significant.

The study showed that 75% of the participants in the first group, those who were pregnant and had gestational diabetes, also had sleep apnea.  Additionally, the participants who were pregnant but did not have gestational diabetes averaged an additional hour of sleep per night than those in the first group.  The sleep of this group was also less fragmented than the group with gestational diabetes.  While these findings do not support the conclusion that there is a cause-effect relationship between gestational diabetes and sleep apnea, it does indicate that those who develop the condition during pregnancy may be at a higher risk for the sleep disorder.

It is also not known if the study participants had undiagnosed sleep apnea prior to their pregnancy.  However, as the relationship between sleep apnea and the development of type 2 diabetes has been established by previous research, it follows that those with the sleep disorder may have a higher risk for gestational diabetes.

Overall, the study opens the door for additional research into the relationship between the two conditions and provides obstetricians with new information they can use to take the best possible care of their pregnant patients.