Gestational diabetes is linked to serotonin, a chemical produced by the body, and is influenced by the amount of protein in the mother's diet early in pregnancy, scientists have said.
Researchers at UCSF said that the find could lead to simple dietary solutions and possible therapeutics for the disorder and could even help reverse non-gestational diabetes.
The onset of pregnancy causes a woman to double the number of insulin-producing islet cells in her pancreas.
The team found that in pregnant mice, the enzyme that produces serotonin rose exponentially.
"What this paper shows is not only does the gene for synthesizing serotonin increase, but also the amount of serotonin in the beta cells increases 1,000-fold during pregnancy," said UCSF Professor Michael German, MD, who is senior author of the paper.
Because serotonin is made from tryptophan - an amino acid that comes from high-protein foods such as milk, eggs, meat and fish - this result also provides a clear link between the amount and type of protein consumed by the mother early in pregnancy.
Any attempt to inhibit production of serotonin by islet cells led to gestational diabetes in the mice.
The dual roles of serotonin in regulating mood and beta cell mass also could explain the association of depression with both type 2 diabetes and gestational diabetes, as well as the effects of some classes of psychiatric medications on diabetes.
The findings will be reported in an upcoming issue of Nature Medicine.