Insulin and colon cancer

Some factors related to Westernization or industrialization increase risk of colon cancer. It is believed widely that this increase in risk is related to the direct effects of dietary fat and fiber in the colonic lumen. However, the fat and fiber hypotheses, at least as originally formulated, do not explain adequately many emerging findings from recent epidemiologic studies. An alternative hypothesis, that hyperinsulinemia promotes colon carcinogenesis, is presented here. Insulin is an important growth factor of colonic epithelial cells and is a mitogen of tumor cell growth in vitro. Epidemiologic evidence supporting the insulin/colon-cancer hypothesis is largely indirect and based on the similarity of factors which produce elevated insulin levels with those related to colon cancer risk. Specifically, obesity—particularly central obesity, physical inactivity, and possibly a low dietary polyunsaturated fat to saturated fat ratio—are major determinants of insulin resistance and hyperinsulinemia, and appear related to colon cancer risk. Moreover, a diet high in refined carbohydrates and low in water-soluble fiber, which is associated with an increased risk of colon cancer, causes rapid intestinal absorption of glucose into the blood leading to postprandial hyperinsulinemia. The combination of insulin resistance and high glycemic load produces particularly high insulin levels. Thus, hyperinsulinemia may explain why obesity, physical inactivity, and a diet low in fruits and vegetables and high in red meat and extensively processed foods, all common in the West, increase colon cancer risk.

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This research was supported by research grant number CA 55075 from the US National Institutes of Health, and Special Institution Grant No. 18 from the American Cancer Society.

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Giovannucci, E. Insulin and colon cancer. Cancer Causes Control 6, 164–179 (1995). https://doi.org/10.1007/BF00052777

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Key words

  • Colon cancer
  • diet
  • hyperinsulinemia
  • insulin
  • obesity
  • physical inactivity