Insulin Resistance Is a Silent Driver of Pancreatic Cancer: Study

There may be a killer silently hunting the pancreas, inflaming and mutating its cells into cancerous ticking time bombs. And it may be insulin resistance—the body’s inability to regulate blood sugar levels properly.

New research suggests a link between elevated insulin, linked to poor diet and obesity, and the development of pancreatic cancer, which is the third leading cause of cancer deaths in the United States.

How Elevated Insulin Causes Pancreatic Cancer

Insulin resistance is a condition where the body’s cells do not respond effectively to insulin, leading to elevated blood sugar levels and potentially causing type 2 diabetes.
Insulin resistance tied to obesity and diabetes is a known risk factor for pancreatic cancer risk. New University of British Columbia (UBC) research in Cell Metabolism shows how. Excess insulin overstimulates pancreas cells that make digestive juices. This sparks inflammation, converting cells to a precancerous state.
How insulin resistance may contribute to the development of cancer. (Illustration by The Epoch Times, Shutterstock)
“These findings have the strongest implications for those who know that they are at higher risk for developing pancreatic ductal adenocarcinoma [the most common form], but are applicable to everyone,” study authors and UBC researchers James Johnson and Janel Kopp told The Epoch Times in an emailed statement.

“Our data shows that the higher risk of pancreatic cancer associated with poor diet and obesity may be due to the higher levels of insulin associated with these conditions,” they added. It also suggests lowering insulin through medication, diet, or exercise could prevent pancreatic cancer.

This study reveals insulin’s role in pancreatic cancer initiation, Dr. Emily Gallagher, assistant professor in the Division of Endocrinology, Diabetes, and Bone Disease at the Mount Sinai Health System, told The Epoch Times.

“It shows the importance of the insulin receptor in regulating digestive enzyme production and inflammation in the pancreas,” she said, noting that an important question is how this information could be used to reduce the risk of pancreatic cancer in people with high insulin levels. 

How Insulin May Fuel Cancer Cell Growth

Elevated insulin, or hyperinsulinemia, occurs when insulin levels exceed the normal range. It occurs when the body becomes insulin resistant—the cells in our muscles, fat, and liver cease responding normally to insulin.

Beyond pancreatic cancer, high insulin links to colorectal, breast, endometrial, liver, ovarian, and gastric cancers, said Dr. Gallagher.

In a review article published in Nature, she cited insulin metabolism problems as obstructing cancer treatment.

With rising obesity and diabetes worldwide and the realization that hyperinsulinemia may contribute to treatment failures, understanding insulin signaling in cancer progression is critical, according to the review.

Unlike normal cells, cancer cells rely on glucose as their primary energy source and cannot metabolize fats. Restricting glucose intake through diet can help starve and eliminate cancer cells.

Therefore, cancer cells thrive on sugar—and high blood sugar from insulin resistance fuels growth. The diabetes drug metformin, which lowers blood sugar, may have cancer-fighting effects, a recent study published in Diabetes Care suggests. It increases insulin sensitivity and reduces liver glucose production.

Controlling Blood Sugar Levels Is Key

High insulin can predate high blood sugar and diabetes by years, Dr. Gallagher said. “Therefore, people who have metabolic syndrome, obesity, or prediabetes are at a greater risk of developing cancer due to the higher insulin levels, even in the absence of high blood glucose,” she said.

Strategies that reduce circulating insulin may also cut cancer risk. Diet, exercise, weight loss—all can help lower insulin levels.

Past research has shown that bariatric surgery patients, who tended to have lower insulin post-op, had a lower risk of developing cancer.
There are effective strategies that can help people keep their blood sugar levels in a healthy range.

1. Eat a Balanced, Nutritious Diet

Eating whole foods like fruits, vegetables, lean proteins, and whole grains helps regulate blood sugar. Focus on high-fiber foods, as they are digested slowly and prevent spikes. Choose healthy fats like avocados and nuts over saturated or trans fats.

2. Monitor Portion Sizes

Even healthy foods can spike blood sugar if overeaten. Pay attention to portions by using smaller plates, measuring food, and practicing mindful eating. Mindful eating involves paying attention to the present moment when consuming food and consciously noticing flavors, textures, and sensations while avoiding distraction and overindulgence.

3. Exercise Regularly

Regular exercise benefits those with diabetes or who are at risk. It improves insulin sensitivity, making it easier to maintain healthy blood sugar.

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