Nutrition, hormones, and breast cancer: is insulin the missing link?

Cancer Causes Control. 1996 Nov;7(6):605-25. doi: 10.1007/BF00051703.


Breast cancer incidence rates are high in societies with a Western lifestyle characterized by low levels of physical activity, and by an energy-dense diet rich in total and saturated fat and refined carbohydrates. Epidemiologic studies, so far mostly on postmenopausal women, have shown that breast cancer risk is increased in hyperandrogenic women, with decreased levels of plasma sex-hormone binding globulin, and with increased levels of testosterone and of free estrogens. This paper describes the role of hyperinsulinemia as a physiologic link between nutritional lifestyle factors, obesity, and the development of a hyperandrogenic endocrine profile, and reviews evidence that may or may not support the theory that chronic hyperinsulinemia is an underlying cause of breast cancer. An hypothesis is presented, stipulating that breast cancer risk is increased not only in hyperandrogenic postmenopausal women, but also in premenopausal women with mild hyperandrogenism and normal (ovulatory) menstrual cycles. The author suggests further investigation as to whether there is a positive association between risk of breast cancer before menopause and subclinical forms of the polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS), and to what extent diet and physical activity during childhood, by modulating the degree of insulin resistance during adolescence, may or may not be determinants of a PCO-like hyperandrogenic endocrine profile persisting into adulthood.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Adolescent
  • Adult
  • Breast Neoplasms / etiology*
  • Child
  • Dietary Carbohydrates / administration & dosage
  • Dietary Fats / administration & dosage
  • Energy Intake
  • Estrogens / blood
  • Female
  • Hormones / physiology*
  • Humans
  • Hyperandrogenism / complications
  • Hyperinsulinism / complications
  • Incidence
  • Insulin / physiology*
  • Insulin Resistance
  • Life Style
  • Menstrual Cycle
  • Motor Activity
  • Nutritional Physiological Phenomena*
  • Polycystic Ovary Syndrome / complications
  • Postmenopause
  • Premenopause
  • Risk Factors
  • Sex Hormone-Binding Globulin / analysis
  • Testosterone / blood


  • Dietary Carbohydrates
  • Dietary Fats
  • Estrogens
  • Hormones
  • Insulin
  • Sex Hormone-Binding Globulin
  • Testosterone