Causes and Risk Factors of Insulinoma

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Insulinoma is a rare type of tumor that grows on the pancreas. Typically, insulinomas are benign (noncancerous). The tumors release excessive amounts of the hormone insulin, which may cause blood sugar levels to dip to dangerously low levels.

The exact cause of insulinomas is unknown. However, there are some known risk factors of this condition. This article will discuss some of the genetic links and other potential causes of insulinomas

Common Causes

Doctors and researchers have yet to find an exact cause of insulinoma tumors. However, they do know that the tumors form in the beta cells—a type of cell in the pancreas that produces, stores, and releases the hormone insulin. This hormone helps to move glucose from the blood into cells, where the glucose can be used for energy or stored for later.

Because insulinomas form in beta cells could be the reason the tumors occasionally release excess insulin.

Risk Factors

The risk factors for developing an insulinoma aren’t fully understood. These tumors are rare, occurring in one to four people per 1 million in the general population.

Women are affected slightly more often than men. Insulinomas are more likely to develop in people ages 40–60.

There are no known lifestyle causes or risk factors.

Genetic Risk Factors

There are a few types of genetic conditions that pass down through family members that may increase the risk of developing an insulinoma. Research shows that a family history of an endocrine tumor in the pancreas does increase your risk.

Genetic Risk Factors for Developing Insulinoma

Verywell / Ellen Lindner

Genetic conditions that may increase your risk for insulinomas include:

  • Multiple endocrine neoplasia type 1 (MEN1) is a hereditary (passed through family members) condition that leads to abnormal growth of endocrine tissue. People with MEN1 are at a higher risk for developing tumors in one or more of the hormonal glands.
  • Neurofibromatosis type 1 is a genetic condition that causes tumors to develop along your nerves. Common locations for tumors to develop from neurofibromatosis type 1 include the brain, adrenal glands, spinal cord, eyes, and pancreas. It can also cause light-brown spots to develop on the skin. Typically, these are benign tumors, but they can be cancerous or grow too large and interfere with the tissue around them.
  • Tuberous sclerosis is a rare genetic disorder that impacts multiple areas of and systems within the body. It causes benign tumors to grow on the brain, kidneys, heart, lungs, eyes, pancreas, and skin. Typically, this condition appears before 6 months of age.
  • von Hippel-Lindau (VHL) syndrome is a rare hereditary disorder that causes cysts and tumors to grow throughout the body. Common locations for abnormal growth caused by VHL syndrome include the brain, spinal cord, inner ear, adrenal glands, pancreas, eyes, kidneys, and reproductive system. Usually, the tumors are benign, but occasionally they are malignant.

A Word From Verywell

An insulinoma is a rare condition in which a tumor forms in the beta cells in the pancreas. Unfortunately, little is known about why insulinomas develop. The cause is poorly understood, and few risk factors are known.

Researchers do know insulinomas are most common in women between the ages of 40 and 60. People with a family history of insulinoma or other rare genetic conditions are more likely to develop the condition than others.

If you do receive a diagnosis, know that it is not your fault. Fortunately, there are treatment options that can help you manage your symptoms and find a path to health.

8 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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  4. Al-Saigh TH. Insulinoma: rare yet importantBMJ Case Rep. 2014;2014:bcr2013202395. Published 2014 Feb 27. doi:10.1136/bcr-2013-202395

  5. Zhan H-X, Cong L, Zhao Y-P, Zhang T-P, Chen G. Risk factors for the occurrence of insulinoma: a case-control study. Hepatobiliary Pancreat Dis Int. 2013;12(3):324-328. doi: 10.1016/s1499-3872(13)60051-x

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By Ashley Braun, MPH, RD
Ashley Braun, MPH, RD, is a registered dietitian and public health professional with over 5 years of experience educating people on health-related topics using evidence-based information. Her experience includes educating on a wide range of conditions, including diabetes, heart disease, HIV, neurological conditions, and more.