Produced by your pituitary gland, natural growth hormone propels our childhood development and helps with cell growth as well as organ and tissue function throughout our entire lives. Because our bodies make less growth hormone as we age, some people turn to synthetic human growth hormone (HGH) in an attempt to slow the aging process. The makers of HGH claim it can increase muscle mass, boost libido, improve energy levels—essentially turn back the clock. But does it really work? And what are the side effects? As I have discovered through years of research on this controversial topic, human growth hormone comes with high costs – both physiological and financial.
History of HGH
According to the National Museum of American History, scientists started using HGH in 1963 to treat children with pituitary disorders. The drug was used sparingly, though, because it could only be sourced from human cadavers. This collection method went on for over 20 years until a batch of HGH from a contaminated body killed 26 people, triggering the Food and Drug Administration to put an end to the practice in 1985. Shortly after this ban, researchers discovered a way to make HGH by genetically modifying bacteria, and its use—in legitimate medical settings as well as on the black market—exploded.
What HGH Does (and Doesn’t Do)
WebMD reports human growth hormone is only FDA-approved to be used by adults for a handful of reasons, including pituitary deficiencies caused by tumors and muscle-wasting disease associated with HIV/AIDS. This means the vast majority of people using human growth hormones are using it for other, unsanctioned reasons. Athletes and bodybuilders hoping to enhance performance may turn to doctors who are willing to prescribe human growth hormone “off-label” for unapproved purposes. Others hoping to reverse the aging process may obtain HGH from online pharmacies, websites, or anti-aging “clinics” claiming their product does everything from regrow hair to enhance memory. These promises may sound enticing, but what does the science say?
Research shows that HGH does increase lean muscle mass and energy levels while reducing body fat. However, it also causes a range of side effects such as joint pain, carpal tunnel syndrome, edema, and the potential for an increase in both blood sugar and cancer risk.
In a review of 44 studies looking at the effects of human growth hormone on athletes, 303 volunteers were given daily HGH injections, while 137 others received placebo shots. After around 20 days, the HGH group saw significant gains in lean body mass—an average of 4.6 pounds. But those who received HGH were more likely than the placebo group to retain fluid and experience fatigue.
In another review, researchers hoping to determine how safe and effective HGH is for older adults examined 31 small but high-quality studies. They totaled 220 participants who got human growth hormone and 227 control subjects who did not. The average age was 69, and two-thirds were male. While study duration and dosage varied, those receiving injections did experience a gain in lean body mass and a decrease in body fat compared to the control group. HGH recipients experienced no significant changes in LDL/HDL cholesterol, triglycerides, aerobic capacity, or insulin levels. However, they did report a high rate of side effects like fluid retention, breast enlargement, and joint pain. The review authors concluded that weighing the relatively minor gains in body composition against the many adverse events, the use of human growth hormone could not be recommended as an anti-aging therapy.
While the studies included in the review were too short to consider cancer risk, Harvard Men’s Health Watch points to other research suggesting HGH may increase the risk of cancer in general and prostate cancer in particular. The concern is that cancer cells are, by definition, growing rapidly. We all have cancer cells that pop-up now and then, but our immune system generally takes care of them. If we artificially raise the level of growth hormone in our bodies, this could stimulate the growth of such cancer cells, over and above what the immune system can handle. This risk has not yet been confirmed in studies, but serves as a cautionary tale about the potential long-term risks of off-label use.
Pharmaceutical HGH itself is a subcutaneous injection that costs well over $1000 a week. There are a lot of fake HGH products out there – sublingual and oral formulations – that have not been shown to be effective and may contain dangerous ingredients, some of which aren’t even disclosed on the packaging. There are many companies and websites that have been called out by the FDA for making unsubstantiated claims.
So, while taking HGH itself is effective in specific areas, including increasing lean muscle mass, it comes with serious risk. Is it really worth the financial cost, the fluid retention, and joint pains – not to mention the potential risk of cancer? There are plenty of healthy ways to boost the body’s own natural production of growth hormone. We make most of our HGH when we sleep, so increasing the hours and quality of sleep you get is just one way to augment your levels naturally.
Another way is to take peptides that boost your own production of growth hormone in a more physiologic way, meaning signaling the body to make more on its own. This is a more gentle and safe approach that I’ll go into more in part 2.
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Myles Spar, MD, MPH is the Chief Medical Officer of Vault Health, a national medical practice specializing in care for men, and Is board certified in Internal Medicine and in Integrative Medicine. As a clinician, teacher and researcher on faculty of two major medical centers, he has led the charge for a more proactive, holistic and personalized approach to care that focuses on cutting edge technology and preventative care. Dr. Spar has traveled with the NBA, presented a TEDx Talk, appeared on Dr. Oz, and been featured in publications such as the Men’s Journal and the Los Angeles Times.