Because our bodies make less growth hormone as we get older, people sometimes wonder if synthetic human growth hormone—often marketed as a miracle drug that can increase muscle mass, boost libido, improve energy levels, and more—may be the anti-aging solution they’re seeking. But does HGH really work the way the people selling it claim it does? As I explain in part one of this series, my years of research on this controversial topic have revealed the high physiological and financial costs of human growth hormone.
Personally, I only prescribe pharmaceutical-grade subcutaneous HGH injections to people with positive tests for innately low levels of growth hormone or HIV lipodystrophy. Not only do I think it’s dangerous to give HGH unnecessarily, I could lose my medical license over it. Despite this, plenty of clinicians and companies are willing to sell it to patients—and many of them are being shut down. There are also a lot of fake sublingual and oral HGH products out there that have not been shown to be effective and may contain dangerous ingredients, some of which aren’t even disclosed on the packaging. Furthermore, many companies and websites have been called out by the Food and Drug Administration for making unsubstantiated claims. I touched on some of these scam sales in my first post, but let’s take a closer look at some of the enforcement actions reported by Quackwatch.

In 2003, the Massachusetts company Nature’s Youth, LLC completed the voluntary destruction of almost 6,000 boxes—around $515,000 worth—of their product “Nature’s Youth HGH” after the FDA found the company was making unsubstantiated claims about the product that were false and misleading (and therefore illegal). According to the FDA, the company claimed their product was a “proprietary blend of amino acids and precursor nutrients which enhance the body’s natural production of Human Growth Factors and Insulin-like Growth Factor-1” and “your body’s best defense against aging.” They also falsely claimed Nature’s Youth HGH would “improve physical performance, speed recovery from training, increase cardiac output, and increase immune functions.” In addition to destroying its product, the company said it would change its labeling and marketing to comply with the law. Fun fact: Quackwatch reports Nature’s Youth was promoted by Watergate conspirator G. Gordon Liddy, who said on the company’s 2002 website that he used the product to stay “virile, vigorous, potent and fecund.”

A company called The Compounding Center, Inc. and its founder were indicted in 2009 for illegally distributing HGH. In addition to advertising the use of HGH as an anti-ager, nine doctors employed by the company allegedly bought more than $1.1 million worth of HGH between 2001 and 2006. The company’s founder, who also acted as wholesale manager, was charged with selling HGH to undercover operatives even after they told him the HGH was for (illegal) use by bodybuilders and athletes.

Okay, so there are a lot of shady people promoting fake HGH products. What about the real thing? Even if you find a doctor willing to give you HGH injections, is it really worth it? Part one of this post includes information on the vast amount of research showing that, while it may in fact do things like increase lean muscle mass and boost energy, taking HGH itself when not needed and at the levels being prescribed can cause serious side effects. In one review, researchers hoping to determine safety and efficacy of HGH use for older adults examined 31 studies totaling 220 participants who got human growth hormone and 227 control subjects who did not. 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. However, they also reported a high rate of side effects like fluid retention, breast enlargement, and joint pain. Considering the relatively minor gains versus the many adverse effects, the review’s authors concluded that HGH is not a safe anti-aging therapy, and I agree with this conclusion.

If HGH isn’t the answer to stopping the clock, what is? Well, peptides that boost your own body’s natural production of growth hormone can be a safer way to boost levels. These are short chains of amino acids that act as signaling molecules, coaxing the brain to make more growth hormone, but using its own natural pulsatile cycles. It is a more physiologic and safer way to gently boost your levels. Examples of such growth-hormone boosting peptides are Ibutamoren, Sermorelin, Ipamorelin and CJC-1295. These all need to be prescribed and monitored by a doctor and most need to be given via subcutaneous injection (Ibutamoren is the only oral one, but it can cause increases in hunger more than the others).

The bottom line is that higher levels of growth hormone can help with energy, focus, building lean muscle mass and losing fat, but it’s best to increase those levels either indirectly using peptides or through sustainable lifestyle changes such as improving your sleep or limiting night-time snacking. And don’t forget there are other lifestyle choices which can make a huge difference when it comes to aging—see my list of 10 tips to live younger longer for more information. 

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Myles Spar, MD, MPH 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 been a consultant with the NBA, presented a TEDx Talk, appeared on national television, and been featured in publications such as the Men’s Journal and the Los Angeles Times. He was most recently National Medical Director and Chief Medical Officer of a national medical practice, but is available to consult with individual patients interested in a personalized approach to optimal performance and health.