A few years ago human growth hormone (HGH) was touted as the latest wonder drug to help improve health and increase lifespan. It was also believed to be a guaranteed way to quickly and effortlessly burn fat, to aid weight loss and fitness.
While much of the research that was originally carried out has since been rebuked, some health professionals still think that there is something in it all. So. let’s take a balanced look at what science says about HGH.
What Is HGH?
Human growth hormone, often just called GH, is a peptide hormone (specifically a 191-amino acid, single-chain polypeptide) that stimulates cellular reproduction and growth. It is a natural hormone that is vital to normal development.
When naturally occurring, it is created and stored by somatotropic cells within the anterior pituitary gland. The pituitary gland is well-known for controlling growth – overactive pituitary glands result in very tall people, sometimes being present in basketball players.
HGH is also an anabolic agent, and is known to have been used in sports since 1982. It is important to note that while HGH and testosterone are both anabolic steroids, and both used for the same purposes in sports, then are two different substances.
Testosterone prompts the body to build more muscle and decrease muscle fat (see the Dr Life article), while HGH promotes lean muscle mass gain and helps to heal damaged tissues. HGH also leads to organ and bone growth when taken at high levels – this is very dangerous to health.
The body is always producing HGH, but its production peaks during natural growth periods during childhood and teen years. We start to produce less by the time we reach 30, which is when many people start to find that they gain more fat and become less toned.
Doctors rarely prescribe the drug. It is given to children who are showing signs of stunted growth, and also sometimes to adults who are suffering from bone loss, high cholesterol and low energy levels.
HGH and Weight Loss
One of the reasons many people chose to try HGH is to aid weight loss. Research has shown that it leads to weight loss, and it has been commented that as well as weight loss, HGH also reduces wrinkles and cellulite, and in some people, improved hair growth, clearer thinking, improved memory and improved hearty health. The science behind these claims is unclear, but you can find more info here.
Side Effects of HGH
Although HGH does promote growth, it also comes with several side effects, including joint pain, carpal tunnel syndrome, swelling of soft tissue, increased breast size in men (yes, it can give you man boobs!) and increase risk of developing both pre-diabetes and diabetes.
The advice given by Hau Liu, a research fellow in endocrinology and health policy at Stanford University, in 2007 is simple: “Growth hormone should not be used for anti-aging purposes. This costs hundreds to thousands of dollars a month and there is no scientific evidence supporting it and very real, potentially serious side effects.”
Liu carried our research looking at healthy senior citizens who used HGH. While they did find that the drugs increased lean muscle mass by around two kilograms, and reduced fat by a similar amount, other biometrics did not alter significantly – bone density, cholesterol levels, stamina and blood sugar levels did not see any improvement, which means that it is not a magic solution to avoiding common age related health conditions.
While Liu’s research did find that HGH led to muscle growth, he commented that a regular weight training sessions would have the same result, at a much reduced cost.
Much of the hype surrounding HGH came about following a the publication of a scientific paper in 1990 in the New England Journal of Medicine (NEJM), which reported a test on just 12 men aged over 60 who were given HG for six months. The men showed signs of decreased fat and increased muscle, and the scientists claimed that this was the equivalent of rolling the clock back by 10 to 20 years, although they did not claim that this was in an way due to an anti-ageing, or reversal if ageing, effect.
Liu’s final advice was simple – and advice that we fully endorse: “Rather than looking at growth hormone as a magic bullet or [ticket to] the fountain of youth, if you want to increase your chances of living a long and productive life, you should do the things that your moms and doctors always told you: Eat right, exercise often, get enough sleep, and don’t smoke.”
AS with any form of drug, if you do decide to try it, you must understand the risks associated with it, and the limitations of it. Our advice is the same as that given in the weight loss pill article: while they may help you to achieve your goals, they are not effective in isolation and you must continue to exercise and eat healthy. Be aware of the possible side effects, and if you notice any changes to your health, consult with a doctor.
The 1990 study into over 60s concluded: “Since atrophy of muscle and skin contributes to the frailty of older people, the potential benefits of growth hormone merit continuing attention and investigation.” As far as fitness is concerned, ultimately, some people do like to take short-cuts, and HGH is another product that can help. Weigh up the pros and cons before trying it, and always ask yourself, is it really worth the possible risks?