You've heard the buzz. Human growth hormone (aka HGH): elixir of youth, weight-loss supercharger, athletes' secret to success. But chances are you're probably still skeptical — and maybe you should be.
The sum of the existing information on HGH's risks and benefits spans from alarmist threats to "too good to be true" success stories. Despite all this, several questions still remain: What exactly is HGH? How does it affect us? Who really needs it? What happens when you have too much? Can you boost growth hormone (GH) without it?
So to clear up some of the misinformation and cut through the hype, here's what you absolutely must know about HGH.
A Crash Course on HGH
First things first: What exactly is HGH? The pituitary gland produces a certain amount of growth hormone naturally (especially in children) to spur growth — just as its name implies. It helps regulate bone and muscle growth as well as sugar and fat metabolism. Without it our bodies wouldn't develop properly.
However, a synthetic version of this naturally occurring hormone was first produced in 1985 to help those with genetic conditions that stunt growth, such as Turner syndrome and Prader-Willi syndrome as well as chronic kidney insufficiency and other conditions related to HGH deficiency.
Since then, people have used (and misused) the synthetic version for a wide variety of reasons — both medical and cosmetic.
So Who Needs HGH?
Despite the claims that you can take HGH to stall the effect of aging or to lose weight, the only real reason for using HGH is a growth hormone deficiency. And very few people have a true deficiency.
"Patients should get HGH treatment if they need it, and they shouldn't get it if they don't need it," says Andre Berger, M.D., author of "The Beverly Hills Anti-Aging Prescription." He emphasizes that patients must be diagnosed with a clear deficiency before undergoing hormone therapy.
But it's difficult to diagnose growth hormone deficiency. Adults need to undergo a sleep test in which the doctor stimulates the growth hormone by administering an IV of either insulin or arginine, and then takes blood samples to measure the level of GH in the blood.
Measuring the results is a complex process because it's sometimes difficult to differentiate whether issues arise from the hypothalamus or the pituitary gland. Measuring something called IGF1 (a byproduct of natural GH breakdown) is sometimes a more accurate way to diagnose, but it requires a complicated analysis of factors.
Dr. Berger likens the health of hormones to all instruments within an orchestra being in tune. "We have many hormones, and in an orchestra no one instrument is the orchestra. Growth hormone is not the orchestra — it's just one instrument in the orchestra that plays a role."
Hormones are complex, and both men and women have varying levels of estrogen and testosterone as well as chemicals in the brain, such as dopamine and serotonin, that need to be in balance. "It can be dangerous to give growth hormone to patients with certain thyroid or cortisol issues," Dr. Berger says.
So if a patient has a growth hormone deficiency, they most likely have other hormonal imbalances and chemical or glandular issues that need to be taken into consideration for treatment.
"In order to get the most beautiful music, you need all instruments to be in tune. Hormones work the same way."
—Andre Berger, M.D.
The Dangers of Misusing HGH
You'd think that if growth hormone is the stuff that helps our muscles grow as kids, that taking it as adults would have a similar effect. But that simply isn't the case.
"Using HGH for non-medical reasons is walking a very slippery slope and will likely result in other health issues," says Dr. Berger.
For example, the improper use of HGH has been linked to endocrine disorders. "It can cause acromegaly, which is an endocrine disorder occurring naturally when folks produce excess growth hormone," says Nancy J. Baker, M.D., a doctor specializing in palliative care and family medicine at the University of Minnesota. It results in enlargement of the face, hands and feet.
But many doctors still provide HGH treatments for monetary reasons (as opposed to the well-being of their patients). Just because a licensed medical doctor administers HGH to help improve workouts or diminish wrinkles doesn't mean that it actually works or that it's 100-percent safe, says Dr. Berger.
And no, those pills and sprays you see on the internet probably won't work and may have detrimental side effects. Because of this potential, Dr. Berger believes that they should be only used in tandem with medical treatment and ongoing evaluation.
"The only real effective treatment is injections," he says, "because hormone replacement treatment must be properly administered through an injection. Without any exception, all the pills and sprays you can buy on the internet are snake oil."
Can You Boost Your GH Levels Naturally?
Forget the synthetic stuff! If you have a functionally normal growth hormone level, natural growth hormone boosts occur with a balanced lifestyle, good sleep and proper nutrition, says Dr. Berger.
A 2011 study in the International Journal of Obesity found that intermittent fasting can help boost production of growth hormone. And supplements like melatonin, creatine, glutamine and GABA are also proven methods of boosting GH naturally.
Additionally, a 2012 review in the journal Molecular and Cellular Endocrinology cited similar boosts in people who slept at least eight hours each night. The hormone is produced during stage four, or rapid eye movement (REM) sleep, which for most with healthy sleep patterns is between 2 a.m. and 3 a.m.
What Do YOU Think?
Have you ever used HGH boosters or undergone treatment for a hormone imbalance? What were the results of your treatments? What else have you heard about HGH? Have you ever seen it advertised as a weight-loss or anti-aging treatment? Were you ever curious about it? Let us know in the comments!
- FDA.gov: Detention Without Physical Examination of Human Growth Hormone (HGH), Also Known As Somatropin
- The effects of intermittent or continuous energy restriction on weight loss and metabolic disease risk markers: a randomized trial in young overweight women.
- Circadian system, sleep and endocrinology.