The U.S. Food and Drug Administration, or FDA, has approved the hormone HCG, or human chorionic gonadotropin, for the treatment of infertility. It also has become popular for weight loss because of a theory developed in the 1950s by British endocrinologist A.T.W. Simeons that it can eliminate a ravenous appetite and redistribute fat. In the years since, studies have shown that HCG is no more effective than placebo and that potential side effects could be dangerous.
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When used as prescribed, HCG can cause ovulation in infertile women and increase sperm count in men. It’s also used for treating glandular disorders and in women with polycystic ovarian syndrome. When used for these purposes, HCG can cause blood clots, pain at the site of the injection, numbness, tingling, confusion, dizziness and headaches. Women who take the drug are prone to a condition known as ovarian hyperstimulation syndrome, a potentially life-threatening disorder that is more likely to occur after the first treatment cycle. Symptoms include pelvic pain, swollen hands or legs, abdominal pain or swelling, shortness of breath, weight gain and gastrointestinal problems. Patients who use HCG for weight loss are also at risk for these side effects.
The FDA approves drugs for specific indications, and doctors and researchers are required to report side effects. Because doctors are permitted to prescribe FDA-approved drugs for purposes not indicated on the label, known as off-label prescribing, they’re obligated to reveal the side effects to any patient considering taking that drug. The FDA, however, does not make a practice of creating consumer warnings for off-label uses, such as with HCG and weight loss. The FDA issues a warning if a drug is at risk of endangering the public. One such incident involving HCG and weight loss occurred, according to an FDA spokesperson. In 2011, the New York Times reported that a patient on an HCG diet had a pulmonary embolism.
Not only are you at risk for the ordinary side effects caused by the hormone when on an HCG diet, but you’re also at risk for side effects from the diet. An HCG protocol involves taking in only 500 to 550 calories a day for anywhere from three to seven weeks. The National Institutes of Health recommends that healthy adults should consume more than twice that amount just for ordinary functioning. Eating fewer than 800 calories a day qualifies as a very-low-calorie diet; you should follow such a diet only under medical supervision. Because of the possible cardiovascular side effects, Dr. Scott M. Blyer, a cosmetic surgeon in New York City who counsels patients on HCG diets, requires new clients to undergo an EKG screening to determine that their hearts are strong enough to endure the protocol.
HCG is also available over the counter. Like all homeopathic supplements, HCG sold in drops, lozenges, capsules or gum form is not regulated by the FDA. Elizabeth Miller, an FDA fraud investigator, said that while supplemental HCG is not harmful, there’s no evidence that over-the-counter formulas are effective for weight loss. Supplemental HCG manufacturers that claim their products have weight-loss capabilities may be committing economic fraud, according to Miller.