Human Growth Hormone (HGH) is a naturally occurring hormone that is essential to human growth and the development of bodily structures.
Human growth hormone (HGH) is heralded as a miraculous way to bulk up, get more energy, and even ward off aging. But HGH has some pretty concerning downsides. It’s banned by nearly every major sports organization. It’s been tentatively associated with an increased risk of cancer. And if it’s not obtained with a valid prescription in the United States, it’s illegal.
The body naturally produces the hormone to help us grow as kids, but levels decline as we age.
When people take synthetic HGH, it can increase their muscle mass and decrease their body fat, according to experts. But it doesn’t make people stronger or boost performance, according to experts from Harvard University.
Negative side effects include carpal tunnel, swelling, muscle pain, and joint pain; a subset of men using HGH even develop breasts.
Some people with HGH deficiencies — because they were born with one or developed one due to chemotherapy or AIDS — need to take the hormone in order to maintain their energy and fitness. But they get valid prescriptions to do so, whereas most off-label use (like for bulking up) is done illegally.
Pure HGH is administered as an injection, and if people aren’t trained in using needles, they could hurt themselves or end up with a serious infection. They could also seriously mess up the dosage, which a doctor would carefully calibrate. The risks and effects of long-term HGH supplementation in healthy people are largely unknown.
Many supplements sold online or in other countries advertise that they contain HGH. But since these are barely regulated at all, they could have no actual HGH and contain potentially dangerous ingredients instead. There’s no telling what you’re really taking.
A way to ward off age-related decline?
Some people, including billionaire Peter Thiel (who says he hopes to live to 120), take HGH to try to prevent aging. That application, however, is far from proven.
Supplementation may actually have the opposite effect, according to the National Institute on Aging (NIA), which summarized the research:
At least one epidemiological study suggests that people who have high levels of naturally produced growth hormone are more apt to die at younger ages than those with lower levels of the hormone. Researchers have also studied animals with genetic disorders that suppress growth hormone production and secretion. They found that reduced growth hormone secretion actually promotes longevity in the tested species.
While the decline in HGH as we age might be part of why older people often feel less energized and fit, that same decline “may be offering important protection from cancer and other age-associated diseases,” one study concluded.
“There’s little evidence to suggest human growth hormone can help otherwise healthy adults regain youth and vitality,” experts wrote. “In fact, experts recommend against using HGH to treat aging or age-related conditions.” The only things we know can help ward off aging are a healthy diet and exercise, the researchers continued. Of course, that’s a bit more challenging than a daily pill.
The bottom line is that taking HGH recreationally could have potentially disastrous consequences, especially if you don’t have a valid prescription from a doctor. And the known benefits are basically nil.
Some people produce an abnormal amount of HGH and this can cause conditions such as gigantism and acromegaly caused by an overgrowth of certain tissues.
Children with gigantism can grow exceptionally tall, in rare cases over 7 and even 8 feet tall — but they are plagued with numerous musculoskeletal and medical problems.
HGH is used medically to stimulate growth in people who lack this hormone or, in some cases, to help those recovering from a serious illness.
HGH Use Among Athletes
Because of a perceived advantage to muscle growth and strength, bodybuilders and athletes who are tempted to take performance-enhancing drugs and supplements like steroids have taken HGH in order to gain an athletic advantage, or for rapid, cosmetic muscle growth. Because HGH taken orally can be broken down by digestion, HGH is injected when used as a supplement drug.
HGH is also promoted as an agent for rejuvenation for aging people who want to look and perform younger.
The National Strength and Conditioning Association (NSCA) in its 2009 review, concluded this about HGH:
“Human growth hormone increases lean body mass within weeks of administration; however, the majority of the change is within the water compartment and not in body cell mass. Human growth hormone is unlikely to be administered as a single agent but often in combination with androgens. Combined administration of hGH and resistance training is associated with minimal gains in lean body mass, muscle size, and maximal voluntary strength in men compared with resistance exercise alone.”
Another reviewer (Liu) said this:
“Claims regarding the performance-enhancing properties of growth hormone are premature and are not supported by our review of the literature. The limited published data evaluating the effects of growth hormone on athletic performance suggest that although growth hormone increases lean body mass in the short term, it does not appear to improve strength and may worsen exercise capacity. In addition, growth hormone in the healthy young is frequently associated with adverse events.”
Only one consistently positive effect of HGH use is highlighted in recent studies, and that is the enhancement of lean body mass, in other words, fat loss. This works because HGH promotes enzymes called lipases that break fat down and provide preferential burning of fat.
Although it may promote the growth of collagen tissues like tendon, ligament, and bone, for the bodybuilder or athlete looking for strength advantage, HGH has little to offer because any muscle enlargement is due to fluid retention. In addition, adverse effects can be significant.
HGH does not appear to improve athletic performance significantly in a range of studies and provides minimal strength advantage. A few single studies have shown some increase in sprint performance in amateur athletes.
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