The off-label use of human growth hormone (HGH) has spawned a multi-billion dollar industry. Some doctors see it as a fountain of youth, while others are staunchly opposed and fear that the risks far outweigh the potential benefits. The FDA has not approved the use of human growth hormone as an anti-aging therapy. Here, I’ll review what HGH is, how it works, and the pros and cons of use.
What is human growth hormone?
Human growth hormone is a product of the pituitary gland, the master gland of the body. As the name implies, it promotes linear growth in children and adolescents. After the body stops growing taller, the levels of HGH decline quickly and often become very low in adult life. Many of the effects of HGH are brought about through a second hormone, insulin-like growth factor-1, made by the liver. HGH is given by daily injection, and is quite expensive. Alternative treatments, such as the nasal spray or pills to stimulate HGH release, have not been proven to have any benefit.
Why should HGH work as an anti-aging therapy?
HGH has effects on body composition, not just growth. People who have a significant HGH deficiency, generally due to pituitary disease, have increased body fat and decreased muscle mass and decreased bone density. These changes in HGH-deficient patients mimic aging. Interest in using GH to reverse these age-related changes in healthy adults dates to a study by Dr. Rudman and others published in 1990 in the New England Journal of Medicine. This study found that a small number of older men who were given HGH saw improved muscle mass, decreased body fat, and better bone density.
There have since been numerous claims that HGH is the “anti-aging miracle.” HGH has also been used by athletes to promote muscle mass, a practice that has banned by the World Anti-Doping Agency due to safety concerns.