Human growth hormone treatment is not a treatment for aging
by Dr. Andy Oakes-Lottridge / April 19, 2011
While Ponce de Leon made the search for eternal youth famous, he certainly wasn’t the first or last. Today, treatments to prevent or reverse aging are huge business. When Jon first came to me as a patient, my first impression was that he was the kind of patient we physicians look forward to seeing. Unlike me, he actually watches his diet, and exercises daily. For Jon, maintaining his health has clearly been a priority. At almost 60 years of age, he makes me embarrassed to go outside in a bikini.
I was a little surprised when he asked me to continue his treatments of human growth hormone (GH), to which he attributes much of his good health. GH is a big part of the anti-aging market, but what is it and how does it work? Are there negative side effects that outweigh the benefits?
GH is produced in a section of the brain called the pituitary gland, and as the name implies, it is very important to normal growth and development. Peaking young in life, it naturally decreases as we get older. If you don’t have enough GH as an adult, you can develop more fat deposits around the mid-section, decreased muscle mass, reduced exercise capacity, elevated cholesterol, and thinning skin…and all this time I thought I was just getting old.
Let’s hear the good news first. GH can
increase your lean body mass, decrease fat, may increase muscle strength, and decrease the risk for osteoporosis. More good news…if you don’t want to take GH, you can stimulate your body to make more by exercising; both aerobic activity and weight training seem to do the trick nicely.
Ready for the shoe to drop? Bad news is that GH use is also associated with joint and muscle aches, nerve conduction problems, carpal tunnel syndrome, and swelling. Deceivingly, these symptoms can often go away if you continue taking GH for several months. There is also a very worrisome increased risk for sugar intolerance that can lead to diabetes. There have been claims that GH use can increase the risk for certain cancers, but at the recommended doses, the evidence is not conclusive. All these complications seem to be more common and serious the older we are.
The effects of GH treatment in the body may also not be consistent or follow what we see GH do in the lab. Thinking that GH might build muscle mass, it has been used in critically sick ICU patients recovering from major surgery or trauma. Unfortunately, contrary to the assumption, GH use did not seem to help and those patients receiving it actually had a higher mortality rate. Another study from 2001 of mice who did not have enough GH found that they actually lived longer than mice with normal GH levels.
If you decide to take GH, than be aware that supplements cannot legally contain GH, or may have such minute amounts so as to have no effect. These supplements usually contain amino acids and vitamins. The other key point to remember is that GH supplements, whether they actually contain GH or not, would be broken down if taken by mouth. The FDA regulated prescription form of GH that Jon was taking is an injection, taken much a diabetic injects insulin. While the prescription form is more reliable, since you can be confident of what you are getting, it is also expensive and rarely covered by insurance.
It is certainly seductive to imagine a treatment for aging, but it appears we don’t have the magic pill just yet. GH is certainly interesting, but its widespread use is limited by the potential to worsen joint pains and increase the risk for diabetes. Other products that claim to stimulate your body to produce more of its own GH just don’t have any evidence behind them.
What we do know is that GH production is very stimulated by exercise. As I told Jon, the credit for his good health and fitness does not go to his daily injections of GH, but rather has more to do with his discipline and determination.