Are you a menopausal woman who is looking for the fountain of youth? Are you intrigued by the stories and advertisements that you can turn back the clock by taking human growth hormones? Are these good options for middle-age women?
First, let’s define what we’re talking about. In its natural state, human growth hormone comes from the pituitary gland and is used for growth and development, as well as maintenance of the body’s tissues and organs. Biochemical versions of these hormones were created to treat children who are abnormally short or adults who have pituitary deficiency.
Now these hormones are now being touted to fight aging. There are two basic types. The first type is a sequence of human growth hormone shots only available by prescription from a doctor. The annual cost for these shots can top $15,000. The second type is human growth hormone releasers, which are over-the-counter dietary supplements. Needless to say (especially with the Baby Boomers’ rapidly aging demographic), human growth hormones have become big business. By 2018, it’s projected that the market for these hormones will near $5 billion.
Lauren Kessler provides some additional context for hormone replacement therapy in her wonderful book, Counter Clockwise: My Year of Hypnosis, Hormones, Dark Chocolate, and Other Adventures in the World of Anti-Aging (which I highly recommend that you read). She points out that the human growth hormone that is naturally produced by the body encourages fat breakdown, builds both muscle and bone, enhances the immune system and regulates blood sugar. However, after you go through puberty, your body’s production of this hormone steadily declines. By the time you reach the age of 50, you may have about 25 percent of the hormone level that you had when you were 20; Kessler adds that 50 percent of the elderly have no detectable human growth hormone.
So is human growth hormone therapy safe to take to slow down the aging process? Researchers are finding mixed results. For instance, many ads tout that human growth hormones can increase muscle in older adults; however, some studies are finding that this therapy doesn’t increase strength or improve functioning.
While there may be some benefits (such as improved cognition and tightened skin), there is some worry that people who take this therapy can have a higher risk of cancer. That’s because human growth hormone encourages the production of IGF-1, which affects numerous parts of the body. That can be problematic since studies have shown that high levels of IGF-1 are tied to an increased risk of cancer. Researchers also are delving into whether this therapy increases the risk of diabetes, joint pain, carpal tunnel syndrome, swelling of the soft tissue and fluid buildup that can result in high blood pressure or heart failure.
There is some anecdotal evidence. Kessler pointed out that bodybuilders, who have used human growth hormone for a prolonged period of time, started showing signs of acromegaly, which happens when the pituitary gland is overactive in producing this hormone. The bodybuilders ended up with enlarged facial features, feet and hands as well as thickened (and sometimes disfigured) bones in the jaw, feet and toes. They also often developed heart and kidney issues, diabetes, liver disease, joint pain and fatigue.
Researchers also are finding that human growth hormones may affect the body in different ways at different times during a person’s lifespan. For instance, a new study suggests that a person’s longevity may be linked to actually having low levels of human growth hormone. The researchers found that participants who were 65 years of age and older who had higher IGF-1 levels not only had a much higher risk of cancer, but also a 75-percent higher risk of death.
When I hit conundrums like the questions about this therapy, I tend to look for advice from Dr. Andrew Weil, the founder, professor and director of the Arizona Center for Integrative Medicine. On his website, Dr. Weil said he believes there is no legitimate use for human growth hormone. He pointed out that the daily injections don’t have the same secretion patterns that are seen in the naturally occurring version of this hormone. He also pointed out that long-term effects of this therapy in older adults haven’t been studied. "You also should know that claims for so-called HGH ‘releasers’ said to prompt the body to trigger release of HGH by the pituitary are unsubstantiated," Dr. Weil warned. "I know of no studies demonstrating that they work as advertised."
Primary Sources for This Sharepost:
Levine, M.E., et al. (2014). Low protein intake is associated with a major reduction in IGF-1, cancer, and overall mortality in the 65 and younger but not older population. Cell Metabolism.
Kessler, L. (2013). Counter clockwise: My year of hypnosis, hormones, dark chocolate, and other adventures in the world of anti-aging. Rodale.
National Institute on Aging. (2014). Can we prevent aging?
Wang, S. S., (2014). Scientists warn of risks from growth hormone. The Wall Street Journal.
Weil, A. (2007). HGH: A shortcut to healthy aging? DrWeil.com.
Dorian Martin writes about various topics for HealthCentral, including Alzheimer’s disease, diet/exercise, menopause and lung cancer. Dorian is a health and caregiving advocate living in College Station, TX. She has a Ph.D. in educational human resource development. Dorian also founded I Start Wondering, which encourages people to embrace a life-long learning approach to aging. She teaches Sheng Zhen Gong, a form of Qigong. Follow Dorian on Twitter at @dorianmartin, Facebook or Instagram at @doriannmartin.