It’s not just professional athletes who are upping the hGH.
You’ve probably heard about human growth hormone (hGH) in regards to sports doping scandals or perhaps as the key to living forever (and Hollywood’s secret fountain of youth), but did you know that your body naturally produces this hormone your entire life? Made by the pituitary gland to fuel growth during childhood, hGH also helps maintain tissues and organs throughout your life, according to the Mayo Clinic.
But what about the kind of growth hormone your body doesn’t create, i.e. the synthetic version that’s used for various reasons—on and off label?
“In clinical practice, hGH—administered via an injection—is mostly used in children who are deficient in it or in children with short stature,” says Sofiya Milman, MD, assistant professor of endocrinology and geriatrics at Albert Einstein College of Medicine.
“Growth hormone works to help children while their bones are still able to grow,” explains Susan Blum, MD, MPH, founder and director of the Blum Center for Health. After puberty, the growth plates in the bones close up. “When these plates are still open, growth hormone can theoretically work to help children get taller, and that’s when it’s appropriate to use,” says Blum, who doesn’t perform the treatment herself and refers patients to an endocrinologist if needed.
According to New York-based dermatologist Macrene Alexiades-Armenakas, MD, PhD, growth hormone doesn’t just affect your height, but also your complexion. “Your body produces growth hormone during late stage sleep, and it’s very important for skin quality,” explains Alexiades. As you age, your levels of growth hormone decline, so you may think it makes sense to replenish it in mid-life and beyond, especially if you’re deficient in it for any reason. But that’s not necessarily the case. “Many physicians don’t replace this hormone when treating adults who are unable to produce it, because there’s no good evidence from clinical studies that these people suffer any adverse health outcomes,” says Milman.
And considering that Sylvester Stallone and Nick Nolte are among the very few in Hollywood who have admitted to hGH use, perhaps the anti-aging benefits aren’t for everyone. Although hGH has been marketed as an anti-aging miracle, experts say low levels aren’t necessarily bad for adults—and having a high amount may actually hurt longevity in certain cases. Milman’s research discovered that low levels of growth hormone were associated with longer survival in females between the ages of 90-95. Her work also found that 50% of study participants who had a history of cancer and high levels of growth hormone died within two years of the research, whereas 50% of individuals with a history of cancer and low levels lived beyond four years. According to Milman, human growth hormone is a potent stimulant for cell growth and proliferation, so higher levels may lead to cancer development or progression whereas lower levels may be protective.
You should also know that there’s an oral supplement on the market called SeroVital, which claims to increase growth hormone in the body and, in turn, reduce wrinkles and decrease body fat. But does it work? “It is quite probable based on the published literature that this type of supplementation will boost growth hormone levels,” Alexiades says. “My concern would be the proper dosing for each individual.” In other words, more growth hormone doesn’t necessarily equal better (as Milman’s research shows) and different people may have different needs. Plus, the overall benefits of raising levels of the hormone in the body are still up for debate.
Bottom line: Right now, there is no clinical evidence for the use of hGH in adults for the purpose of reversing or preventing aging, says Milman. On the flipside, research suggests that high levels of it may actually have harmful health effects on health. Children with growth issues are the ones who really need—and can benefit—from the treatment. If you’re considering it for other purposes, have a frank discussion with your doctor (or dermatologist) first.