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HGH - Human Growth Hormone

Over the past few months, a few readers have asked why I had not included HGH - Human Growth Hormone into the mix of suggestions to reduce the waistline and enhance cognitive abilities. Let's not go searching for the fountain of use; here are the facts.

The obsessive quest to defy aging has spawned countless products designed to help you look and feel younger. But if you are thinking about purchasing one of those products - a commonly advertised substance called HGH, short for human growth hormone - you better think twice. Not only are you likely to be disappointed, you may be putting your health at risk.

The HGH fad is a typical story of naive consumers and shady marketers - but what makes it stand out is the way the fad grew: All it took was one highly misinterpreted 1990 article in a reputable medical journal to launch a multi-million dollar industry - still thriving on unproven claims.

HGH is a large, complex protein molecule made up of 191 amino-acid building blocks. It’s produced in the pituitary gland, a peanut-sized organ in the base of the brain. Scientists first began to focus on the growth hormone in the early 1940s as they struggled to understand and help a group of children of abnormally short stature who were unable to grow. They learned that injecting the children with ground-up pituitary glands, harvested from cadavers, could stimulate new growth in the children.

What they could not have imagined at the time was that some children of the 40s, growing up as the leading edge of the Boomer generations, would latch on to HGH for a very different purpose that is both illegal and harmful. This small segment of aging citizens, in search of a “Fountain of Youth,” is now supporting the underground sale of some 64 billion euros worth of HGH-related products a year, in hopes that these products will help maintain youthfulness and promote longevity.

This is how it all started. When therapy with HGH first began with children some 60 years ago, the effort was hampered by supply. There were not enough cadaver donors of pituitary glands to meet the demand. This situation continued until 1985 when Genentech was able to successfully bio-engineer the molecule, eliminating lack of supply as a barrier. The field was continuing to advance when, in 1990, The New England Journal of Medicine quite innocently reported on a study of 21 men, age 61 to 81, with low levels of a chemical precursor of human growth hormone who were therefore viewed to be deficient in HGH. Twelve of the men received injections of HGH, and nine went untreated as controls for a six-month period. At the end of six months, a variety of tests were performed revealing that those receiving the injections had a 14% decrease in fatty tissue, a 9% increase in lean body mass, and a 1.6% increase in bone density.

There were problems with the study – the small numbers, the short period of observation with limited opportunity to observe side effects, and the absence of double-blind design (which would have given injections to all, some with and some without HGH). And those objections were clearly noted in an editorial that accompanied the original article as it appeared in The New England Journal of Medicine with this caution, “Because there are so many unanswered questions about the use of growth hormone in the elderly and in adults with growth hormone deficiency, its general use now or in the immediate future is not justified.”

Apparently, a wide range of traditional and new media health marketers were not closely following these expert words of caution. Their author, Dr. Mary Lee Vance, wrote 13 years later that that single article “incited a proliferation of ‘anti-aging clinics’ and lay publications ... extolling the benefits of growth hormone in reversing or preventing aging.”

What do we know today about HGH? First, that as part of normal aging, HGH begins to decline at about age 40 in humans. Numerous studies since 1990 have confirmed that if you give HGH to older individuals, they do achieve modest increases in muscle mass and bone density as well as decreases in body fat. But studies also confirm that the drug does not increase muscle strength, functionality or cellular metabolism. What’s more important is one-quarter to one-half of those on the injection develop diabetes, hypertension, cardiovascular disease, symptoms of arthritis, tissue edema, or carpal tunnel syndrome as a complication. There is considerable question as well whether inciting cellular growth, at a time when it naturally slows down, may inadvertently increase the risks of cancers like breast and prostate cancer. And then there are the animal studies, which show that lifespan goes up and tumor incidence goes down with drops in growth hormone.

To understand how things got out of hand, let’s discuss what happened after that 1990 article was published and take a look at the steps later taken to try to address the damage. After the article, a new unofficial specialty in medicine emerged, called “longevity medicine, “ which today claims some 2,500 uncertified specialists. Next, a new non-profit organization called the American Academy of Anti-Aging Medicine, or AAM, sprang to life as the “sole medical society dedicated to the advancement of therapeutics related to the science of longevity medicines.” This group currently boasts 12,000 members and receives 1.8 million hits on their website each month. Next, internet sales kicked into high gear, selling not only real and fake intravenous HGH, but also a wide range of oral formulations – strange, indeed, since the normal digestive acids destroy HGH before it can be absorbed.

To be continued tomorrow.

Any questions??