What Is HGH? Its Impact on the Body and Performance

The benefits and big concerns of human growth hormone.

The players’ names were listed for all to see, and there was no dissent. (OK, so one man did try to refute the findings of Major League Baseball’s Mitchell Report last winter—and we’ve seen how that has gone down for Mr. Roger Clemens.) Nope, they were caught. Dozens of big-league ballplayers had been using human growth hormone (HGH) to help them become bigger, stronger, faster and more resilient.

One by one, they issued their apologies. They gave their reasons: a comeback from injury; a chance to play just one more year—or two; everybody else was doing it.

One player, the New York Yankees’ Andy Pettitte, came under considerable scrutiny. The Mitchell Report found that Pettitte, one of baseball’s more productive pitchers, used HGH without a prescription. As a friend of Clemens, who was accused of steroid and HGH use, he felt the heat of the spotlight more than most.

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Instead of denying everything, as Clemens did, Pettitte issued an apology. It wasn’t much of a mea culpa, mind you, because it sought to minimize his use and any subsequent public relations fallout. But it was an admission nonetheless. He said he used HGH twice, in 2002 and 2004, solely to recover from injuries. Few believed he hadn’t employed it on other occasions, but he did receive credit from many for stepping up, especially while Clemens stonewalled.

“I am sorry,” he said at a news conference prior to his taking part in spring training. “I know in my heart why I did things. I know that God knows that. I know that I’m going to have to stand before him one day. The truth hurts, and sometimes you don’t want to share it. The truth will set you free. I’m going to be able to sleep a lot better.”

Produced naturally in most humans from birth until about age 30, HGH is responsible for bone and muscle growth in the young, along with increased height. As people move through their 20s, levels of HGH dwindle significantly. It is rare to find anyone in their 30s with HGH levels in the blood beyond a trace. Its job is done, so it goes away.

While athletes used HGH to increase muscle size and speed recovery, doctors around the country were discovering that it had some benefits for patients beyond traditional therapies designed for younger people with deficits of the hormone. Older patients began using HGH as an anti-aging weapon, calling it the “Fountain of Youth” due to its restorative properties. They felt stronger, younger and more vibrant because of it.

According to a 2005 article in the Journal of the American Medical Association that cited statistics from the National Institute on Aging, the HGH market was booming. Sales worldwide were $1.5-$2 billion—and growing. And 30 percent of HGH prescriptions here in the United States were written for reasons never approved by the FDA, such as anti-aging regimens.

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“HGH does provide muscle mass,” says Dr. Andrew Frankel, an orthopedic surgeon at Paoli Hospital. “The normal function of the hormone is to stimulate longitudinal bone growth in kids. It’s responsible for the ‘growth spurt.’”

If HGH helps kids grow, it has to have some benefits for adults, doesn’t it? A 1990 report in the New England Journal of Medicine revealed that men over the age of 60 who used HGH had increased lean body mass, bone density and skin thickness, as well as decreased fat mass. The ravages of age had been attacking their bodies, and HGH was a weapon in the fight.

Soon, athletes weren’t the only ones looking to HGH for some help. Average citizens were asking their doctors for prescriptions and injections of the stuff to improve their quality of life. Many complied, looking at the mounting evidence that there were some short-term gains to using HGH.

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“Theoretically, HGH has benefits,” Frankel says. “There are a bunch of things HGH can do.”

The headline in the March 17, 2008, issue of Sports Illustrated screamed, “The Real Dope: It’s Not Just Sports.” There was some irony to the report: It came exactly three years to the day that baseball stars like Mark McGwire, Sammy Sosa and Rafael Palmeiro appeared before Congress to testify about anabolic steroid use in baseball.

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It was quite a performance. McGwire chose not to talk about the past. Guilty! Sosa, born in the Dominican Republic, pretended he couldn’t understand English, even though he had been interviewed hundreds of times by American reporters. And Palmeiro said emphatically, “I have never used steroids. Period.” Less than five months later, he tested positive for the stuff.

Baseball’s reputation was irrevocably assailed by accusations of steroid use. Some of its biggest names were accused of building their muscles illegally through the use of unprescribed regimens of Winstrol, Nandrolone and other products, which were previously thought to be the province of only Soviet Bloc athletes.

There were even designer versions of the stuff—“the Cream” and “the Clear” among them—created by the Bay Area Laboratory Cooperative (BALCO) and distributed to athletes through
channels that replicated those used by dealers of street drugs.

Practically everything accomplished from 1995-2005 (when baseball began testing for steroids) came into question. If you hit 50 homers in a season, you were “juicing,” at least in the minds of many fans and media.

Then came the HGH use. As the 21st century dawned, athletes began to find that it could assist their training regimens by helping them recover more quickly after strenuous workouts and aid in the building of lean muscle mass, the coveted prize for everyone trying to get stronger.

HGH was undetectable by any urine test that could sniff out steroids or products used to hide their use. Better still, baseball hadn’t yet declared it illegal. Heck, the sport’s head was still in the sand about steroids until commissioner Bud Selig finally took on the players’ union in 2005. Even then, it took some hideous national publicity to force his hand.

The Sports Illustrated article argued that America’s obsession with youth and strength was driving the boom in the use of these substances, not baseball players’ desires to improve performance and extend their careers. As proof, they offered a short article on Kevin and Peggy Hart, a pair of California 50-somethings who use HGH every week under the care of their doctor. Their dose levels don’t approach those of professional athletes, but they were using it regularly and reporting great things.

“I feel better, my life is better, and I might live longer,” said Kevin, a former Penn State linebacker. The Harts didn’t care that there were risks associated with it. Their doctor has told them of patients who have used HGH for 12 years with no adverse effects.

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Paoli Hospital’s Frankel and others around the country aren’t buying it. Sure, there are short-term benefits of HGH use—“It probably does have some benefits,” Frankel says—but the risks of long-term health problems that increased use bring are too great. One of them is acromegalia, a disease that causes abnormal bone growth. “You look like Cro-Magnon man,” Frankel says.

HGH doesn’t cause acromegalia, but it does speed up its progression in those who are predisposed to it. And while the chances that HGH users will end up looking like Andre the Giant are small, there are other bone-related concerns. Among them is an increased propensity for carpal tunnel syndrome, arthritis and other joint issues.

Remember: HGH is used to stimulate bone growth in children and teens who can’t do it themselves. Adding it to the body of an adult, who has a fully formed skeletal system, could promote growth that causes chronic pain.

OK, so you say you can live with some joint pain. That’s why they make Aleve, right? Well, the damage to organs and the circulatory system can be greater and more dangerous. One of the biggest threats HGH poses is the chance that it will mess with the body’s ability to control glucose levels. When that happens, a person is at greater risk for diabetes. A study done by the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine found that 13 percent of the people who’d used HGH developed diabetes. That’s a risk many of us wouldn’t be too interested in taking.

If that’s not enough to scare someone off, consider the chance that HGH use could lead to high blood pressure, not to mention an enlarged heart. Like diabetes, hypertension is a condition that doesn’t go away. Yes, it can be controlled with medication, but it can also lead to bigger problems down the line.

Among the other potential negative side effects cited by Frankel and others are gynecomastia (male breast growth) and increased cranial pressure. HGH use also has been tied to colon polyps and cancer in the prostate gland and breast.

“HGH is secreted [naturally] by the pituitary gland, which is an endocrine organ with receptors that react to messages sent by the body,” Frankel says. “If you over-stimulate those receptors, you trigger some concerns.”

Of course, all that trouble takes time to develop, so there are those who won’t worry about it, because the short-term benefits of HGH—not to mention the way it can make people in their 50s and 60s feel—outweigh what might happen down the road. After all, something’s going to get you, right? Why not make yourself feel as good as possible along the way?

For some, that’s fine. For those who spend years battling debilitating conditions, it’s not. At worst, the effects of HGH use can become a horror show of multiple treatments, long-term care and financial setbacks.

Frankel believes there’s a reason why the body stops producing HGH, just as there is a method to its behavior in many other areas. It’s all part of the aging process—and trying to manipulate that could lead to problems. “The decrease of growth hormone naturally has a protective value,” Frankel says.

He also emphasizes that no matter how far medicine has advanced, it can’t cheat nature or allow people to cheat aging. “Physicians aren’t miracle workers,” says Frankel. “We allow people to heal themselves.”

And age naturally—no matter how unappealing that may be.

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