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Many people who receive human growth hormone injections experience increased energy and lower body fat.  

Controversial aging antidote popular but critics call it risky

by Megan Dawson
May 21, 2014

Human growth hormone treatments are booming as more people search for a fountain of youth in doses of synthetic growth hormone. The injectable antidote to aging reduces fat, increases energy and reduces wrinkles. But there's a catch, critics contend: increased risk of cancer.

Doctors sometimes prescribe human growth hormone to adults with hormone deficiency, AIDS or HIV for low hormone levels, and due to muscle wasting. However, the slowing production of growth hormone as people grow older is prompting healthy people to seek out synthetic growth hormone to prevent some of the changes associated with aging that include decreased muscle mass, decreased bone mass and aging and sagging skin.

To do that, they need a doctor.

“It makes people younger, fitter and have more muscle than fat, so it’s a desirable drug that can be used by athletes, celebrities and just normal people,” said Dr. Bhavesh Patel, who practices Age Management Medicine at Cenegenics Medical Institute in Chicago.

“When you have a great lifestyle and your growth hormones go up, but you’re still not producing enough, that’s when you start thinking about whether or not supplementation with growth hormone is an appropriate choice,” Patel said.

Patel prescribes HGH treatment as part of an age management program for patients he diagnoses with Adult Hormone Deficiency. “We focus on lifestyle, nutrition, nutrient supplementation and hormone management,” not just hormone replacement, Patel said.

But longevity experts argue human growth hormone is a “Band Aid approach” to symptoms of aging because people are not addressing the underlying issues of their low energy and weight gain.

“People want a cure for aging,” said Dr. William Sonntag, director of the Reynolds Oklahoma Center on Aging. “It’s much easier to take an injection than do all the careful things that you should be doing.”

Growth hormone is produced by the pituitary gland, a pea-sized gland at the base of the brain. Growth hormone supports childhood development and maintains tissues and organs throughout life. During middle age, the pituitary gland naturally decreases the amount of growth hormone it makes, producing less and less in later life.

“Everybody wants an easy solution,” said Dr. Valter Longo, director of the Longevity Institute at the University of Southern California. “If you don’t want to look old, you have to exercise one hour every couple of days. You have to walk around. You have to take the stairs and not the elevator. You have to reduce your protein intake. It’s a long list, and people would rather just take a pill.”

Healthy adults who take synthetic growth hormone may experience increased risk of carpal tunnel syndrome, swelling in the arms and legs and joint and muscle pain, according to an article on the Mayo Clinic website.

“There’s a lot of misinformation,” Longo said. “They wouldn’t take that pill if they knew that there are many, many more risks than those that are indicated.”


Longo published a study in Cell Metabolism in March offering evidence that maintaining higher growth hormone levels for your age can be linked with cancer.

Longo said he found that people from ages 50 to 65 with raised IGF-1 levels (insulin-like growth factor-1, a hormone stimulated by growth hormone) have a fourfold increased risk for cancer than those with lower IGF-1 levels.

“That doesn’t mean that they will absolutely get cancer if they take growth hormone, but it does mean that their cancer risk will go up,” Sonntag said.

Cancer is a “theoretical risk” of using HGH, according to Patel, who said he hasn’t had any patients with bad outcomes from growth hormone in his five years of practice.

“The reality is that we all have cancer cells in our body. The question is whether or not your immune system is good enough to destroy that cancer before it becomes a problem or if you have a low enough inflammation in your body to destroy that cell before it becomes a problem,” Patel said.

Despite the risks associated with human growth hormone, it continues to gain popularity for its age-defying effects. The global market for HGH will reach nearly $5 billion by 2018, according to Global Industry Analysts Inc., a market research firm.

Others say the market growth reflects an increase in price rather than an increase in usage.

“I wouldn’t just say that the market value of the drug has gone up just because of increased usage,” Patel said. “We are seeing almost 100 percent increase in price alone. There’s probably some drop off in people who can use growth hormone because of the cost increase,” Patel said.

Healthy lifestyle choices are the safest way to optimize the aging process, according to both Longo and Sonntag.

“We have a culture that’s fascinated with being lean, and it’s willing to take risks because of that,” Sonntag said.

Scientists are still working to determine those risks, according to Sonntag.

“There’s a lot of work being done on growth hormone and IGF-1 as far as aging and treatment of cognitive decline,” Sonntag said, “But we just need more work in this field to see what the long-term effects of HGH and IGF-1 are.”