Some people turn to a substance called human growth hormone (HGH) in hopes that it will keep them feeling and looking youthful. But experts say that hope is unfounded. And worse, these products can be harmful.
HGH, produced by the pituitary gland, spurs growth in children and adolescents. It also helps to regulate body composition, body fluids, muscle and bone growth, sugar and fat metabolism, and possibly heart function. Produced synthetically, HGH is the active ingredient in a number of prescription drugs and in other products available widely over the Internet.
HGH Uses and Abuses
Synthetic human growth hormone was developed in 1985 and approved by the FDA for specific uses in children and adults. In children, HGH injections are approved for treating short stature of unknown cause as well as poor growth due to a number of medical causes, including:
- Turner's syndrome, a genetic disorder that affects a girl's development
- Prader-Willi syndrome, an uncommon genetic disorder causing poor muscle tone, low levels of sex hormones, and a constant feeling of hunger
- Chronic kidney insufficiency
- HGH deficiency or insufficiency
- Children born small for gestational age
In adults, approved uses of HGH include:
- Short bowel syndrome, a condition in which nutrients are not properly absorbed due to severe intestinal disease or the surgical removal of a large portion of the small intestine
- HGH deficiency due to rare pituitary tumors or their treatment
- Muscle-wasting disease associated with HIV/AIDS
But the most common uses for HGH are not FDA-approved. Some people use the hormone, along with other performance-enhancing drugs such as anabolic steroids in an attempt to build muscle and improve athletic performance. Yet HGH's effect on athletic performance is unknown.
Because the body's HGH levels naturally decrease with age, some so-called anti-aging experts have speculated and claimed that HGH products could reverse age-related bodily deterioration. But these claims, too, are unproven. The use of HGH for anti-aging is not FDA-approved.
Nevertheless, some people obtain injectable HGH from doctors who prescribe it for off-label purposes (uses for which it was not approved by the FDA) and through Internet pharmacies, anti-aging clinics, and web sites.
Others purchase HGH products -- or products that claim to increase your body's own production of HGH -- in the form of pills and sprays. Companies that market these products on TV infomercials or online claim they turn back your body's biological clock, reducing fat, building muscle, restoring hair growth and color, strengthening the immune system, normalizing blood sugar, increasing energy and improving sex life, sleep quality, vision, and memory. However, the Federal Trade Commission has seen no reliable evidence to support the claim that these products have the same effects as prescription HGH, which is always given by injection. Taken orally, HGH is digested by the stomach before it can be absorbed into the body.