Human Growth Hormone: Youth in a Bottle?

Tonia Bair

You may have seen the ads claiming that you can regain lost youth, remove wrinkles and cellulite, lose weight and build lean muscle without exercise. According to the advertisements, you would think that human growth hormone pills or oral sprays offer the fountain of youth in a bottle.

But according to scientists, you might be disappointed with the results you get from over-the-counter human growth hormone products (HGH), and you might even be endangering your life. The National Institutes of Health reports that HGH has not been tested in long-term clinical trials to determine whether it is both effective and safe.

In fact, says Dr. Huber Warner of the National Institute on Aging (NIA), far from giving people their lost youth, there is evidence suggesting that HGH could shorten people’s lives. Studies funded by the NIA show that mice that fail to make growth hormone actually live longer than other mice. Mice that overproduce growth hormone have shorter lives.

“Makes you wonder if taking HGH is a good idea,” Dr. Warner says.

Human growth hormone levels begin to drop in most people around the age of 30, and the theory behind HGH supplements is that restoring hormone levels to what they were when people were younger will restore their youth. The interest in HGH appears to have stemmed from a 1990 report in the New England Journal of Medicine in which participants in a study, all men over the age of 60, improved their lean body mass, bone density and skin thickness, and decreased their fat mass when they were injected with human growth hormone three days a week.

However, the men in the study all lost any beneficial effects as soon as they stopped receiving the injections, Dr. Warner says. More alarmingly, according to Dr. Warner, recent studies have shown that HGH can increase blood pressure, the risk for diabetes, and can encourage the growth of some cancers. HGH can also cause large, out-of proportion features, Dr. Warner says, similar to the symptoms of people who suffer from pituitary tumors.

The HGH pills and sprays that you can buy over the counter or off the Internet have another problem: they might not work. HGH is usually administered by injection. If taken orally, HGH would be digested in the stomach and never reach the bloodstream, according to Dr. Warner. Some products claim to contain substances that allow the HGH to go through membranes to the bloodstream before it reaches the stomach, but Dr. Warner questions whether there is sufficient evidence that such products are effective.

For more information on HGH, please contact the NIA Information Clearinghouse at (800) 222-2225.

To separate fact from fiction on other Internet Health info, see our section on Internet myths.