Human growth hormone
Clarissa Leahy / Getty
Clarissa Leahy / Getty

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10 Things to Know About HGH

Here are a few things you probably didn't know about human growth hormone.

Human growth hormone
Clarissa Leahy / Getty

Human growth hormone, or HGH, produces naturally in the body. It’s necessary for cell growth and regeneration, increasing muscle mass and bone density, and just keeping the body in good working order. Unfortunately, our body sees peak levels of HGH into our 20s, and it just dips from there. Bodybuilders and professional athletes tend to use HGH to help give them a competitive advantage, while Hollywood praises its anti-aging effects. Typically available as a supplement or injection—and at a big price tag—the rich and famous are more likely to indulge for its potential, anti-aging benefits. HGH has also been linked to other physiological enhancements—everything from increasing sex drive to sleep and mood. There's still little research backing up all these HGH benefits, but here’s a little background on HGH to get you started.

1. The Early Days of HGH

In the 1960s, scientists began using HGH to treat children with growth disorders caused by irregularities in the pituitary gland that impacted their growth rate. (On the flip side of this, excessive HGH in the body can cause acromegaly—a condition that causes connective and facial bone tissue to experience accelerated growth.) Their source of HGH back then: cadavers. It took 20 years to create a synthetic version. On the down side, one awful side effect of harvesting from cadavers was Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, a condition that can deteriorate the brain—triggered by a nefarious protein called a prion often found in HGH.

2. It’s All in Your Head

In the human body, human growth hormone (or HGH) production is regulated by your anterior pituitary gland, a pea-size structure at the base of the brain. Healthy adult men typically have just less than five nanograms per milliliter circulating in the blood. Healthy females can produce about twice that amount for child-bearing purposes. Levels for both sexes peak during puberty and drop sharply starting in the early 20s.

3. It’s Not Testosterone

HGH is not testosterone. Most people already know this, but you may be surprised by how many still correlate the two. Testosterone is a steroidal hormone that, when taken orally, applied topically, or injected, enhances male characteristics. HGH is a protein that activates a receptor that tells cells to initiate growth.

4. Losing Steam

HGH levels peak during puberty, start to slide in your 20s, and nosedive in your 30s. Levels of HGH continue to decline until you reach the big gym in the sky. Known as somatopause, and colloquially referred to as “menopause” or “middle-age spread,” this ongoing drag can result in weight gain, loss of bone density, cholesterol issues, and lower sex drive.

5. Fountain of Youth

Human growth hormone is not the fountain of youth. HGH levels decrease as we age, and while HGH has been marketed as an anti-aging formula, with claims that it can help improve skin’s elasticity and stimulate cell growth and cell regeneration, there is still very little research backing this up. Yet, today there are oral formulas, injections, and even inhaled versions of human growth hormone as an anti-aging remedy. A New England Journal of Medicine report showed that HGH improved the muscle tone and body composition of 12 older men.

The control group of this particular study was so small, so there's still very little substantial evidence supporting this claim. Entrepreneurs and celebrities are loyal followers of the anti-aging “powers” of HGH. PayPal co-founder, Peter Thiel, once said that he plans to live to age of 120 with the help of a paleo diet and HGH therapy. “It helps maintain muscle mass, so you’re much less likely to get bone injuries, arthritis,” he said. One thing we do know is that the potential side effects of using too much HGH for anti-aging can far outweigh any, potential benefits. Side effects can include: high blood pressure, heart failure, swelling, diabetes, and more. Like all hormone replacement therapy, HGH can only be administered by a licensed medical professional, and anti-aging “shots” can run upward of $15,000 a pop.

6. Bigger, But Maybe Not Stronger

California researchers gave a group of mostly male athletes HGH injections for 20 days; other participants in the study were given a placebo. At the 20-day mark, the HGH-ers had added close to five pounds of mass compared with the placebo group, but gains in strength or exercise capacity were not conclusive. Also, the HGH athletes retained more fluid and tired more easily. 

7. Survey Says…

Dallas Mavericks owner and Shark Tank “Shark,” Mark Cuban, got FDA approval to give a single grant to the University of Michigan for an exploratory study to examine the efficacy of HGH in aiding in muscle recovery after ACL surgery. Despite the negative stereotype surrounding HGH in the sports world, Cuban believes there are real benefits in bringing HGH therapy into the mainstream. "I love to test and challenge any schools of thought that have not been thought out, this partnership was a great first step towards finding the facts about HGH," he told ESPN. Specifically, the University of Michigan is researching the short-term effects of HGH therapy, including its effectiveness in avoid muscle atrophy post surgery.