Jake Deutsch, M.D., is a veteran ER doctor and a contributor to The Daily Details. Send your health questions to Ask@Details.com. We'll publish the answers here every week.
Today I celebrate my 40th birthday—thank you! (I'm assuming you just wished me many happy returns.) I spent the week leading up to being officially "over the hill" not by seeing patients, but by hiding out in Los Angeles trying to cling to what remained of my thirties. The weather was characteristically warm, Hollywood was still abuzz from the Oscars, and for a few days I had the chance to reflect on the inevitability of growing older.
As fate would have it, La-La Land was the perfect introspection destination. Nowhere else in the world are people more obsessed with youth than in Southern California. Gyms teem with physical perfection. Advertisements promising better hair, bigger boobs, and Benjamin Button–like transformations are everywhere—if you have the cash.
Amid all the brainwashing, a recurring theme kept popping up: human growth hormone—the dirty little secret everyone in Hollywood seems to be whispering about. So I started to wonder, was HGH the fountain of youth I'd been looking for?
Human growth hormone is naturally produced by the pituitary gland, a pea-size area deep inside our brain. The hormone, which peaks in our thirties, is responsible for stimulating growth throughout our bodies. The end results of HGH are anabolic (i.e., they make us taller and increase muscle mass). Sounds promising, right?
Science has taught us otherwise. Take, for example, the condition of excess growth hormone, which results in acromegaly (gigantism), insulin resistance, and decreased sexual function. Too little HGH and voila, you end up like Chuy from Chelsea Lately. And while doctors can replace HGH in people afflicted with dwarfism, it must be closely regulated—the side effects are pretty hideous, particularly the abnormal growth of internal organs like the liver, kidney, and heart.
So if doctors don't completely understand all the intricacies of HGH yet, why do people who spend more time doing curls in the gym than reading the newspaper think they have any business sticking a syringe in their derrière with one of the most powerful hormones?
For starters, there was a 1990 study in the New England Journal of Medicine that demonstrated using HGH in men over 60 increased muscle mass by 8 percent and decreased body fat by 14 percent, all without requiring modifications to diet or exercise. The data seemed too good to be true, but in 2007 a Stanford University study reaffirmed the benefits of growth hormones, showing on average a five-pound increase in muscle mass and a five-pound decrease in body fat. That sounds great on paper, but the test subjects showed zero improvement in physical performance, so while HGH might make your skin appear tighter and increase your muscle mass, there's no data that shows that it boosts key factors like strength or physical performance, and to this day no long-term studies on supplementation with growth hormones have been conducted. However, we doctors are pretty clear on the link between abusing growth hormones and certain disease states like diabetes, leukemia, and colon cancer.
Today it's estimated that the majority of HGH administration is illicit. In fact, white males between 18 and 40 lead the pack when it comes to abuse for body-building purposes. Of those using HGH, there's a high association with other anabolic steroid abuse, and 16 percent of HGH users report a heroin, cocaine, or Ecstasy dependence. And since HGH is only effective if injected, it's basically turning locker rooms into shooting galleries.
HGH isn't cheap, either; injections can cost upwards of $10k a year. And yet not everyone injecting actually benefits from the stuff. Since no one is testing HGH levels prior to treatment, many users may be pumping thousands of dollars' worth of drugs into bodies that might not even be HGH-deficient in the first place.
In medicine, it's safe to assume that any treatment doctors aren't personally using is not beneficial, and this doctor certainly feels that way about HGH. While Ponce de León sailed blindly in search of the fountain of youth, I can tell you we have more than enough information to prove that the lure of HGH is just as much of a myth.