In a segment of one of his shows, the celebrated TV host, Dr. Oz, began by asking his audience, “How many of you want to start feeling 20 years younger right now?” Then, after hearing the predictable chorus of yeses, he went on to discuss what he called “a new frontier: stimulating your body’s production of growth hormones naturally with amino acids.” And then Dr. Oz told his adoring audience, “I have been searching for this from the day we started the show. I’ve been looking for ways of increasing HGH naturally because I don’t like getting the injections”. As is his customary style, he then started a new frenzy of those wishing to seek out such a product, in this case called “SeroVital”.
But what does this all mean? Human growth hormone, or HGH, is a natural substance secreted by a small gland (pituitary) in the brain. It promotes growth during childhood and adolescence. Growth hormone acts on the liver and other tissues to stimulate the production of insulin-like growth factor I (IGF-I), which is responsible for its growth-promoting effects. Blood levels of circulating IGF-I tend to decrease as people age or become obese. Many marketers would like you to believe that boosting HGH blood levels can reduce body fat; build muscle; improve sex life, sleep quality, vision and memory; restore hair growth and color; strengthen the immune system; normalize blood sugar; increase energy; and “turn back your body’s biological clock.” Unfortunately all this not only lacks experimental support and is patently false, as will be summarized below. This has also been aptly described in greater detail by Stephen Barrett, MD, the editor of the popular website, Quackwatch, which I strongly recommend.
The drive to popularize growth hormone began about 20 years ago with publication of the book “Life Extension: A Practical Scientific Approach,” by Pearson and Shaw. These authors claimed that large amounts of vitamins, minerals, amino acids, and other substances would cause people to add muscle, burn fat, and live much longer. Although their advice had no scientific basis, these authors made hundreds of talk-show appearances that boosted sales of the products they recommended.
Soon after the book’s publication, many amino acids were claimed to cause overnight weight loss by increasing the release of growth hormone. So called “growth-hormone releasers” were also marketed to bodybuilders with claims that they would help build muscle. Such claims are unfounded because amino acids taken by mouth do not produce such effects. These formulations are based mainly on misinterpreted studies of intravenous arginine, which can increase HGH blood levels for an hour or so. The FTC and the New York City Department of Consumer Affairs attacked some companies making “growth-hormone release” claims, but these actions had very little effect on the overall marketplace.
In 1990, The New England Journal of Medicine published a study that attracted mainstream media attention. The study involved 12 men, aged 61 to 81, who were apparently healthy but had IGF-I levels below those found in normal young men. The 12 men were given growth hormone injections three times a week for six months and compared with 9 men who received no treatment. The treatment resulted in a decrease in fatty tissue and increases in body muscle mass and spine density An accompanying editorial warned that some of the subjects had experienced side effects and that the long-range effects of administering HGH to healthy adults were unknown. It also warned that the hormone injections were expensive and that the study had not examined whether the men who received the hormone had actually improved their muscle strength, mobility, or quality of life.
In March 2003, in response to growing controversy, the New England Journal of Medicine took the unprecedented step of denouncing misuse of the above mentioned 1990 article. The full text of the article was placed online so readers could see for themselves what it actually said; and editorials pointed out that subsequent reports provided no reason to be optimistic. As noted by Editor-in-Chief Jeffrey M. Drazen, M.D.:
“Although the findings of the study were biologically interesting, the duration of treatment was so short that side effects were unlikely to have emerged, and it was clear that the results were not sufficient to serve as a basis for treatment recommendations. . . .” Indeed, Mary Lee Vance of the University of Virginia said in an accompanying editorial “Because there are so many unanswered questions about the use of growth hormone in the elderly and in adults with growth hormone deficiency, its general use now or in the immediate future is not justified.”
Despite these reservations, the initial study of 1990 inspired many offbeat physicians to market themselves as “anti-aging specialists.” offering expensive tests that supposedly determine the patient’s “biological age,” They promise to lower this “age”, with expensive hormone shots and dietary supplements. To this date, nobody has provided any evidence that it is more than just another myth.
All this hype also helped stimulate formation of the American Association for Anti- Aging Medicine (A4M) and the unrecognized medical specialty of “anti-aging medicine.” The group, founded in 1993, claims that it has 11,500 members, of whom 80% are medical or osteopathic physicians. Many exhibitors at its conferences have made unsubstantiated claims for HGH-related products.
Also springing up are thousands of Web sites and spam e-mailers that are hawking the actual hormone; alleged HGH releasers; alleged oral hormone products (which can’t work because any HGH would be digested).
But what we do know thus far is simply that HGH is useful for treating growth hormone deficiency in children and adults and has several other proven (FDA-approved) uses. The American Association of Clinical Endocrinologists has warned that the clinical use of growth hormone for any patient—with or without ordinary obesity—is not recommended and could possibly lead to unknown dangers.
Robert N. Butler, M.D., a noted gerontologist who founded a legitimate organization, the International Longevity Center-USA, has warned that, “So-called anti-aging medicine is largely a sham. We simply do not have the equivalent of a blood pressure cuff for testing aging.” He further states:
Although growth hormone levels decline with age, it has not been proven that trying to maintain the levels that exist in young persons is beneficial. It is conceivable that age-related hormonal changes may serve as useful markers of physiological aging. However, this has not been demonstrated experimentally for either humans or animals. Although hormone-replacement trials have yielded some positive results (at least in the short term), it is clear that negative side effects can also occur in the form of increased risk for cancer, cardiovascular disease, and behavior changes.
It might even turn out that lower growth-hormone levels are an indicator of health. Research findings indicate that mice that overproduce growth hormones live only a short time, suggesting that growth-hormone deficiency itself does not cause accelerated aging, but that the opposite may be true. . . .
In short, physicians have no scientifically based measures of aging and lacking this indicator, there is no way to fight against something that can’t be identified.
So how can ingesting “HGH stimulators” produce any benefits? From the foregoing, the answer is apparent—they cannot! Although growth hormone levels decline with age, there is no proof that trying to maintain the levels that exist in young persons is beneficial. Considering the high cost, significant side effects, and lack of proven effectiveness, HGH injections appear to be a very poor investment. So called “growth-hormone releasers,” oral growth hormone,” and “homeopathic HGH” products are thus clearly fakes.
Into this category we place the product noted above touted by Dr. Oz, (who is also given to hyping other useless products) manufactured by SanMedica International™ under the trade name SeroVital. Even if this product could stimulate HGH production by the body, which is doubtful, any long-term benefits from such stimulation are totally unproven, and are likely to remain so for a long time in the future!
Sure, it’s tempting to try every product on the market that promises a more youthful look and feel, but sometimes good, old fashioned diet and exercise can have the same effect as a “miracle pill”.
In a future blog, we will discuss the relationship between HGH and sports—currently a lively and controversial topic