Human Growth Hormone: Hope or Hype?
It's 'liquid gold' to some, 'snake oil' to others.
Dr. Don Fisher says patients on human growth hormone can expect a 14% decrease in body fat and an 8% increase in lean body mass. [Photo: Kellie Lefever]
Fisher prescribed a type of HGH called Serostim (along with testosterone) to hundreds of his AIDS patients who were suffering from wasting syndrome, the weight loss that affects patients with full-blown AIDS. “It enlightened me to realize that even these AIDS patients did super with human growth hormone,” Fisher recalls. “Their immune systems improved. Their weight improved. Their well-being improved. Sex. Everything improved for the most part, and they were on this hormone that I thought was pretty miraculous.”
Today, HGH is one of the most potent weapons in Fisher’s anti-aging arsenal, though he administers it at much lower doses. While the typical AIDS patient might receive about 18 units of HGH per day, the typical patient in Fisher’s anti-aging practice “needs maybe only one unit five days a week,” the doctor says.
Fisher says patients on this level of HGH can expect a leaner body and an improved mood overall. “Once they’re on it I say, look, you can expect in two to three months three things: Better sleep, sex and energy. If they have gotten better sleep, sex and energy on the dose of growth hormone and their IGF-1, which is a measure of growth hormone, has improved to a range that I want it, they’re ... I hate to say ‘hooked,’ but they want to stick with it because they feel that much better.”
Nicknamed “liquid gold” because it is so expensive, HGH can cost the typical patient about $12 to $15 a day — or $300 to $400 a month — and it isn’t covered by insurance. Despite its cost, HGH has become a popular component of many anti-aging therapies, generating an estimated $2 billion in sales every year. The Cenegenics Medical Institute, which has offices across the country, typically prescribes HGH to individuals who it says demonstrate deficits of the hormone.
But its widespread use has also generated considerable controversy within the broader medical community.
In 2007, the Food and Drug Administration issued an alert reminding the public that it is illegal to distribute growth hormone for anti-aging purposes, bodybuilding, athletic enhancement or any other off-label use. In fact, there are only a limited number of FDA-approved, scientifically supported uses of HGH. These approved uses include treating children with growth hormone deficiency, patients with HIV-related wasting and the rare instance of adult growth hormone deficiency.
At a 2008 congressional hearing on the “myths and facts about human growth hormone, B-12 and other substances,” Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.), chairman of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, railed against the promotion of HGH for “reversing the aging process” as “more snake oil than cure.”
Dr. Thomas Perls, an attending physician in the geriatrics section at Boston Medical Center who conducts research on centenarians, agrees. The idea that replenishing growth hormones stops or reverses many age-related problems “is a ruse,” Perls testified at the same hearing. In fact, Perls says, prescribing HGH can even have detrimental effects. Negative side effects, he said, can include soft tissue swelling, joint pains, carpal tunnel-like syndrome, breast enlargement, diabetes, liver and heart enlargement, increased pressure around the brain and high blood pressure.
In recent years, law enforcement authorities have cracked down on several online anti-aging clinics operating out of Florida that were illegally distributing HGH and other steroids for non-medical uses. In 2007, “Operation Which Doctor,” a nationwide crackdown on illegal internet drug sales, culminated in the raid of Orlando-based clearinghouse Signature Pharmacy, which manufactured many of the drugs that clinics like Palm Beach Rejuvenation sold over the internet.
While the anti-aging doctors who spoke with Florida Trend had varying takes on the efficacy of HGH, most said they would prescribe it only if tests demonstrated that a patient was suffering from “adult HGH deficiency.”
Dr. Ferdinand Cabrera says that if a patient demonstrates low levels of IGF-1, he will then conduct an HGH stimulation test to assess the body’s ability to produce growth hormone. If he is unable to stimulate the production of HGH, this confirms the suspected deficiency and HGH therapy can be initiated.
Like Cabrera, Dr. Jennifer Landa, an OB/GYN who opened an anti-aging practice in Maitland three years ago, says she prescribes HGH only in “very rare cases.” She says there are natural ways to increase the body’s production of HGH. Because the biggest release of HGH happens about 90 minutes after we’ve gone to sleep, simply getting more sleep can help. People can also boost their body’s production of HGH by eating protein, lifting weights and using supplements. (HGH skeptics say there is no proof, however, that supplements can boost HGH production.)
Other anti-aging physicians have a less restrictive view of HGH replacement. Fisher insists that HGH is not harmful when taken at low doses. “When you just are replacing your dose of growth hormone to what you were used to when you were 25 and you maintain it there, there’s no real problems with it. That $300 to $400 a month expense is nothing compared to how good people feel — it’s a quality of life thing.”