Three years ago, a snowstorm forced me to spend an unexpected night in a small Montana town. The TV in the little motel only received three channels due to the storm. Scanning the three stations, I came upon a fellow making some health claims that really got my attention.It turned out to be an infomercial. I tuned in just in time to hear him say something about:
- gray hair turning dark
- disappearing bald spots
- reduced skin wrinkles
- fading age spots
- better mood
- sharper memory
- greater concentration
- improved sex
- lower cholesterol
- clearer vision (the picture flashed to a happy senior throwing away his reading glasses)
- loss of body fat without diet or exercise
- strength and muscle gains - again, sans exercise
- better digestion and elimination
- reversal of hearing loss
- prevention of bone loss
- greater stamina and endurance
- deeper sleep
- reduced joint pain
- faster wound healing
- much more energy
- reversing the biomarker of aging by 10-20 years
All of this could be done with zero side-effects!
When he said the cost could be $500 to $1,000 a month or more, I knew he was speaking of recombinant human growth hormone (HGH). I also knew that 1) to the layperson, this advertisement looked very impressive and would generate huge sales ($80 million for one company alone); and 2) the claims were so over the top, I wondered if they would ever be challenged.
Every company selling supplements designed to boost HGH mentions research. One 1990 study by Daniel Rudman, et al.,1 is constantly referenced and often referred to as a "landmark study." I found it on The New England Journal of Medicine Web site (www.nejm.org). When I clicked on it, there was a surprise: an editorial explaining that this article receives more hits in a week than most 1990 pieces do in a year. The editors felt it has been so misused, they provided the entire article (rather than just the abstract) free of charge or registration. Also posted were full-text commentaries, including one from 1990 discussing the original research, and a 2003 follow-up by the same author.2,3
Human Growth Hormone
HGH is produced by the anterior pituitary gland. Production declines with age:
|Age 10||2,000 mcg/day|
|Age 20||700 mcg/day|
|Age 30||400 mcg/day|
|Age 40||325 mcg/day|
|Age 80||225 mcg/day|
HGH has a half-life of only 20 minutes. It is converted in the liver to somatomedin-C, also known as insulin-like growth factor 1 (IGF-1). IGF-1 is stable and has a half-life of 20 hours. This is how HGH is commonly, albeit indirectly, measured.
Real HGH has been shown to 1) increase protein synthesis in almost every cell; 2) increase mobilization of fatty acids from adipose tissue resulting in a greater amount of fat metabolized for fuel, and reduce the rate of glucose utilization; 3) improve skin elasticity and skin thickness; and 4) reduce or even reverse bone demineralization.1,4 Note: If a person has a frank deficiency, they may notice other changes as well.
Unfortunately, HGH has side-effects. A study involving 131 men and women (ages 65 to 88) who were administered a 30 mcg/kg/bw injection three times a week and continued with three weekly injections of 20 mcg/kg/bw revealed the following problems5 (see chart below).
The Landmark Study
As mentioned previously, in 1990 a study was published in the The New England Journal of Medicine regarding growth hormone. Six months of growth hormone therapy resulted in increased lean body mass (8.8 percent), bone density (1.6 percent) and skin thickness (7.1 percent). There was a 14.4 percent loss of adipose tissue. The muscle gain and fat loss were accomplished without diet or exercise.
|Side-Effects of HGH (Injections)|
|Condition||Sex||HGH group||Placebo group|
|Arthralgia|| Males |
| 41% |
| 0.0% |
|Edema|| Males |
| 30.0% |
| 12.0% |
|Carpal tunnel|| Males |
| 24.0% |
| 0.0% |
Dr. Rudman's study involved 21 men ages 61 to 81. They were tested and divided into two groups based on IGF levels. Twelve subjects had IGF levels below 350 U/L, indicating a growth hormone deficiency; the other nine had IGF levels above 350 U/L. The 12 males with low levels of IGF-1 ranged in age from 61 to 73, while the nine controls were 65-81 years old. (Ninety-five percent of men ages 20-40 have more than 350 U/L of IGF-1. Seventy percent of men over age 60 have more than 350 U/L of IGF-1.) In this study, six months of HGH therapy in the form of recombinant growth hormone delivered by three weekly injections of 0.03mg/kg/bw reversed the biomarkers of aging by 10 to 20 years (according to the authors). This statement was based on the increases in lean body mass and skin thickness along with reduction in body fat.
Everyone selling HGH nutritional supplements uses the biomarker quote. Rudman et al. further stated, "Our findings cannot be generalized to the approximately two-thirds of men over age 60 who have plasma IGF-1 over 350 U/L." Strangely, no one selling HGH supplements uses this statement. There is nothing in Dr. Rudman's paper to indicate that HGH given to individuals under 60 years of age with normal levels of IGF-1 will have similar responses to those over age 60 with deficiencies. There is also nothing in the study to indicate that amino acids, herbs, vitamins and minerals will have effects similar to hGH injections. And, while it is true that various types of nutritional supplements have been shown (in laboratory conditions) to elevate growth hormone slightly, none of them comes close to the rise following strenuous exercise or the first few hours of deep sleep.
So, how amazing are these legal, over-the-counter HGH products? Well, they set a record for the highest amount of money ever awarded in a health fraud case by the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) - $20 million. In June 2005, the FTC ordered two companies to make a $6.5 million initial payment and instituted an FTC-run complaint program titled "Consumer Redress,"6 capped at $13.5 million. The defendants in this case - Great American Products (GAP) and Physicians Choice Incorporated (PCI) - manufactured and marketed the products Ultimate HGH, Super HGH, Master HGH and Super HGH Booster. They agreed to the settlement. In addition to the cash payouts, the companies had to cease making false or unsubstantiated claims regarding their products.
The FTC sent letters to at least 90 Internet marketing companies selling natural HGH precursors, stimulators or secretagogs, warning them that deceptive or misleading advertising can result in legal jeopardy. After looking at some of the HGH Web sites six months later (in December 2005), it does not appear many companies received, reviewed or read the warning (choose one).
I wish there was a product that was 100 percent safe and could do 25 percent of what makers of so-called natural human growth hormone precursors claim. I encourage anyone who sells and markets these products to fund no-strings-attached research. In the meantime, it appears that those who feel a benefit from these pricey products most likely have a placebo response.
- Rudman D, Feller AG, Nagraj HS, et al. Effects of human growth hormone in men over 60 years old. N Engl J Med 1990;23:1-6.
- Vance ML. Growth hormone for the elderly. N Engl J Med 1990;323:52-54.
- Vance ML. Can growth hormone prevent aging? N Engl J Med 2003;348:779-780.
- Harman SM, Blackman MR. Use of growth hormone for prevention or treatment of the effects of aging. J Gerontol A Biol Sci Med Sci 2004;59:652-658.
- Black MR, Sorkin JD, et al. Growth hormone and sex steroid administration in healthy-aged women and men: a randomized controlled trial. JAMA 2002;288:2282-2292.
- FTC targets bogus anti-aging claims for pills and sprays promising human growth hormone benefits. www.ftc.gov/opa/2005/06/greatamerican.htm.
G. Douglas Andersen, DC, DACBSP, CCN
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