From Our 2011 Archives

Weight Lifters Turning to Human Growth Hormone

Researchers Blame Cheap Prices on Internet for Increasing Use of HGH

By Denise Mann
WebMD Health News

Reviewed by Laura J. Martin, MD

Jan. 21, 2011 -- Growing numbers of male weight lifters may be taking human growth hormone (HGH) to bulk up and enhance performance, a study suggests.

The study, published in the American Journal on Addictions, also suggests that HGH abuse is linked to use of steroids and other illicit drugs, including cocaine.

In the study of 231 male weight lifters aged 18 to 40, 12% reported use of HGH or a similar supplement known as insulin-like growth factor-1. All of these men had also reported use of anabolic steroids and 56% percent had a current or past dependence on opioids, cocaine, and/or ecstasy.

"This is an epidemic that is rapidly increasing and is here to stay for the foreseeable future," says study researcher Harrison G. Pope Jr., MD, professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School in Boston and director of Biological Psychiatry Laboratory of McLean Hospital in Belmont, Mass. "Doctors everywhere should be aware of this when they see young patients, especially young male patients."

Produced by the pituitary gland, HGH spurs growth in children and adolescents; its supply dwindles with advancing age. As a result, HGH is pushed by some as an antiaging remedy as well as a performance enhancer.

HGH was once prohibitively expensive for most, but now pills, powders, and injections can be purchased at low cost on the Internet. "HGH has become much cheaper to manufacture with modern techniques, so it has gotten to the point where ordinary kids on the street can easily obtain it," Pope says. "Twenty years ago it was extremely expensive and used only by elite athletes who could afford to spend the money."

Risks of HGH

The full dangers of HGH abuse are not known, but it can have deleterious effects on the heart, especially when used in combination with steroids, Pope says. Abnormally elevated levels of HGH in the body have also been linked to other health problems, including diabetes and possibly cancer.

In the study, weight lifters who were taking HGH tended to be older, had lifted weights longer, and were more muscular than those who abstained from HGH use. All of the weight lifters who took HGH were already using steroids to boost performance when they began taking HGH. Just 19% of the weight lifters who used HGH graduated from college, the study shows.

"We see in this study that HGH users were already taking steroids when they added HGH, so this tells us that they may have been developing a tolerance and needed a turbo boost," says Harold C. Urschel, MD, author of Healing the Addicted Brain.

Barry Sears, PhD, president of Zone Labs Inc. and the Inflammation Research Foundation in Marblehead, Mass., says the only approved use for HGH is to correct a documented deficiency in children or adults.

"Too high levels will promote diabetes and overproduction of bone tissue," he says. "You can always tell which elite athletes are on HGH because their bones are growing at a faster rate and their faces look distorted."

"Does it work? Yes it does," he says. HGH can help bulk up and burn body fat, but it also has health risks attached to it, Sears says.

"Hormones are incredibly powerful drugs and anytime you buy them off the Internet, you are living in a fool's world to think it is purified or legit," he says.

SOURCES: Brian, B.P. American Journal on Addictions, 2010; vol 20: pp 9-13.Harrison G. Pope Jr., MD, director, Biological Psychiatry Laboratory, McLean Hospital, Belmont, Mass.Barry Sears, PhD, president, Zone Labs Inc., Marblehead, Mass.Harold C. Urschel, MD, author, Healing the Addicted Brain.

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