Human growth hormone injections have recently received attention for their seemingly magical benefits, including the power to fight aging or to build up muscles.
But don't be deceived by the bulging biceps of bodybuilders or football stars — the secret behind their Hulk-like physiques isn't necessarily human growth hormone, according to Alan Rogol, professor of clinical pediatrics, Riley Hospital Indiana University School of Medicine and professor of clinical pediatrics, University of Virginia.
"It is quite odd that performance enhancement is done or tried by athletes [with] growth hormone alone," said Rogol, who has been working with pediatric growth hormone cases for 35 years, noting that it's usually done in tandem with supplements or anabolic steroids.
Growth hormone, which may be medically suited for those with growth deficiencies, is illegal for uses related to performance or anti-aging, said Rogol. But that hasn't stopped some from using the hormone replacement in attempts to bulk up or stay young.
The hormone "probably doesn't work very much at all" in those who are not deficient, said Gary I. Wadler, clinical associate professor of medicine at the New York University School of Medicine and chairman of the World Anti-Doping Agency's prohibited list and methods subcommittee. "It may make you bigger, but it does not make you stronger. Much of the enlargement of the muscles is because of water retention in the muscle."
But for those who do medically require growth hormone, there are a slew of benefits.
"If you're lacking growth hormone, you're usually extremely tired, you don't have energy, you just don't feel right," said Patricia Costa, executive director of the Human Growth Foundation.
"And growth hormone, if you're taking it to bring it up to the level that it should be but you're just not producing it … people feel they have more energy, physically they feel so much better. It enhances muscles, which is why [there is] all the illegal use of it."
Rogol listed children and adults with growth hormone deficiency, as well as children with chronic kidney disease, Turner's syndrome and Noonan syndrome, as some of the conditions requiring growth hormones.
"It's not the simple drug that everybody keeps saying it is," said Costa, but "it's a wonderful thing for the people who need it."
But that hasn't necessarily stopped the illegal use of the hormone replacement, which has become a trend, said Wadler.
"But the reason [abusers] use it more nowadays is because when taken in combination with low-dose steroids, they are trying to evade detection," since, he added, "you can get an enhancement with lower doses of steroids, if you're on growth hormone at the same time."
The origin and source of illegally purchased injections can also be questionable. For example, Wadler acknowledged that they "can be obtained either through the Internet or through the Mexican border, smuggling."
"One of the things people have to be aware of is this human growth hormone is often smuggled into this country," he said. "And without the approval of the FDA, you have no idea what, in fact, you're injecting. [You're] injecting talcum powder, for all I know."
Added to that, growth hormone injections cost nearly $10,000 to $50,000 a year, and there's the risk of contaminated needles, noted Rogol.
For those searching for an alternative that isn't illegal, there are always growth-hormone supplements to aid anti-aging efforts and athletic performance.
But do they actually work?
Concerning such products, said Rogol: "It's buyer beware."
Lisa Wells, R.N., claims that her use of growth-hormone supplements turned her life around. She had tried everything from acupuncture to epidural injections to relieve the back pain she suffered. But then, in 1999, when she turned to homeopathic growth hormone — in the form of a spray — she saw long-lasting results.
"Well, I went from being someone who was in terrible pain, was depressed, couldn't do hardly anything because I couldn't stand up very long because of the pain shooting down my legs to now, pretty much running a normal life."
She hasn't had to visit her orthopedic surgeon for the past seven or eight years.
Now, Wells sells homeopathic growth-hormone sprays through HGH-Pro, the company she started in 1999. The sprays are FDA-registered and regulated, and have "been through independent, randomized, double-blind, placebo, IGF-1 clinical studies," she said.
But when it comes to human growth-hormone injections, it's best not to give into the buzz that surrounds it.
"I just want to emphasize it's one of the most dangerous, abused performance-enhancing drugs out there," said Wadler, "and people should not be seduced into this Ponce de Leon fountain of youth mentality."