There is much in the news these days about growth hormone... promises that it melts fat, builds muscles and reverses wrinkles. Is it all hype? Is it safe? If it's so fabulous why isn't everyone on it? First of all growth hormone is a hormone that naturally occurs in our bodies. It’s made by the pituitary, a gland located beneath the brain. The pituitary is the master gland of the entire endocrine system and regulates the production of all hormones in the body. Growth hormone gets its name from the fact that it helps a child grow to be a full sized adult. It has been safely used for this purpose in children since 1983. Growth hormone has been FDA approved for use in adults who are deficient in growth hormone since 1996.
Symptoms of growth hormone deficiency can be somewhat generalized and vague and include fatigue, depression, insomnia, loss of muscle tone and increased fat around the waistline. That’s why the symptoms are often dismissed as “just getting old.”
Growth hormone deficiency is diagnosed by having a person undergo a growth hormone stimulation test and documenting that their pituitary is unable to produce growth hormone on its own. This is the person who will most benefit from growth hormone therapy. Individuals who obtain growth hormone therapy by ordering it through the Internet or without proper medical supervision are more likely to incur serious side effects.
Since growth hormone is a natural hormone, it’s usually well tolerated provided the individual is given physiologic doses similar to those normally found in the body. Side effects can include swelling, fluid retention, carpal tunnel symptoms or symptoms related to blood sugar regulations. These are generally temporary and are resolved by cutting back the dose. Patients, who are growth hormone deficient and hesitant to start therapy, need to know there are side effects associated with NOT taking growth hormone. These include a two- to three- fold increase in premature heart disease and an increase in diabetes, high blood pressure, osteoporosis and strokes.
Just as a person can become deficient in thyroid hormone at any age, a person may become deficient in growth hormone at any age. Any circumstance, which causes traumatic or inflammatory injury to the head, has the potential to later cause deficiency in growth hormone and/or other pituitary hormones as well. Typical examples include head trauma from car accidents or sports injuries; history of radiation treatments to the head and neck; complications of pregnancy such as high blood pressure, or excessive post-partum bleeding and, of course, any kind of brain surgery.
It is essential that the person be properly diagnosed. Growth hormone deficiency can be caused by a brain tumor often requiring surgical treatment. Simply putting the patient on growth hormone therapy could prevent them from getting life-saving surgery! Or that person could have subtle symptoms of cortisol deficiency and giving that person growth hormone without first correcting cortisol could actually make them worse! Growth hormone deficiency, like other pituitary disorders, is best treated by an endocrinologist, a physician who has undergone specialty fellowship training to deal with complex endocrine problems, such as growth hormone deficiency.
Marina Johnson, M.D., F.A.C.E., a UCLA-USC trained physician has no ties to any pharmaceutical company. She is the author of “Outliving Your Ovaries: An Endocrinologist Reviews the Risks and Rewards of Treating Menopause With Hormone Replacement Therapy.” She’s appeared on Joni’s Table Talk on Daystar Television Network, The Balancing Act on Lifetime Television, Daybreak USA radio show and written articles for numerous magazines.