When we see a time lapse camera or computer program quickly running through the life of a human being, watching him “grow up” from an infant to a child to an adult to an old man in a matter of minutes, it seems wondrous. However, the real wonder is not the artificial process, but rather what is going on inside the body, as an element called human growth hormone helps the individual grow. In the simplest terms, human growth hormone, usually abbreviated as HGH, is a hormone produced by the pituitary gland, which is a pea-sized organ located at the base of the brain. HGH helps our bodies develop when we are children, and is also a key part of the process that keeps our organs and tissues healthy as we mature into adulthood. But in this article we’ll delve a little deeper into the science of this amazing compound, to find out how it really works and what it does for us.
What is the Science Behind HGH?
Human growth hormone is a peptide hormone – in fact, to be even more precise, it is a polypeptide. Although this sounds complicated, it simply means that HGH consists of a chain of one hundred and ninety-one amino acids, which are elements most commonly used by the body to generate proteins from the foods that we eat. HGH is produced and released by the somatotrophic cells in the anterior pituitary gland, a lobe of the brain that regulates processes such as lactation, reproduction, stress, and, most importantly for the purposes of this article, growth. The hormones created by the anterior pituitary gland act on organs such as the heart and the liver, proving their important role in the workings of the body by how they affect these crucial elements.
As a peptide hormone, HGH is released into the bloodstream at three to five hour intervals, until eventually it binds itself to cells through receptors on their surfaces. During the peak times when HGH is secreted, it can be found in our blood in a concentration up to nine times stronger than at other intervals – although the usual peak level is most often between ten and twenty ng/mL, while the base level is less than five ng/mL. The amount of HGH released is usually highest about an hour after we fall asleep each night, and nearly half of our usual amount of HGH secretion takes place while we are in third and fourth stage REM sleep. However, our gender, diet, age, and amount of exercise and stress all play a part in affecting how much HGH is released in our bodies.
What Does HGH Do for Us?
HGH’s major function in the body is to stimulate growth from the time when we are children until we reach adulthood. However, it does not affect our muscles; instead, by activating certain cell receptors, the hormone causes the chondrocyte cells of our cartilage to divide and multiply. In addition to promoting growth, HGH helps boost the immune system, increases protein synthesis in our bodies, helps us retain more calcium, which can lead to stronger and healthier bones, helps our pancreatic islets – the sections of the human pancreas where endocrine cells are stored – function, keeps our organs and various systems working and growing through homeostasis, increases our muscle mass, breaks down lipids to reduce fat, and stimulates our liver to produce more glucose, which can keep blood sugar levels from dropping too drastically. The benefits of HGH on the human body are many, but it can be a complicated process to keep the production and release of HGH at a healthy level.
What If We Have Too Much HGH?
Too much HGH can lead to a somatotroph adenoma, which is a tumor made up of somatotroph cells – which are the cells that generate the hormore – that grows in the anterior pituitary gland. If left unchecked, it can lead to headaches, impaired vision because of the pressure it exerts upon the optic nerve, and even cause damage to the production of other hormones or related functions of the pituitary gland. Most adenomas do not appear until the individual has reached at least the age of fifty, and they are usually removed through surgery. In the rare cases when a somatotroph adenoma appears in a child, the excessive levels of HGH usually are accompanied by gigantism, in which the child might grow to be more than seven feet tall and have limbs that are unusually long. After puberty, too much HGH can result in acromegaly, which creates excessive growth in the tongue, jaw, head, and hands by thickening bones and muscles. This is usually accompanied by carpal tunnel syndrome, muscle weakness, insulin resistance, sweating, or lessened sexual function.
What If We Have Too Little HGH?
When the pituitary gland does not produce a high enough level of HGH, it can result in a condition called growth hormone deficiency (GHD). This disorder is most commonly found in children, but can occur in adults (either as a continuation of the disorder from childhood, or as a consequence of a somatotroph adenoma or other lesion). Radiation treatments or surgery for cancer on the brain can also cause GHD, as well as congenital disorders such as Turner Syndrome or Prader-Willi Syndrome. It is usually permanent. There are other conditions associated with GHD; when it occurs in conjunction with deficiency of another anterior pituitary hormone, endocrinologists call it hypopituitarism, and when it is associated with deficiency of a posterior pituitary hormone (from the other lobe of the pituitary gland), it is called panhypopituitarism.
The symptoms of GHD vary according to age, although it does not seem to have an effect on the growth of the fetus. After birth, however, it can lead to micropenis for male infants, and to hypoglycemia (low blood sugar, which can affect the brain) and jaundice (yellowing of the skin) in both sexes. Towards the end of the child’s first year, and into the mid-teens, GHD can lead to shortness, in which the child grows only about half as quickly as his or her peers. This can be accompanied by delayed physical maturation, slower development of the muscles, body composition lending itself to chubbiness, lessened hair growth and a receding forehead.
In adults, the symptoms of GHD include a greater amount of body fat, higher cholesterol, lack of ability to concentrate, memory loss, baldness in males, and even cardiac dysfunction. It can reduce an individual’s level of sexual function, bone and muscle mass, and energy. Furthermore, it can cause a higher level of 5-alpha-reductase (an enzyme that regulates the metabolism of bile acid, androgen and estrogen) and fibrinogen inhibitor (fibrinogen is a protein that can help reduce the inflammation associated with rheumatoid arthritis).
Is GHD the Only Cause of Low HGH Levels in Adults?
Even adults who are not diagnosed with GHD can suffer the consequences of lower levels of HGH. Once we reach middle age, our pituitary glands naturally begin releasing less of the hormone. According to one study, the level drops from 600 micrograms when we are twenty-five to 90 micrograms by the time we reach the age of sixty. That is only about fifteen percent of what our HGH level was in our younger years. The effect of this natural decline in HGH levels leads to consequences for our bodies and minds that include what we usually think of as the results of aging: increased body fat and cholesterol, greater risk of heart and liver disease, depression, and diabetes, disturbed sleep, brittle bones, wrinkled skin, thin, greying hair, loss of muscle mass, and reduced sexual drive. We are beginning to understand that these effects do not only occur because a person grows older, but rather because their HGH level has dropped severely.
How Can We Fix the Problem of Low HGH Levels?
For both children and adults with GHD or other disorders that cause low HGH levels, the usual treatment method is to replace the amount of the hormone that they lack. HGH is created artificially in the lab, using recombinant DNA(which results from cloning molecules in order to combine genetic material from several different sources, forming sequences that would not naturally occur). It is then necessary for the synthetic hormone to be released in the body through injections into muscle or subcutaneous tissue, so that it may be absorbed into the bloodstream.
Another way to increase HGH levels is with supplements or releasers. Instead of injecting artificial HGH into the body, releasers and supplements use various ingredients to stimulate the pituitary gland into producing and secreting a larger amount of the hormone. These supplements may be available in pill or oral spray form, and can be purchased without a doctor’s prescription. Unlike injections, they are generally legal for use by athletes who want the benefits of higher HGH levels without the danger of being caught using illegal steroids. The manufacturers of releasers and supplements also claim that they are cheaper than HGH injections and offer fewer side effects.
What’s the Catch?
There are a few concerns about these methods of treatment. First, injections of artificial HGH are only legally available with a doctor’s prescription. The cost can also be prohibitive – HGH injections can commonly cost anywhere from US$10,000.00 to US$30,000.00 per year. Furthermore, daily injections can be a daunting prospect for those who are not fond of needles, and certain side effects may be associated with artificial HGH injections.
In addition, some authorities argue that the actual effects of HGH supplements are still largely unknown. In 2003 the New England Journal of Medicine published two editorials claiming a lack of evidence for the safe and effective use of HGH supplements in geriatric patients or adults that did not suffer from GHD or other disorders. They also emphasized the conclusion that the risks of HGH treatment carried out long-term are still uncertain. The Mayo Clinic says that “studies of healthy adults taking human growth hormone are limited….There’s no proof that…claims [of HGH releasers having a similar effect on the body as synthetic hormone injections] are true. Likewise, there’s no proof that homeopathic remedies claiming to contain human growth hormone work.”
To Take or Not To Take?
Since the 1990s, the number of studies on the effects of both synthetic HGH and HGH releasers has increased, and more regular people are beginning to tell the stories of how hormone treatments have worked in their lives. New scientific and technological developments are also reducing the uncertainties and the dangers of HGH treatments. For example, HGH was originally collected from the pituitary glands of cadavers, leading to concerns that when injected into patients with GHD it could lead to increased risk of neurological disorders such as Creutzfeldt-Jacob disease (which is related to “mad cow disease” and causes dementia). However, recombinant DNA and molecular cloning technology has drastically reduced that risk. As more studies continue to be done, and the medical community begins to see the benefits that may be offered by HGH treatments, perhaps we will see the this area of medicine grow and develop into its full potential, like a human being quickly coming to life before our eyes through the lens of a time lapse camera.