What Athletes Should Know About Growth Hormone

In the world of athletes, human growth hormone (HGH) is touted as one of the best ways to boost strength, speed, and recovery. Athletes who are looking to gain an edge over the competition often resort to growth hormone to help increase their performance. While growth hormone does have its benefits in the medical world, things start to look a bit different when it’s used for sports-related activities. As an athlete, one should know the risks associated with growth hormone from a health and clean sport standpoint.

What is growth hormone?

First things first, what is growth hormone? Simply put, growth hormone is a substance that assists in the body’s natural development. Humans produce growth hormone which helps the body transition from childhood to adulthood. When the pituitary gland releases growth hormone, it circulates in the blood and stimulates the release of a protein called IGF-1 (insulin-like growth factor) from the liver. The IGF-1 protein is what stimulates muscle growth, bone growth, and other tissues found in the body.

Growth hormone levels normally peak during childhood and decrease as we grow older. While healthy adults still produce growth hormone, the levels are nowhere near close to that of children and adolescents.

Growth hormone is available as a prescription drug that is administered by injection. GH is indicated for children with GH deficiency and others with very short stature. It is also approved to treat adult GH deficiency — a rare condition that almost always develops in conjunction with major problems affecting the hypothalamus, pituitary gland, or both. The diagnosis of adult GH deficiency depends on special tests that stimulate GH production; simple blood tests are useless at best, misleading at worst.

Is using growth hormone allowed in sports?

No. Growth hormone falls into the category of Anabolic Agents according to the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) Prohibited List and is banned for use on all levels of athletes, whether it be elite, junior, or master levels. If for example, you have a medical condition and a doctor prescribes growth, you will need to obtain an approved Therapeutic Use Exemption (TUE) in order to continue participating in the sport you’re playing in.

Growth hormone may only be prescribed legally for a few health conditions. Pediatric patients are one example where the pediatrician can prescribe it to treat the following:

  • Growth hormone deficiency
  • Prader-Willi syndrome
  • Turner syndrome
  • Idiopathic short stature (when the child is smaller than normal but with an unclear reason)
  • Growth failure in children who are born small and don’t reach their appropriate height

Adults can be prescribed with growth hormone to treat deficiencies caused by pituitary disease, trauma, or radiation therapy. The medical use of growth hormone is quite complex because there are plenty of subjective points from determining the right time to prescribe growth hormone to who will actually benefit from the treatment. In some cases, the use of growth hormone medically does not always result in a measurable increase in growth or development. 

What about the growth hormone from anti-aging or wellness clinics?

Using growth hormone for off label use like those in anti-aging treatments is unlawful and is classified as a felony under the Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act. According to a statement by the Drug Enforcement Agency, growth hormone that is sold for wellness or anti-aging purposes is “marketed, distributed, and illegally prescribed off-label to aging adults to replenish declining hGH levels and reverse age-related bodily deterioration.”

Other wellness and anti-aging clinics prescribe drugs that cause the body to release more growth hormone like GHRH (growth hormone-releasing hormone) and other factors.  Almost all compounds that are advertised to have such effects are investigational new drugs and are yet to be approved by the FDA. Under the WADA Prohibited List, growth hormone-releasing factors are banned for use by athletes. It’s a good idea to check the anti-doping status of any medication prescribed by your doctor by visiting GlobalDRO.com prior to competing in the sport.

Athletes are highly discouraged in taking dietary supplements that claim to enhance growth hormone. Use of such dietary supplements is subject to the athlete’s own risk as these substances are relatively unknown from a medical perspective and the evidence to support the claims are lacking.

Health risks associated with using growth hormone

Using growth hormone does come with its own health risks. Some of the most common side effects of taking growth hormone include:

  • irritation at the injection site
  •  increased blood pressure in the brain
  • damage to the retina and vision in people with diabetes
  • damage to the growth plates in the femur in pediatric patients
  • faster progression of scoliosis in people who have this condition, hypothyroidism, pancreatitis, swelling or stiffness in the arms and legs, and generalized pain.

The long-term effects of growth hormone are yet to be fully concluded, but current evidence suggests that prolonged use of growth hormone may downregulate a person’s growth hormone pathways or cause the body to stop producing its own growth hormone.

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