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No One Really Knows If HGH Is Bad for You

While scientists hash out human growth hormone's health risks, stars like Sly Stallone and ordinary guys are shelling out millions for fast results.
 
 
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In an earlier report on human growth hormone (HGH), known simply as growth hormone in scientific circles, I took athletes like Roger Clemens to task for lying about taking it to increase their field performance. It's an obsolete tactic to employ, especially during a period in which superstars like Sylvester Stallone not only take it to bulk up for films like his latest Rambo roid rage-fest, but also advise anyone within range that they should hop on its juice as well. Sure, Clemens was on the line for perjury, dragged as he was in front of Congress on the matter, but, as hoops stars say all the time, the ball don't lie. And Clemens's stats in his declining years in baseball don't tell the story of an aging great whose body can't hold up against the strain: They tell the tale of someone who, against entropy and all common sense, managed to stave off the aging process long enough to pick up a couple World Series wins, Cy Young awards and hundreds of millions.

But that would only be part of the tale. The rest of it isn't as exciting as the Mitchell Report, or watching baseball titans like Clemens and Mark McGwire humbly schlep to Washington for some long-deserved scrutiny on their garish records and paydays. That's because the rest of the tale is about the science, rather than the hype, of HGH.

And like the ball before it, the science don't lie.

Let's get unequivocal: HGH is highly capable of increasing lean muscle mass, overall metabolism, calcium retention, skin elasticity, bone mineralization, protein synthesis and even homeostasis, which is to say, some of the most important aspects of physical development. It can also significantly decrease fat mass, which, these days, is almost as important a psychological development as a physical one. Bodybuilders are entranced by its ability to turn them into behemoths, and pro athletes love the way it has proven to help them recover from their injuries. But it doesn't stop there: According to acolytes, it can even increase the sex drive, offer better REM sleep and stimulate the immune system. Its benefits, such as they, are nevertheless socially legitimized by its meteoric rise, as around 300,000 weekend warriors, pro athletes and Average Janes and Joes spend an estimated $2 billion on it annually, in the process increasing the stock of companies like Pfizer, Genentech, Merck, Lilly and onward, who sell synthetic versions of the naturally occurring hormone over the counter.

But, as a Stanford University study released in March 2008 explained, that doesn't mean that taking HGH will in any way make you an athlete as capable as Clemens, or even Stallone. Which makes sense: Just because you're huge doesn't mean you can actually hit a 90 mph fastball or tackle Tom Brady. As scientists continually take pains to remind us, everything depends on the details, and those vary by person. What the science does know, however, is that extended use can have adverse effects, from diabetes and joint inflammation to high blood pressure, heart failure and perhaps cancer.

"What we found suggested that it didn't help, and at some point, it might hurt," the study's lead investigator Hau Liu told the San Jose Mercury News shortly after it was published in Monday's issue of the Annals of Internal Medicine . "In addition," Liu explained in the study's conclusion, "growth hormone in the healthy young is frequently associated with adverse events."

But even Liu admits there are too many caveats in the Stanford study for it to be a convincing case, something that seems to occur with regularity when it comes to the scientific community and growth hormone. For one, the study analyzed smaller doses than those taken by professional athletes, and it considered only HGH alone, rather than its efficacy in muscle cocktails making the rounds of stadiums, locker rooms and gyms near you. Those cocktails include everything from insulin to anabolic steroids to other hormones and beyond, which, when mixed together, can achieve a cumulative result unattainable by reliance upon one substance.

"Claims regarding the performance-enhancing properties of growth hormone are premature and are not supported by our review of the literature," Liu wrote in the study's conclusion. But "more research, including an identification and evaluation of real world growth hormone doping protocols, is warranted to definitively determine the effects of growth hormone on athletic performance."

In other words, it could be bad for you or it could be good for you, depending on who you are. That unconvincing thesis, repeated across the planet by authorities accepted and otherwise, has only fueled HGH's rise. If you thought there were a lot of baseball players on it, wait until the National Football League gets serious about its use among its own. But it never will, because those enhanced athletes in turn enhance the sport's bottom line. In fact, almost all of the 89 players fingered in the Mitchell Report for HGH use are so valuable to their teams that Major League Baseball is giving up on suspending most, if not all, of them. That is a lot of hard statistical and financial evidence to ignore. And it's just one sport.

That's just the athletes: Ordinary people are juicing up and shelling out good money for fast results. According to Sen. Charles Schumer, who introduced a proposal in December 2007 to make HGH a controlled substance, around 10 percent of high schoolers are experimenting with it, and its use among the adult population is growing. Even police departments have begun to seriously consider testing their officers for performance-enhancing drugs, yet are running into problems because the cost to test for steroids is higher than those that test for substances like cannabis or cocaine. Meanwhile, the culture at large, awash in the unrestrained militarism of the War on Terror or the brutal spectacle of mixed martial-arts bloodsports like the Ultimate Fighting Championship, is more muscular than ever before. And social permissiveness of proactive aggression, regardless of the tabloid time-outs in Washington, has reached critical mass: Nike's "Just Do It" slogan, a clarion call for '90s pop culture, has been replaced by one designed too perfectly by President Bush for the rougher, tougher, dumber '00s: "Bring It On."

Further, studies for HGH will never be definitive until some convincing human trials, otherwise known as tests to see who can't die first, are launched, and that could never happen. And it shouldn't, as a major question has yet to be entertained by either side of the HGH divide: Who has the right to tell Americans what they can and cannot put in their bodies? And if that's the Drug Enforcement Administration, or the American Medical Association, then it's fair to ask how consistent they are in pursuit of the public good. After all, caffeine, nicotine and alcohol, which are used by a much higher statistical slice of the populace and are astronomically dangerous compared to HGH (and even cannabis), are perfectly legal substances. All of which begs the subsequent questions: At which point does a standard become a double standard?

Whatever the answer is, one thing is for sure: HGH is here to stay. If it's all in your mind, as some scientists and talking heads have been proclaiming lately, that doesn't mean it's not working. If consumers take something that makes them think they're going to get bigger faster, most will work harder to achieve those results. And if it's not in their heads, they're going to see results there as well. And results, whether in the form of World Series wins, millions of butts in the seats, or just diamond-cut abs, are everything.

In the end, one is left with the usual noncommittal conclusion these types of social conflicts create, where personal morality crashes headlong into political responsibility and leaves only wreckage and theory. Such indecision has left a wide-open hole in the culture, and drugs of all types, not just HGH, have leapt in to fill the void that humanity sometimes sees when it looks in the mirror. This is a process that has been going on for centuries, which is another way of saying it is going nowhere until either faction, the users and the critics, sit down and hash out the data.

Until they do, bring it on, baby. Bring it on.

Scott Thill runs the online mag Morphizm.com. His writing has appeared on Salon, XLR8R, All Music Guide, Wired and others.

 
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