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When we marvel at the physical prowess of athletes, many of us wonder what secret ingredients contribute to their extraordinary abilities. While aspects like genetics, training, and diet are commonly acknowledged, a more contentious factor often comes into play: Human Growth Hormone (HGH), also known as somatotropin. In this article, we’ll delve deep into the myths and realities surrounding HGH in sports.
What is Growth Hormone?
The growth hormone, somatotropin, is a peptide hormone produced in the pituitary gland. It has multiple roles, from protein synthesis to regulating carbohydrate metabolism, and affects many organ systems. While the concentration of somatotropin peaks in adolescence, it declines by about 15% per decade after the age of 30. Even after physical growth stops, this hormone remains vital for various bodily functions such as liver and heart operations, maintaining physical stamina, cognitive abilities, and protecting against fat accumulation and muscle loss.
The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly
In medicine, HGH is used for legitimate purposes like treating growth disorders in children and hormone deficiencies in adults. Imagine a child who’s been dealt a bad hand in the genetic lottery, struggling to grow normally. HGH can be a lifesaver.
Now, let’s shift our focus to the athletic field. Athletes often seek quicker recovery times, increased muscle mass, and enhanced performance—essentially, a competitive edge. That’s where synthetic HGH comes into play, but at what cost?
The downside? Apart from the ethical questions it raises, synthetic HGH use can lead to numerous health risks, including but not limited to, heart disease, diabetes, and even cancer.
The Ethical Dilemma
Think about it: is it fair for an athlete to use HGH to outperform competitors? When everyone is striving to be the best, is it justifiable to seek artificial aids? The ethical questions surrounding HGH in sport create a complex web that’s difficult to untangle.
The World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) and various sports organizations have banned the use of HGH. However, detection methods are still not foolproof. It’s a game of cat and mouse, where authorities are continually playing catch-up with new ways athletes find to dodge testing.
Does Growth Hormone Help in Muscle Growth?
While it’s tempting to think that increasing somatotropin levels will lead to rapid muscle gain, it’s not that straightforward. Somatotropin stimulates the production of insulin-like growth factors (IGF-1) and insulin, which provide an anabolic effect—increasing protein synthesis and reducing protein breakdown. However, researches show that growth hormone primarily helps patients with a somatotropin deficiency grow muscle. For healthy individuals, young or old, extra growth hormone doesn’t seem to provide any muscle-growing benefits.
Even in controlled studies, where growth hormone was used in conjunction with strength training exercises, no significant muscle growth advantage was observed. The reason for this is that the acceleration of protein synthesis after taking growth hormone occurs not in the muscles but in other tissues—such as connective tissues. As a result, while the body’s lean mass may increase, it does not necessarily translate into greater muscle volume.
More Than Muscle: HGH in Sports
In the sports community, growth hormone is often combined with other anabolic agents, such as testosterone, and taken in large doses. Such “cocktails” can indeed help in muscle growth; however, there are very few scientific studies dedicated to their efficacy and safety.
While somatotropin may not directly contribute to muscle growth, it is beneficial for sports and fitness for several reasons.
Fat Loss and Muscle Preservation
One of its major benefits is its ability to reduce fat mass and preserve muscle, particularly useful during “cutting” phases when athletes aim to lose fat without sacrificing muscle.
Growth hormone stimulates the release and oxidation of free fatty acids, yielding significant weight loss results. In one study, somatotropin helped elderly men lose 14% of their body fat. In another, it improved insulin sensitivity and reduced visceral fat in postmenopausal women. According to a review, taking growth hormone for six months helped elderly people reduce their fat mass by an average of 2 kg.
From these findings, we can infer that growth hormone’s ability to slow down protein breakdown and preserve muscle mass in conditions of nutritional deficit and heavy exertion could be advantageous for athletes during “cutting” phases—when the objective is to lose as much fat as possible while maintaining muscle mass.
Aids in Recovery
The hormone has been shown to be helpful in maintaining muscle mass during periods of immobility post-surgery. In one study, patients recovering from knee surgery had 29% higher knee-extension strength when administered growth hormone.
Another experiment indicated that taking HGH for two weeks increased collagen synthesis in tendons by 1.3 times and in muscles by 5.8 times. This could potentially speed up the recovery from muscle and tendon injuries and provide protection against future damage.
The Risks Involved
It’s not all rainbows and butterflies. Using HGH comes with a host of potential health risks. Picture this: you’re inflating a balloon beyond its capacity. What happens? It bursts. Similarly, HGH can lead to:
- Acromegaly: Excessive growth of bones, particularly in the face, hands, and feet.
- Increased Risk of Cancer: Rapid cell regeneration isn’t always a good thing, especially when it comes to the unchecked growth of cancerous cells.
- Cardiovascular Issues: Imagine the strain on your heart when your muscles grow too large, too fast.
Is there a safer path to harnessing the benefits of HGH? Absolutely. We’re talking about exercise, good sleep, and stress management. These lifestyle choices can naturally elevate your HGH levels without the risky side effects.
Natural Ways to Increase HGH Levels
Given that HGH is considered doping and is banned in competitive sports, and also requires a prescription to buy legally, you may be wondering if there are natural ways to boost your HGH levels.
Intense Workouts for Boosting HGH Levels
Physical exercise has a positive impact on growth hormone levels, but it’s challenging to pinpoint which types of workouts yield the greatest increase. For instance, one study suggested that strength training exercises are more effective than prolonged cardio workouts. In contrast, another study indicated that 30 minutes of aerobic exercise led to a more significant rise in growth hormone levels compared to interval sprints or strength training exercises.
The key factor seems to be the intensity of the exercise. One study found that to achieve the desired effect, one needs to work out for at least 10 minutes above the anaerobic threshold. This corresponds to a pulse rate of approximately 70-80% of one’s maximum heart rate.
Thus, whether you choose cardio exercises with a pulse of 70-80% of your maximum heart rate, strength training, or high-intensity interval routines, any of these training modes will effectively increase growth hormone levels. However, avoid doing everything at once. One study found that engaging in an hour of cardio on an exercise bike before strength training resulted in lower growth hormone levels at the end of the workout compared to reducing the cardio session to just 5 minutes.
Boost Your HGH Levels with Intermittent Fasting
Research shows that fasting for 2-5 days substantially increases growth hormone levels. While a prolonged fasting period is not feasible for athletes, intermittent fasting can be beneficial. High levels of insulin produced in response to eating can reduce growth hormone secretion, so fasting intervals can positively affect somatotropin levels. Plan your fasting intervals to align with earlier eating windows. For instance, if you go to bed at 10 pm, aim to eat between 10 am and 6 pm rather than from 2 pm to 10 pm.
Get Enough Sleep for Optimal HGH Production
The peak of growth hormone production occurs during the first half of the night, approximately between 10 pm and 2 am, and happens during the slow-wave sleep phase. To optimize the natural cycle of growth hormone, try to go to bed before midnight or ideally between 10-11 pm. Additionally, lack of sleep may decrease the level of another hormone, melatonin, which fights inflammation in the body and boosts the production of growth hormone. Aim for at least 7-8 hours of sleep per night for optimal health.
Supplements to Enhance HGH Levels
Here are some supplements that might positively affect growth hormone levels:
- Glutamine: One study found a significant increase in growth hormone levels in healthy men 1.5 hours after taking 2 grams of this supplement.
- Creatine: One experiment revealed that taking 20 grams of creatine increased growth hormone levels by 83% in healthy men.
- Gamma-Aminobutyric Acid (GABA): In two separate studies, taking 3-5 grams of GABA substantially increased growth hormone levels in young men.
Although limited research exists to definitively confirm these supplements’ effectiveness, particularly across diverse populations, they do offer additional benefits for athletes. Therefore, their potential impact on growth hormone could be a nice bonus.
Cut Out Sugar and Alcohol
Sugar intake dramatically reduces growth hormone levels, and chronic hyperglycemia (elevated blood sugar levels) can interfere with its production. By eliminating sweets, you can not only increase growth hormone levels but also reduce inflammation, offering dual benefits for health and recovery.
Regarding alcohol, one experiment found that consuming 0.8 grams of ethanol per kilogram of body weight (about 150 grams of vodka for a 75-kg man) before sleep reduced growth hormone production by 70-75% that night.
While HGH does have its merits, particularly in the context of recovery and fat loss, it’s not a magic elixir. Boosting HGH naturally might be a safer route for those looking to enjoy some of its benefits without risking the potential side effects and legal consequences. Improving your growth hormone levels naturally can be achieved through intermittent fasting, adequate sleep, taking certain supplements, and high-intensity exercise.