The Myth of Anti-Aging Hormones

By Joel Fuhrman, M.D.

Growth Hormone And Testosterone Are Not Miracle Supplements.

Not a day goes by without my e-mail inbox being flooded with spam, including countless advertisements for supplements (amino acids) that supposedly can raise your growth hormone levels. The ads boldly proclaim:

Lose weight while you sleep!

100 percent proven to reverse the aging process!

As seen on NBC, CBS, CNN, and Oprah!

As reported in the New England Journal of Medicine!

Forget aging and dieting forever—and it’s guaranteed!

The supplement industry, multilevel marketing companies, and internet advertisers often make exaggerated—sometimes ridiculous— claims about their products, using pseudoscientific terminology to impress the ill-informed and appeal to those desperate to find the mythical fountain of youth.

Although the search for the fountain of youth is not new, the rapidly- growing sales of all types of substances with exaggerated and misrepresented claims are creating a new, multi-billion-dollar industry. The promise of restored youth is enormously attractive to the ever-expanding ranks of flabby, middle-aged Americans.

Doctors, not wanting to miss out on this monetary bonanza, are prescribing DHEA, testosterone, estrogen, and growth hormone—the so called “anti-aging hormones”—in record numbers. Treatments with these hormones now constitute the core practice of physicians who call themselves “specialists in anti-aging medicine.”

These physicians prescribe nutritional supplements and hormones in an attempt to enhance the health, youthfulness, and vitality of a gullible public that is ever on the lookout for magic formulas that will enable them to buy back their health. The sad truth is that these treatments are risky and experimental in nature, and evidence suggests that taking these hormones to reclaim lost youthfulness will increase cancer rates and shorten lifespan. In fact, it is possible that—far from being a cause for concern— lower growth hormone levels actually are an indicator of health and a necessary part of living longer.

Profitable Myths

In 2001, NBC’s Dateline sent a perfectly healthy investigator to an anti-aging medicine clinic in Las Vegas where she posed as a patient. After undergoing $1,500 worth of tests, the investigator was told she needed hormones and a 40 pill-per-day supplement program that cost $1,500 per month.

There is no such thing as anti-aging medicine. Medicines and hormones have never been demonstrated to have anti-aging effects. Only nutritional excellence and avoidance of harmful substances can retard the aging process. Five factors determine your health and your rate of biological aging, and none of them are medical specialties.

  1. Adequately meeting your nutritional, emotional, and sleep needs
  2. Avoiding all excesses, especially excess calories
  3. Avoiding toxic substances
  4. Adequate exercise or activity
  5. Consuming a high level and diversity of plant-derived phytochemicals

Doctors Repeating Mistakes

Hormone-replacement therapy is one of the few areas of medicine where research on men lags behind that on women. Doctors prescribed estrogen for women for twenty years, until about three years ago when comprehensive data was compiled that showed it increased the risk of heart attacks, strokes, embolisms, and breast cancer. Today, women are being weaned off their estrogen. Unfortunately, now men are being put on testosterone. Doctors are doing to men what they did to women for so long—prescribing treatment without sufficient data to reach a firm conclusion on all of the potential benefits and risks.

Indicating a startling trend, a recent study on testosterone by the Institute of Medicine found that prescriptions written for “treatment” of middle-aged and older men whose hormone levels were near normal were rising rapidly. More than 1.75 million prescriptions for testosterone products were written in 2002, a 170 percent increase in three years.

Many studies have shown that higher testosterone levels, promoted by a diet rich in animal products, are strongly linked with both breast and prostate cancer. This link is stronger than the link between estrogen and its related health problems. For older men, studies indicate that higher levels of testosterone fuel the growth of prostate tumors, which is why chemical castration is one means of treating the disease in the advanced stages. The problem is that prostate cancer begins many years before it can be detected by blood tests or examination. So, taking testosterone can change an indolent (hidden and slow-growing) cancer into a more aggressive one.

Aging does not guarantee that a particular man’s testosterone will decline to a level that affects how he feels. Men who maintain the body weight they had in their twenties and eat healthfully may have very little falloff. When a person eats a healthful plant-centered diet, their hormonal levels (this is true of both testosterone and estrogen) will be lower, not higher, throughout life. Then, as they get older, the percentage of decline will be less dramatic. Additionally, since the body is accustomed to lower than average levels for all those years, the hormonal receptors are increased in number, so the effects of the age-related decline in hormones are hardly noticed.

While the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has approved testosterone therapy for men who suffer from hypogonadism, a condition in which the body makes very little testosterone, it has not passed it for other uses. Their concern is that, unless there is a profound testosterone deficiency, the disadvantages may outweigh the advantages. Yet this is not the way testosterone is being prescribed today. Doctors are prescribing testosterone for men who are experiencing a normal agerelated decline in testosterone in an attempt to enhance their virility and strength. It is rarely successful.

Testosterone replacement may be warranted in the very small subset of men with markedly decreased testosterone levels and symptoms or signs suggesting hypogonadism, and these individuals may experience an increase in the quality of their lives. But even they must be informed that the long-term safety of testosterone supplementation remains uncertain.

An Expensive Bad Habit

Real growth hormone is very expensive—treatment costs about $1,000 per month. It can stimulate growth in children, but children treated with growth hormone are more likely to develop diabetes and heart disease at younger ages.

Taking hormones cannot take the place of superior nutrition. The most effective way to maintain excellent health is to work to maintain your fitness and good health. People who exercise, stay fit, and maintain a lean body mass are less likely to see a dramatic reduction in growth hormone as they age.

Giving growth hormone to adults who are overweight and in poor physical condition has not been shown to significantly increase exercise capacity or reduce body weight. No studies have shown that taking growth hormone actually enhances or lengthens life.

It is vitally important that people know that growth hormone has been shown to raise blood pressure and serum glucose, increase insulin levels, and promote or worsen the tendency for diabetes. Higher insulin and glucose are well-established to speed aging and accelerate heart disease. Taking growth hormone for its slight muscle building properties seems foolish, at best, since raising your glucose level is very likely to shorten your life, not lengthen it.

All the e-mail spam promoting amino acids that supposedly increase natural secretion of growth hormone is nothing more than a scam. The claims that their products can build muscle, reduce body fat, improve sex life, enhance sleep quality, improve vision, restore hair growth and color, and turn back your biological clock are false. The only claim they make that is accurate is that it won’t make you rich.

These marketers aren’t actually selling growth hormone. They are selling amino acids (arginine) that they falsely claim will raise growth hormone levels. Intravenous arginine, not oral arginine, can raise growth hormone slightly—for less than an hour, but even this rise is insignificant. These products are just fakes. Fortunately, because they don’t raise growth hormone levels, they are unlikely to be as dangerous as if they actually did.

The best anti-aging medicine is superior nutrition in conjunction with regular exercise. The good news is you can get this without a prescription; the bad news is you actually have to earn good health— you just can’t buy it.

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