Growth hormone has been highly sought after for years, being coined the "true fountain of youth" for its ability to supposedly slow aging in some circles. Indeed, this hormone serves a number of critical functions in the body, and it would serve you well to ensure that you optimize the natural production of this hormone.
But, like everything else that seems too good to be true, there is a dark side of growth hormone as well, one that is experienced by athletes looking to gain that competitive edge and abusing it.
Hopefully, you do not find yourself in that position. Harnessed the right way, it can do wonders for the body.
Don't know much about this hormone? Relax, we've got you covered. Let's take a trip into the world of growth hormone.
What is Human Growth Hormone?
In a nutshell, growth hormone is a peptide hormone that is produced in the anterior pituitary gland of the brain. Also known as somatotropin, this hormone serves many functions, such as regulating sleep patterns, assisting with recovery, and even fat loss.
It is different from other hormones which are typically made from cholesterol, as it is peptide-based (made from amino acids). This is why you might sometimes see it being referred to as a peptide instead of a hormone.
Production of this hormone peaks during puberty, and slowly declines as we age. This creates a dilemma for adults who are looking to maximize their muscle gains from weight training, as the level of this hormone will diminish with age.
There are also extremes to the normal distribution of this hormone, in which there might be under or overproduction. When there is a deficiency of this hormone, it can cause stunted growth and delayed puberty due to the fact that it does play such an important role in those things.
On the other hand, an excess of it leads to acromegaly and gigantism, which is characterized by thickening of the bones and growth of tissues like the hands, feet, and face. This usually occurs because this hormone tells your liver to produce another hormone called insulin-like growth factor (IGF), which we call a growth-promoting hormone.
Most cases of growth hormone overproduction are related to the presence of a pituitary tumor that causes more than necessary growth hormone to be released into the bloodstream, where it goes to work on the liver to increase IGF-1 production.
A little known fact is that IGF-1 is actually the real growth-promoting mediator and not HGH itself, with it being one of the most anabolic hormones on the planet.
Benefits Of Growth Hormone On The Body
Without question, growth hormone has prominent benefits on the body. Most notably:
Reduction of Fat Mass
It is one of the most potent fat-burning agents we know of. HGH is able to bring about significant weight loss via its actions on increasing lipolysis (fat utilization) and inhibiting lipogenesis (fat storage).
Interestingly, being overweight or obese is associated with decreased secretion of HGH, so many people have trouble losing weight, not because of a lack of discipline, but perhaps because their body isn't producing enough HGH.
It actually creates a perfect negative feedback loop- fat loss is impaired because of a growth hormone deficiency, and low levels in turn are synthesized because of the excessive fat.
Increased Muscle Mass
Growth hormone is considered an anabolic hormone, which is why in the form of synthetic human growth hormone it has been abused by athletes for decades to help them gain muscle.
HGH actually increases the number of amino acids being carried into muscles cells, thus resulting in more protein synthesis. Most of these effects are mediated by IGF-1, a strong anabolic peptide hormone that is triggered by GH itself.
Growth hormone is also anti-catabolic, this is to say that it reduces processes associated with breakdown. This makes it very helpful to preserve lean muscle mass when you are unable to train, but supports why it is placed amongst the class of performance enhancing drugs.
Increased Bone Mass Density
Many people are deficient in growth hormone as they get older, so this leads to loss of bone density and osteoporosis, but increasing growth hormone production is one way to reverse this process.
Women, in particular, are more prone to this occurring as they lose the protective effect that estrogen has on bone tissue post-menopause.
Improved Cognitive Function
Because HGH plays a role in the production of IGF-1, which is critical for brain development and plasticity, it helps improve cognitive function as well as enhance mood.
In fact, even in people who previously experienced a traumatic or ischemic brain episode, HGH was able to restore at least some amount of cognitive function.
Accelerated Recovery After Injury
HGH is a powerful mediator that helps with the production of other anabolic hormones such as testosterone and IGF-1. After an injury, having optimal levels of all these growth-promoting factors will speed up the recovery process, because they serve as regulators for tissue synthesis.
Specifically, HGH works by stimulating cells to produce cytokines and chemokines which actually trigger cell division or migration to accelerate the healing process. It has also been shown to promote angiogenesis- the production of new blood vessels, which is critical in rebuilding damaged tissue.
One study review looked at the effects of administering human growth hormone on subjects who suffered from atrophy of the tendon muscle following a period of extended inactivity. It was found that after 6 weeks of retraining, subjects demonstrated increases in cross-sectional area of tendons, as well as improved stiffness.(1)
Stiffness is a necessary prerequisite to ensure that the tendon can offer support when load is borne by the muscle.
Bone Repair Too
Similarly, growth hormone plays a very important role in injury to bone tissue, such as fractures. Optimal levels accelerate recovery as well as ensure the structural integrity of the bone matrix is achieved.
Many people refer to growth hormone as "the fountain of youth", as previously alluded to, and to a degree this is true. Aging is associated with a drastic drop in the levels of this hormone, which in turn, causes an accelerated decline in the turnover of all cell types.
Growth hormone is involved in cellular repair and rejuvenation, helping fix cellular damage that occurs- to an extent. Yes, it can have an effect on slowing down the rapid decline that occurs as we age, but many other things- telomere length, for example, also dictate how long replication can go on.
Finally, there is a limit to how much GH your body can produce at certain age ranges, which is a major determinant unless you plan on using exogenous GH (risky).
How To Naturally Increase Growth Hormone Levels
There are several ways to naturally increase growth hormone levels, as well as improve other hormones that work in a synergistic manner. These include:
The stress hormone cortisol can have a serious adverse effect on growth hormone levels. Cortisol, referred to as a catabolic hormone, is the opposite of anabolic growth hormone. When we are under long-term stress and cortisol production is high, it can lower or even block HGH release.
Subsequently, GH levels remain low and this impairs many aspects of health such as fat loss, muscle gain, and neurogenesis. Do your best to reduce the impact of stress on your life. This can mean a few minutes of meditation daily, or using smart anti-catabolic foods and supplements- think amino acids and slow-digesting carbs.
Exercise can also yield a strong anabolic stimulus to counteract the impact of cortisol and will actually enhance recovery.
A very effective way to boost the natural production of HGH, according to multiple studies that have been conducted on the subject.
HGH levels rose by over 300 percent after only three days of fasting, according to one study. After a week of fasting, their HGH levels had increased by 1,250%(2). This is an absolutely massive increase!
Fasting in itself is a great way to increase it as well, but it is unsustainable. That is why intermittent fasting is the way to go. Decreasing your calories will contribute to weight loss, which is one way to naturally increase production, but there is the added benefit of insulin control.
Growth hormone synthesis is reduced in the presence of insulin, so by fasting, we can also decrease that and increase secretion.
Feel free to try any version of fasting you are comfortable with, such as the 16/8 method, or longer if you are able to.
Are you surprised to see sleep on a list of ways to boost a hormone that is all about growth and recovery?
Yes, the majority of natural growth hormone is released in short pulses while you sleep. This is why you need sleep to recover after training, from an injury, or to just heal the normal day-to-day wear and tear that we endure.
Sadly, this is easier said than done for many of us.
Silence your phone and tivo, shut off the TV, power down all devices at least one hour before bedtime. Turn your room into a cave by making it completely dark. Wear earplugs to make it even quieter if needed, or wear an eye mask to block out visual stimuli.
Minimize stress, find a hobby that does not involve a screen, and just unwind for a bit before bedtime.
If you still find this insufficient, give dietary supplements containing melatonin a try. Melatonin is able to enhance growth hormone production via a different mechanism than growth hormone-releasing hormone, making it indispensable if you think you have a problem with triggering natural release.
Eat Low Carb Before Bed
As you might have observed from the little trifle between insulin and growth hormone previously mentioned, they don't play very well.
In general, anytime you consume carbohydrates, but especially fast-digesting sugars, the subsequent spike in insulin impairs growth hormone release.
This can end up being really bad when you eat a lot of carbohydrates at the times that coincide with the highest GH peaks.
This means just before midnight, and early morning before you wake up. Of course, this is assuming that everyone follows a typical sleep-wake circadian rhythm and does not account for changes to the sleep cycle.
A good plan is to consume a high protein type meal before bed, but individual differences do exist within protein types. For instance, gelatin, or types of hydrolyzed collagen are superior in their ability to yield GH release. Whey does this as well, but not to the same degree.
This might also offer some supporting evidence into how collagen proteins are advised to support the health of joint tissue.
Is there a coincidence why athletes train at a high intensity in the search for more muscle and strength? With the quest to become stronger, faster, and leaner always on the front burner, it makes sense that intensity techniques have to yield the desired results, or they would just fall to the wayside.
This intensity can come from weight training or sprint intervals. However, keep in mind that in order to yield the most from exercise, it must be done frequently, as the pulse is short-lived (but nevertheless, significant).
The peri-workout period is also the most forgiving time to consume carbohydrates without any deleterious effect on growth hormone release.
The Darkside Of Growth Hormone
Growth hormone might seem like the end-all to life's problems, but there is a major caveat. In addition to its restorative and rejuvenating actions, it causes growth. Of virtually all cell types. This can mean increased risk of growth of various cancers (which originate as cells that refuse to undergo programmed death), to acromegaly (continuous growth of bone tissue in areas that should not grow, such as bones of the face).
Excessive growth of organs is another real and scary possibility, evidenced by the bloated gut some professional athletes display while competing.
The Growth Hormone Fast Action Hitlist
If you're looking for the fast action guide to get your GH levels optimized naturally, this is it:
- Go low carb before bed
- Use a scoop of protein powder before sleep (collagen, preferably)
- Sleep enough (and ideally, early)
- Go for the occasional fast
- Train intensely (HIIT, limited rest)
- Meditate, if necessary
- Use melatonin if you deal with insomnia
Growth hormone is just one of the many building blocks that can be manipulated to yield superior health and athletic performance.
Yes, it is smart to optimize it to the limits that your body is capable of, but at the same time don't develop the illusion that it is all that matters.
Aim to be functionally fit, in all aspects of your life, not just the physical ones. This line of thought will help you remain in good health for a long time to come.
(1)Boesen AP, Dideriksen K, Couppé C, et al. Effect of growth hormone on aging connective tissue in muscle and tendon: gene expression, morphology, and function following immobilization and rehabilitation. J Appl Physiol (1985). 2014;116(2):192-203. doi:10.1152/japplphysiol.01077.2013
(2)Kerndt PR, Naughton JL, Driscoll CE, Loxterkamp DA. Fasting: the history, pathophysiology and complications. West J Med. 1982;137(5):379-399.