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Growth hormone, or somatotropin, is a hormone needed for proper growth and development. While it has many health benefits, an excess amount of this hormone can cause health problems as well. Read below to learn about its pros and cons.
GH is synthesized and secreted by a brain region called the anterior pituitary gland. Its secretion is primarily controlled by two hormones: GH-releasing hormone (GHRH) and somatostatin. GHRH stimulates the release of GH into the bloodstream, while somatostatin inhibits it .
GH is secreted episodically. Because it has multiple important functions other than promoting growth, this hormone is secreted during all stages of life. GH secretion :
- Is low during childhood but increases slightly until puberty
- Is greatly increased during puberty until it decreases in late adolescence
- Remains stable until approximately 30 years old in age
- Progressively declines from 30 years old on
When released, GH travels from the anterior pituitary gland to the liver and cartilages via the bloodstream and binds to its receptor, growth hormone receptor (GHR), which triggers the production of insulin-like factor 1 (IGF-1). Both GH and IGF-1 are needed to simulate normal growth [1, 3].
It also increases the transport of amino acids into muscles to promote muscle fiber growth and distribution .
In another trial on 16 healthy people over 60 years old, GH sped up protein synthesis in the muscles and increased muscle mass and strength .
For this reason, athletes and bodybuilders commonly use GH as a performance-enhancing drug .
Conversely, people with GH deficiency typically show reduced muscle mass and strength compared to those with normal levels .
Acromegaly is a condition caused by an excess of GH. People with acromegaly have large muscles, but their mass doesn’t match their strength due to an uneven composition of the muscles that hinders power output .
GH increases the basal metabolic rate (BMR), which is the amount of energy consumed while at rest. In a small trial on 7 people, GH deficiency was accompanied by low BMR that could be corrected by supplying the hormone. GH also reduced body fat and increased fat-free mass .
GH supplementation increased fat breakdown in a clinical trial on 24 obese people .
Both children and adults with GH deficiency have increased fat buildup, especially in the belly. GH supplementation helps burn this fat and redistribute it throughout the body .
GH is involved in the regulation of fertility and has been used in treatments to manage infertility in both genders, especially in women .
In addition to the pituitary gland, the ovaries also produce GH. Together with IGF-1 and GHRH, it increases the sensitivity of the ovaries to gonadotropin stimulation and enhances follicular development .
GH helps in follicular growth and its supplementation is one of the treatments used for ovarian stimulation in assisted reproductive technologies. GH has been shown to improve pregnancy rates in selected cases .
GH also enhances aromatase and 3-β-hydrogenase activity, thus increasing the conversion of androgen into estrogens in females. This effect occurs through a direct and IGF-I-mediated mechanism. GH, IGF-1, and IGF-2 all affect the maturation of the follicle and egg as well .
Supplementation with GH increased the rate of tissue regeneration and wound healing in a clinical trial on 46 children with large burns .
GH increased the performance of the left ventricle in rats, thus increasing the force with which blood is pumped throughout the body and reducing the risk of heart failure. This hormone also decreased blood vessel resistance, thus increasing blood flow and oxygen supply .
GH has multiple effects on the immune system. It causes the proliferation of white blood cells and regulates antibody production by B cells, thymulin secretion by the thymus, and natural killer, engulfment (phagocytosis), and oxidative burst capacity of white blood cells (neutrophils and macrophages) [25, 26].
However, GH deficiency doesn’t seem to affect the immune system drastically. In humans, it’s not associated with immunodeficiency and only minor abnormalities in immune functions have been reported .
The hypersecretion of GH (mostly due to benign tumors in the pituitary gland) results in a condition called acromegaly. Acromegaly is characterized by skeletal deformities (such as jaw overgrowth, skull expansion, and eyebrow bulging), soft tissue swelling (resulting in enlargement of the hands, feet, nose, lips, ears, and some organs), and thick, rough, oily skin [28, 29].
Under pathological conditions of GH excess, it can cause increased glucose production, decreased muscle glucose uptake, and rising blood glucose levels, thus increasing the risk of type 2 diabetes .
In a small clinical trial on 8 people treated with GH for short bowel syndrome, swelling of the lower limbs occurred in all patients during the treatment .
Joint hypermobility syndrome is a genetic disorder that affects the joints and causes pain and exhaustion. In a study on 31 people with this condition and matched controls, joint and muscle pain was associated with high blood GH levels .
GH has been suggested to have the potential to induce cancer due to its ability to stimulate cell proliferation. Anecdotally, a man and his wife developed skin cancer while using topical GH as an anti-aging supplement .
So far, however, no studies have found a direct relationship between GH and cancer .
The most important thing is to work with your doctor to determine what underlying condition is causing your low GH levels and establish if you need GH therapy. The additional strategies below are other measures that you may try as an add-on to your treatment regime if you and your doctor determine that they could be appropriate.
Exercising is a very potent stimulator of GH secretion. Both aerobic and resistance exercise results in a significant increase in GH secretion, being its level correlated with exercise intensity [42, 43].
Given its multiple health benefits, it’s always a good idea to do more exercise. Although it may be less effective at promoting GH secretion, moderate exercise is more beneficial to overall health.
GH secretion increases during sleep, especially during the slow-wave stage .
Getting a good night’s sleep is always a good idea if you want to achieve optimal health. Avoid sleep deprivation and be cautious of anyone selling you the idea that you can sleep for less than 6 hours and still be healthy.
Eating dinner some hours before going to bed may help you prevent this effect.
Because stress has many negative effects on overall health, it’s always a good idea to reduce it. You can avoid stressful triggers as much as possible and change what your body perceives as stress by deep-breathing exercises and meditation.
The following dietary interventions may also help raise your blood GH levels. Remember to talk to your doctor and never follow a strict diet without supervision.
Fasting stimulates GH secretion, as seen in a small study on 6 men. Remember to talk to your doctor before implementing fasting and carefully follow their recommendations to prevent malnourishment and other potential adverse effects .
The following supplements have been shown to stimulate GH secretion in clinical trials:
- Vitamin A 
- Arginine and ornithine [51, 52]
- Melatonin 
- Glycine 
- Supplements that promote ghrelin secretion 
- Acetylcholine 
- Thyroid hormones (T3) 
Remember that these supplements are not approved by the FDA to increase GH levels. Supplements generally lack solid clinical research. Regulations set manufacturing standards for them but don’t guarantee that they’re safe or effective. Speak with your doctor before supplementing.
As in the previous case, the most important thing is to work with your doctor to determine the cause of your high GH levels. Your doctor may prescribe surgery/radiation therapy to remove pituitary tumors or drugs that block GH release (such as somatostatin).
Below, we will discuss some diets that may help you lower your blood GH levels when used as an add-on to your treatment regime. Remember to discuss it with your doctor before implementing any drastic changes in your diet. Carefully follow your doctor’s recommendations to avoid nutrient deficiencies and any adverse effects associated with unsupervised diets.