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“It’s like someone stole my joie de vivre,” she began, releasing a sigh of frustration. “I feel like Sisyphus, constantly pushing that damn rock up the hill. I often find myself either anxiety-ridden or sobbing.I understand why my husband doesn’t want to have sex with me anymore: look at my sagging body! What happened to me? I used to be so youthful, and now…” As her voice trailed off, I immediately recognized my 42-year-old client’s symptoms. Sure enough, her tests showed low levels of growth hormone (GH). Rather than opt for replacement therapy, she asked me for ways to naturally boost her GH levels. Six months later we retested. Her GH levels had nearly doubled with the five strategies I’ll discuss later. First, let’s discuss why optimal GH levels become so important for fat loss, libido, wellbeing, and so much more as you grow older.
Like A Giant Wrecking Ball Ruining Your Life…Growth hormone (GH) made you became taller as a child. As an adult, it does lots of other things, including increased bone mineralization and muscle mass, protein synthesis, cellular growth, and fat breakdown. GH is an anabolic hormone: it likes to build things and break things down. When everything’s in check, GH works harmoniously with your hormones cortisol and adrenaline to burn fat and build muscle. Trouble starts when hormones become unruly or your body stops making sufficient GH. Studies show impaired GH levels can increase fat, break down muscle, decrease energy, and generally make your life miserable. Another study in the journal Clinical Endocrinology found adults with GH deficiency suffer social isolation, emotional instability, and a crappy sex life compared with folks with normal GH levels. Oh, it gets worse. Classic GH-deficiency symptoms include:
- Reduced lean body mass
- Increased abdominal obesity
- Increased insulin resistance, leading to type 2 diabetes
- Decreased muscle mass
- Hypertension (high blood pressure)
- High triglycerides
- Anxiety and depression
- Decreased bone density
When Good Hormones Go BadLet’s get this out of the way. Your body naturally makes less GH as you age. No debate. At the same time, let’s stop blaming everything on age: when GH decreases, you grow older. That puts you in the driver’s seat: you have a sacred opportunity to turn your sinking vessel around and keep GH in the happy zone. One study in The Journal of Clinical Endocrinology and Metabolism found that yes, GH declines as you age. Researchers found something far more interesting: abdominal fat played more of a factor in GH decline than age. Physical activity also determined GH levels. Chronic stress also knocks GH out of whack by elevating cortisol. Your body’s equipped to handle a little stress: that hyper-alert shot of cortisol probably saved your ancestors’ lives when a wooly mammoth chased them for lunch. It might also save you when someone swerves into your lane on the freeway. When cortisol and GH work together as a team, amazing things happen. You become lean, toned, vibrant, and sexy. Cortisol is a Jekyll-and-Hyde hormone: it’s not supposed to always be on, but that’s exactly what happens when you’re constantly stressed. Once cortisol gets a taste of its own power, its jealous alter ego wreaks havoc on other hormones like insulin and GH. With elevated insulin levels and inadequate GH, cortisol becomes a power-hungry teenager left alone on a weekend binge. You arrive home after a blissful weekend away to find the house trashed. When cortisol becomes that unruly teenager, your body starts burning muscle and storing fat. One study found overweight adolescent girls with high cortisol and low GH stored more belly fat and increased insulin resistance, setting the stage for obesity and diabetes. A vicious cycle ensues. Your cortisol levels stay revved up at night so you don’t sleep, which means you don’t make GH. Studies also show even one night of poor sleep increases your risk for obesity, insulin resistance, and diabetes. Couple stress, poor sleep, and inadequate GH levels with a high-sugar, high-processed food diet, and you’ve got surefire formula to feel lousy, lethargic, and unsexy.
Weighing Replacement Risks and BenefitsReplacement therapy has become a popular way to replenish GH levels. Benefits sound enticing: decreased fat, more muscle, improved bone density, and increased wellbeing. Sign me up, right? GH replacement has a long history for kids with growth deficiencies. One recent study found therapy for children with Prader-Willi syndrome – a condition that includes short stature and chronically being hungry – could improve cognition and reduce morbidity. Replacement therapy benefits greatly outnumber any risks for these kids. Adults are a different story. Secretropin® is the first clinically studied GH stimulator, available through your endocrinologist as a sublingual spray. Since its development over 12 years ago, clinical medicine and lab results show Secretropin® can raise your GH markers an impressive 50 – 550%. Injections can also help optimize GH levels. Genotropin®, approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for adults with GH deficiencies, is an injectable GH similar to the hormone your body makes. A systematic review in the European Journal of Endocrinology found short-term treatment for GH-deficient patients well tolerated, but with variable metabolic and cardiovascular effects in the bigger picture. That’s where I become concerned: we have very few long-term studies to justify prolonged treatment, and an endocrinologist must continuously monitor potential risks with GH replacement. Among those risks include swelling, numbness, and more concerning, increased risk for diabetes and cancerous tumors. Injections can also inhibit your body from naturally making GH, leaving you with a lifelong dependence on injections. Then there’s cost. Including doctor visits, you could easily spend $8,000 - $10,000 a year on GH injections. Have we learned nothing from prescribing synthetic estrogen and progesterone to women for 57 years without substantial evidence? While I understand why someone might consider GH injections, after 20 years seeing patients, I’ve learned providing the right resources for your body to make hormones providesfar safer long-term benefits than prescribing suppressive doses of bio-identical hormones.
5 Strategies to Naturally Boost GHBack to my 42-year-old patient’s question: how can she (and you) naturally increase GH levels? Before you do anything, you might consider a GH stimulation test, which measures your pituitary gland’s ability to release GH. Fair warning: this is not a quick, easy test. Your doctor will draw your blood five times, though you’ll only get poked once; the subsequent four samples will come from your already-hooked-up IV line every 30 minutes. Doctors perform this test early in the morning, after you’ve fasted and abstained from physical activity for 10 – 12 hours, since exercise and other factors can alter GH levels. You don’t need to test. If you suspect you have low levels, these five strategies can safely help optimize GH, boost fat loss, build lean muscle, and help get your sexy back:
- Dump the sweet stuff. Excess sugar keeps your hormone insulin cranked up, storing fat and decreasing GH. A study in the journal Metabolism found elevated insulin in obese people blunts GH release. Opt for a whole, unprocessed foods diet that includes plenty of clean protein, healthy fats, and high-fiber veggies, nuts and seeds, low-sugar fruit, and legumes.
- Spend more time in bed. Only during your deepest (stages 3 and 4) sleep can your body make GH. Studies prove this: one found young adults deficient in GH also had decreased amounts of deep sleep. Aim for eight hours of quality, uninterrupted sleep every night.
- Stress less. When stress – real or imagined – becomes chronic, so do cortisol levels, crashing GH levels and leaving you lethargic, cranky, and probablydevouring a low-fat muffin with your venti dark roast as a mid-afternoon pick-me-up. Find your bliss with a non-food reward. Yoga is mine; yours might be meditation, deep breathing, watching a dumb comedy, or walking your retriever around the block. Prioritize it (seriously: put it on your calendar) and treat stress management as mandatory rather than a luxury.
- Burst for growth. Studies show along with sleep, high-intensity interval training (HIIT) or burst training is your best prescription to naturally boost GH levels. Last year I did burst training and over a six-week period, increased GH a whopping 53%. My 42-year-old patient did a similar HIIT routine and also nearly doubled her GH levels.
- Melatonin. Maybe you used melatonin for jet lag or changing time zones, but studies show supplementing can also stimulate GH secretion. One in the Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition found 5 mg of melatonin nightly increased GH an impressive 157%. Combined with resistance exercise, that benefit became even greater.