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How I Fixed My Exercise, Got Lean, and Rocked My Growth Hormone (IGF-1)

SGrunningFRONTFirst the bold news: I hacked my growth hormone with exercise and raised it 53%. But allow me to back up so we can put this in context. What Is Growth Hormone? Growth hormone is a misunderstood stress hormone that raises the level of glucose in your blood, and stimulates the production of an important protein called Insulin-Like Growth Factor-1 (IGF-1). You can have too much or too little. Too much can make you have a thick jaw, fingers, and toes—not pretty. (Deficiency can also be linked to that unfortunate situation of growth hormone resistance.) Too little affects your variably depending on your age, but most adults find they get more fat, lose muscle mass, decreased energy, and quality of life. Also not pretty. I was feeling that way: fat, frumpy, and zombie like. Learn more about your fountain o' youth hormone in my previous blog (and since it's too low in most folks in middle age - learn 5 tips to boost it). Connection between Growth Hormone and IGF-1 Short version: it's easier to measure your IGF-1 than growth hormone. So I did just that. Think of IGF-1 as a proxy for your body's growth hormone level. Wait, Wait - Is Growth Hormone BAD? Great question - as with most hormones, you want just the right amount: not too much, and not too little. You can track your IGF-1 like I did to get your own Goldilocks position. You may have read some recent press from CNN on how meat raises IGF-1 and may cause cancer. This is really a tired and oversimplified argument. I believe the IGF-1/cancer link may relate to mainstream, toxic, and inflammatory meat, but not to the anti-inflammatory meat that I favor for my tribe. For a more balanced view (and march through the evidence), check out Brian Rigby's excellent article on IGF-1 and cancer at Peertrainer.com. Good stuff! Results Just IN! My growth hormone climbed from a respectable level of 219 last year to 334 ng/ml, as measured by IGF-1 in my blood. Even with my agro lifestyle of completing my latest paperback book with Simon and Schuster — called The Hormone Cure — plus running my semi-annual detox, and trying to be a good enough mom and wife to my family of four, I leveraged the most important hormone associated with aging to vaulted heights of elite athletes with minimal exercise. Twenty minutes, four days per week, to be exact. Let me explain.

Growth Hormone Back Story

I've been exercising for years. Not because I love it but because I need it for my brain and weight. I need the serotonin boost. Exercise is my ritalin for my ADD-fortysomething brain. Exercise is my Zoloft for my tendency toward depression. Even though I believe that food accounts for 70% of your issues with weight, exercise is an important piece. And growth hormone, along with my BFF, cortisol, determines how much fat you deposit on your belly, your confidence, your sense of inner peace (who doesn't want more of that?), your ability to multitask, your stress tolerance, your capacity for deep sleep.

My Benchmark

I started tracking my growth hormone level a few years back, as IGF-1. It holds a sacred spot in my neuro-endocrine dashboard as one of my top 10 items to track. My IGF-1 in March, 2011 was 241 ng/ml. At that time, a friend suggested a supplement that is supposed to raise growth hormone, and I had my doubts. After all, I'm a Harvard/MIT- educated physician scientist, and I'm a serious skeptic especially when it comes to supplements and neuroendocrine biohacking. You can take the girl out of the lab, but you can't take the lab out of the girl. Like a dutiful n=1 experimenter, I ordered the magic supplement, and measured my baseline growth hormone. I was at 241, and then I took the supplement, which shall remain nameless, for 6 weeks and retested. My growth hormone went down, to 219 ng/ml. Goodbye, magic supplement. You may ask about other independent variables that mediate growth hormone, and nothing gladdens my heart like that question. I tested at the same time in my menstrual cycle. My food plan was exactly the same. My stress level was about the same (high! and high cortisol lowers growth hormone). My exercise, at the time, was held constant, with yoga daily for 30 minutes, Dailey Method twice per week for one hour, and running for 25 to 60 minutes twice per week. Grand total 380 to 400 minutes of exercise per week, or 6 to 7 hours.

"Even with my agro lifestyle, I leveraged the most important hormone associated with aging to vaulted heights of elite athletes with minimal exercise. Twenty minutes, four days per week, to be exact." - Dr. Sara

Meet Biohacker XX (Double X for a Girl Biohacker)

I've always loved interval training, and have done as advised by thought leaders like Mark Hyman to exercise like a caveman. In December while hanging with friends in Hong Kong, I got turned onto Sprint 8, a system for high intensity interval training (HIIT) that's super efficient with eight rounds of burst training interspersed with recovery at your usual moderate level of exercise. As a fellow biohacker who draws inspiration from the work of geniuses like Tim Ferriss and Dave Asprey, I was intrigued. Would Sprint 8 work well for women? Given that I was on book tour and had very little time to exercise, I decided to design another n=1 experiment. I cut back on exercise and stuck with Sprint 8 as either a running protocol or an eliptical protocol (rare). I began to do Sprint 8 four times per week.

Exercise for the Anti-Cheerleader

As I confided a few weeks back, I'm not one of those rah-rah exercise girls. It took a major mindset shift for me to get exercise regularly in my life, and to hack the best place, frequency, and duration for the matrix of my body. (If you missed that post, please click here and let me know your thoughts!) You could take it a step further and say that I'm the anti-cheerleader. When people ask me if I was a cheerleader in high school, I try to breathe and stay non reactive, because clearly the person asking has no idea of my personality and behavioral traits. I'm not a joiner. I'm not a group person. I love to tinker in the lab of my home office with grand theories of the human body and how to live a better life. I love dialogue, but usually one-on-one or one-on-six, or even one-on-twenty as we had at a recent Passover Seder at our home in the Berkeley Hills. But cheering on a crowd? Uh, no. Not for me. When it comes to exercise, I love the more solitary experiences: running, dancing, walks in nature. Yes, nothing makes me happier than my weekly jog with my dear friend, Dr. Jo Ilfeld. Bonus prize is that she is a brilliant coach, and while we've agreed not to take on each other as clients, we can't help but laser coach each other on occasion. But I digress. Starting last December, I began experimenting with Sprint 8.

Lather, Rinse, Repeat

Here's my Biohacker XX Sprint 8 Protocol. I began in February to perform Sprint 8 four times per week, and nothing else.
  • Jog at moderate pace for 3 to 5 minutes. I have a genetic tendency toward an achilles injury, so I warm up for 5 minutes and stretch my achilles briefly. For me, the pace is a 12 minute mile or 5mph on a treadmill.
  • Sprint all out for 30 seconds, so hard you can't go more than 30 seconds.
  • Recover for 75 to 90 seconds. If you have trouble with math and/or have more time to spare, I encourage 90 seconds.
  • Lather, rinse, repeat. Repeat the sprint for a total of 8 cycles. (Currently, I'm researching if 5 to 7 cycles are enough to maintain my progress.)
  • Cool down at your moderate pace. Done, Baby.
I didn't get serious and consistent about this until February, 2012. Then after 6 weeks of committed Sprint 8 Protocol four times per week, I retested my Growth Hormone.

Growth Hormone Rose 53 percent

I like it. My body fat is lower. My waist is thinning. Weight about the same, but my lean body mass is higher, which is a key biomarker of de-aging. Sprint 8. Good for the Biohacking Man, and good for the Biohacking XX. Want to learn more about my research into growth hormone? Learn more about your fountain-of-youth hormone right here.  Check out my article on 7 strategies to optimize your growth hormone. Gotta go sprint!
Dr Sara GottfriedSara Gottfried, M.D. Sara Gottfried, M.D. teaches women how to balance their hormones naturally so they can rock their mission. She is a Harvard-educated physician, speaker and New York Times bestselling author of  The Hormone Cure (Simon & Schuster, 2013). She is board-certified in Obstetrics and Gynecology, and is regularly featured in magazines such as Cosmopolitan, Glamour, Redbook, O Magazine, and Yoga Journal, and TV including The Ricki Lake Show and 20/20. Known for effortlessly blending the seriousness of women’s health with playfulness and humor, Dr. Sara’s mission is to help women lose weight, feel great and vital from their cells to their soul.


Sara Gottfried MD replied on Dec 29, 2015

I do Sprint 8 four times per week, Sadie. Thanks for reading and engaging! Xoxo Dr Sara

Sadie replied on Dec 29, 2015

Love to see you writing about the hormonal response to exercise! Did you do this workout twice a week?

Sara Gottfried MD replied on Dec 29, 2015

Jo, for precious time with you, I am happy to put the sprint on hold! xoxo

Eleanore Duyndam replied on Dec 29, 2015

Hi Sara,
I just started doing Peak 8 (Dr. Mercola’s version of the same thing, basically) just 2 weeks ago. I do mine on an elliptical at a gym because I have never been athletic or exercised much in my life, and I’m being careful about not injuring myself. I would like to get my growth hormone measured to measure the effects. Do you have any words of advice about the best way to get an accurate reading of HGH levels?

Jo Ilfeld replied on Dec 29, 2015

Great post about interval training. I’ve been doing more of it but inspiring to see that 4 times a week has really made a difference to you. Maybe I’ll ramp up my intervals. Still can’t give up on the slower Sunday jog though. Hard to talk doing sprints! xoxo – Jo

Sara Gottfried MD replied on Dec 29, 2015

You can totally do it on an exercise bike. For some reason, I can’t get my heartrate up super high (or “sprint”) on an exercise bike, but I can on an eliptical machine or with running. But if you can go all out on the bike, that should work!

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