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Robert E. Murphy

Robert E. Murphy

Posted: April 10, 2010 06:10 PM

Unlike Steroids, HGH Can Harm Without Helping

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When it became obvious a few years ago that the record-smashing performance of Barry Bonds was the biggest lie contributing to what Pete Hamill recently called "the filthy deception of steroids," I composed a limerick that rhymed the "fountain of youth" he had searched for with a phrase that located where he had found it: "a very long way from the truth."

As a New York Met fan forlornly watching their 2010 baseball season begin with the all-stars Carlos Beltran and Jose Reyes still missing from their lineup, I have been thinking again about filthy deception in baseball. But not so much about steroids as about that other illicit supplement favored by athletes, human growth hormone, or HGH. Both Beltran and Reyes, like another accomplished sportsman named Tiger Woods, have been associated with the Canadian physician Anthony Galea, who is a known proponent of HGH and other suspect substances and treatments for athletes. Downhearted but curious, I've begun to make inquiries about this hormone that has lately been so much in the news. And one of the things I've found out is that its popularity boomed about 20 years ago when the belief began to spread that this was the one elixir in all the world that could reverse the inconvenient process of aging -- that humankind need look no further for the fountain of youth.

I wondered, since steroids and HGH are so often mentioned in the same sentences, what their similarities and differences are? I've learned that while steroids do indeed enormously enhance athletic performance, HGH does not have nearly the same effect.

Unlike steroids, HGH duplicates a hormone that exists naturally in the human metabolism. It is a synthetic form of growth hormone, a substance produced by the pituitary gland and that, according to my medical dictionary, "regulates somatic [bodily] and skeletal growth." It is, therefore, most active in childhood and adolescence, but it continues to sustain adult tissues and organs. Its production, however, slows down in middle age. So to the Ponce de Leons of the our generations, it has followed logically that replacing the growth hormone that older adults no longer produce would restore their declining physical virtues. The next step was to assume that even younger adults would be strengthened and otherwise athletically enhanced by supplements of HGH.

The start of this thought process may have been a 1990 University of Wisconsin study in which a group of 60-year-old men were injected with HGH for six months. The general results were denser bones, larger muscles and less fat. A report on the study in the New England Journal of Medicine concluded that these outcomes set the subjects' body-clocks back 10-to-20 years. The magical words had been spoken.

Whatever improvements were achieved, however, appear to have been cosmetic. Although HGH may cause muscles to grow, it does not strengthen them. This was the conclusion of a later study (2003) discussed in the same New England Journal. The article also pointed to a different study that showed that exercise was far more effective than HGH for strengthening the muscles of older people. Then a 2008 Stanford University study reported in the Annals of Internal Medicine found that in athletes, too, growth-hormone injections increased muscle bulk but not strength, and in fact might be a cause of muscle fatigue and joint-pain. The Mayo Clinic website seems to incorporate such studies where it states that "increase in muscle" caused by HGH "doesn't translate into increased strength."

This information, none of which is new, is a great surprise to me and seems to be under-reported. It suggests that many athletes are so determined to treat their bodies with substances or practices that promise them competitive advantage that they are easily duped by empty nostrums and medical charlatans who offer them not only useless hormone supplements but also such dubious techniques as "blood-spinning."

The connection between steroid-use and bodily harm has been well-observed. The performance-boost that many athletes have achieved with their help has been followed by various injuries and sometimes career-ending physical breakdowns. (Can anyone tell me where Carlos Delgado has gone since he almost single-handedly thrust the Mets into the 2008 National League East pennant race?) And now it appears that HGH can also cause harm without ever having offered the same benefit as steroids. The possible side-effects mentioned by the Mayo Clinic are not only joint and muscle pain but also swelling of the limbs, male breast-enlargement and possible contributions to diabetes and heart disease.

The reason that Delgado's teammate, Jose Reyes, was not in the Mets' opening-day lineup after missing most of last season with a damaged hamstring is that tests revealed he had an overactive thyroid, which required recuperative rest. Among the several possible causes of hyperthyroidism are a high consumption of seafood and increased human growth hormone. I don't know what sidelined this enormously talented shortstop, but I'm guessing it wasn't fish.