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More teens taking synthetic growth hormones: dangers abound

Synthetic growth hormone is readily available to teens
Synthetic growth hormone is readily available to teens

A new survey from the Partnership for Drug-Free Kids has found that 11% of the 3,705 teens participating in their survey report “having used” synthetic human growth hormones (HGH) without a prescription, up dramatically from just 5 percent in 2012. One in five teens reported knowing at least one friend who uses a performance-enhancing drug. Why are teens turning to human growth hormones? Many of the answers lie in pressures for teens to achieve the “perfect body,” and the belief that growth hormones can help in this quest.

What are synthetic human growth hormones?

Synthetic human growth hormone was developed in 1985, and FDA approved for very specific uses in children and adults. In children, HGH injections are approved for treating short stature of unknown cause as well as poor growth due to a number of medical causes. But the most common uses for HGH are not FDA-approved. Some people use the hormone, as well as other performance-enhancing drugs such as anabolic steroids, to build muscle and improve athletic performance.

There is also the belief that synthetic HGH promotes weight loss. While there have been few small studies have linked HGH injections with fat loss and muscle gain, the changes seen were minimal — just a few pounds — while the risks were substantial.

HGH is not approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for weight loss, experts further warn.

Interest in using HGH for weight loss originated with 1990 New England Journal of Medicine study that showed injections of synthetic HGH resulted in 8.8% gain in muscle mass and 14% loss in body fat without any change in diet or exercise. Most subsequent studies, however, have shown no such benefit.

In March 2003, the New England Journal of Medicine denounced the misuse of the 1990 study, pointing out that subsequent reports provide no reason to be optimistic. Despite this, this 1990 study is still being used to promote Internet sales of HGH for weight loss.

HGH supplements in capsule form are also readily available on the Internet. The ads tout irresistible benefits. Says one: “HGH (Human Growth Hormone) therapy isn’t just an option, but an essential element for fitness, linked to amazing physiological enhancements: increased lean muscle mass, reduced body fat, greater endurance and faster recovery, as well as improvements in mood, sleep, skin tone and sex drive, among other positive effects.” Such claims are misleading and dangerous.

Pressures to be thin and “fit”

Although this generation of high schoolers is more aware of the dangers of eating disorders, the pressures to be thin do not seem to be decreasing. According to a 2010 Reuters survey, almost nine in 10 American teenage girls say they feel pressured to be thin. These pressures often result in unhealthy dieting practices and eating disorders. The increase in HGH use, however, may reflect that such pressures have increased in boys as well.

A 2011 study of 10,123 adolescents ranging from 13- to 18-years-old found that rates of 0.3%, met clinical criteria for anorexia, 0.9% for bulimia and 1.6% for binge eating disorder. The study also found than an additional 3.3% had “sub-threshold” anorexia or bulimia, meaning that they demonstrated many symptoms of these diagnoses. The median ages for onset eating was about 12- to 13-years-old.

The study yielded some surprises. The teens with eating disorders demonstrated significant functional impairment and suicidality. Additionally there was not the gender gap previously found with either anorexia or bulimia.

According to the National Eating Disorder Association, males comprise approximately 10% of eating disordered individuals coming to the attention of mental health professionals. This number is likely very low due to the fact that many males with eating disorders are not identified or do not seek treatment. Male athletes (gymnasts, runners, body builders, wrestlers, etc.) are at particular risk.

There are also some differences in why males develop eating disorders. A sample of 1,373 high school students revealed that girls (63%) were four times more likely than boys (16%) to be attempting to reduce weight through exercise and caloric intake reduction. Boys were three times more likely than girls to be trying to gain weight (28% versus 9%). The cultural ideal for body shape for men versus women continues to favor slender women and athletic, V-shaped muscular men, making young men especially vulnerable to inducements such as HGH supplements.

Dangers of synthetic HGH

While synthetic HGH does have legitimate uses, there are dangers associated with its use. There are no real studies on what happens when teens take HGH to lose weight.

According to WebMD, possible side effects of HGH use include:

  • nerve, muscle, or joint pain
  • swelling due to fluid in the body's tissues (edema)
  • carpal tunnel syndrome
  • numbness and tingling of the skin
  • high cholesterol levels

HGH can also increase the risk of diabetes and contribute to the growth of cancerous tumors.

Teens obtaining the drug illicitly may not know they are really getting. Because of the high cost, HGH drugs have been counterfeited. Even those available from legitimate sources are risky.

Education is important

This study is an important one for educators, parents and others who support our youth. “We know that the win-at-all costs culture in sport and in society as a whole has a direct impact on the health and well-being of young people,” said Travis T. Tygart, CEO of the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency. “The results of this study further demonstrate the importance of educating young people, their parents and coaches on the risks associated with the use of performance-enhancing drugs, and the need to protect young people from those who would prey on them as easy marketing targets.”

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