Story Highlights• Human growth hormone used since 1950s to help children with growth problems
• 1990 study found HGH reduced fat, boosted lean muscle mass in men
• HGH among the drugs found in Anna Nicole Smith's body after she died
• HGH use for anti-aging is prohibited by law
By Caleb Hellerman
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ATLANTA, Georgia (CNN) -- Like many baby boomers over 50, Beth Lothamer was feeling her age.
"I just didn't feel good any more. I wasn't sleeping. I just didn't feel right," she said. She took her concerns to Kansas City, Kansas, endocrinologist, Dr. Jackie Springer, who prescribed replacement hormones, including a daily injection of human growth hormone, or HGH, after two rounds of blood testing.
HGH has been used since the 1950s to help children with growth problems, but it stayed under the radar for other uses until 1990, when Dr. Daniel Rudman reported in the New England Journal of Medicine that men taking a six-month course of HGH reduced their body fat by 14.4 percent while increasing lean muscle mass by 8.8 percent.
The study included just a dozen men, but it inspired a flood of anti-aging literature touting the benefits of growth hormone, along with countless Web sites selling HGH creams and sprays. Endocrinologists say those products though, are worthless; the body can use HGH only when it's injected.
But even as the number of prescriptions soars, the legal status of HGH is fuzzy.
Use for anti-aging is prohibited, and adult patients, like Lothamer, must demonstrate through a blood test that their natural levels are below normal. Selling growth hormone without a prescription can land you in prison for five years and carries a $250,000 fine. The drug has been linked in studies to side effects that include joint pain and swelling. Some say it gets even worse: cancer.
"Growth hormone is secreted in our body to promote cell growth, and cancer is unbridled cell growth," says gerontologist Dr. Thomas Perls, who campaigns vehemently against the use of HGH. "It's basically throwing gasoline on the fire."
A link to cancer, however, has not been proven in humans, only in mice. Research has shown that mice with high levels of growth hormone actually live shorter lives than those with low levels. But the doses in those studies were much higher for body weight than those typically given by anti-aging doctors.
HGH certainly packs a punch when it comes to making headlines. According to the coroner, HGH was found in Anna Nicole Smith's body after she died. Sylvester Stallone was detained by Australian customs agents, who accused him of having 48 vials of HGH stuffed in his luggage. His lawyers are expected to enter a plea to that charge later this month. A federal indictment linked HGH -- along with anabolic steroids -- to Barry Bonds' growing neck size and home run totals. Bonds told a grand jury he never knowingly took performance-enhancing drugs.
Rudman didn't support widespread use, but studies by others backed up the findings of muscle gain and fat loss. Side effects are still a concern, but many clinicians say they've seen few problems.
"Growth hormone levels drop with age, and I'm just bringing them up to a normal physiologic level," explains Dr. Mark Gordon, a Los Angeles, California, physician who says he aims to give patients the hormone levels of a young adult. "In the course of that return, we see improvement in a whole array of medical conditions." He says he started practicing what he calls "interventional endocrinology" after seeing HGH injections speed recovery from orthopedic injuries.
Beth Lothamer believes hormone therapy turned her life around. "I run two miles a day. My cholesterol is perfect. My blood pressure is perfect. I feel really good." She was so enthusiastic, she got her husband to join her. (Watch why the couple chose to use the hormone )
Ed Lothamer, 64, spent eight years on the defensive line of the Kansas City Chiefs, playing in two Super Bowls before retiring and building up a successful construction equipment business. "I was getting a little sluggish. I wrote it off as, 'I'm just getting older.' But she said, 'Why don't you at least come and take a shot at this?'" He did, and says he felt the effects within a month. "When I woke up, I wasn't fatigued. I noticed in the gym that I was much stronger. I had more endurance. My memory was sharper."
Despite the dire warnings, only a handful of doctors have gotten intro trouble for prescribing growth hormone. One of them, though, was Jackie Springer.
In 2004, the Kansas medical board stripped her of her license, saying she prescribed growth hormone, as well as various diet treatments, without performing diagnostic tests. Springer insists she did perform the tests.
After Springer lost her license, the Lothamers say they found another doctor to continue their treatment. "It's not for everybody, but we think it works, so we do it," says Ed Lothamer.
Perls isn't convinced. "When [clinicians] indicate they're not seeing any side effects, I simply do not trust them. They're running a business." He sighs deeply. "Everyone should stop, because there really is, I think, significant risk of big problems down the road."
Caleb Hellerman is a senior producer with CNN Medical News.
Ed and Beth Lothamer believe taking human growth hormone has improved their health. "It's not for everybody, but we think it works, so we do it," says Ed Lothamer.
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