by Peter Holleran, DC
The new Holy Grail, Golden Calf, or Philosopher’s Stone of the anti-aging movement is Human Growth Hormone (HGH). For years the rich and famous have searched health clinics at home and abroad for injections to prolong their fleeting youth, with initially promising results but potentially undesirable or unknown side effects. There is no doubt that the body experiences a decrease in production of HGH after the age of 30 and an even greater decrease after 40 and 50. The result is slower growth and repair of all the body’s tisues and acceleration of biological aging. The conventional assumption is that this due to an inherent and inevitable genetic clock that, without heroic intervention in terms of some new and amazing nutrient or drug, cannot be reversed.
This could be true, but I propose there may be a simpler explanation. What generally happens for most of us when we leave high school and college and enter the work force in our twenties? We stop playing outdoors the way we did almost constantly as kids! It could be just a coincidence, but maybe this begins to signal the pituitary gland that we don’t need HGH as much anymore, because our body has less need for growth and repair! (Unfortunately, this process is happening years earlier for much of today’s sedentary and increasingly super-sized fast-food-consuming-TV-and-video game-watching youth). Without the stress of physical activity, we have less need for growth hormone. The body thinks we have stopped growing, and that there are less tissues to be repaired, therefore it stops producing HGH in response. The simplicity of this complex is very appealing, and when you look at the youthful appearance of many masters and senior athletes you may become convinced. But there is also scientific evidence to support the contention that exercise increases HGH production.
Aerobic activity (which specifically means training in the aerobic, fat-burning heart rate zone, not just what goes by the name "aerobics" in exercise classes), causes a dramatic improvement in insulin sensitivity. This in itself has been shown to lead to many health benefits, and its failure, conversely, is a contributing factor in diseases such as diabetes, heart disease, and cancer, as well as in weight gain and chronic fatigue. Improvement in blood sugar levels and insulin sensitivity in turn promote the production of HGH. This is doubly significant because blood sugar problems can themselves cause a resistance to HGH injections.
Perhaps nothing contributes to accelerated aging more than elevated blood sugar levels. A key step one can take to improve the insulin response is to avoid refined sugar and flour products. Foods high on the glycemic index increase the release of insulin, which triggers somatostatin, which in turn suppresses both insulin and HGH release. Unfortunately, 90% of the money Americans spend on food goes to buy processed food. One study reported that on average Americans eat four servings of fast-food french fries per week. This converts rapidly to sugar and, when combined with the omnipresent beef burger, leads to production of AGE's (Advanced Glycolization End-Products, ie., the "browning effect"), a major cause of cellular aging. Beans, nuts, legumes and whole grains do not cause wide spikes in blood sugar and insulin release. This means one should shop predominantly on the outer perimeter of the super market where the non-packaged and non-processed foods are located. Eating too much of even the right foods, however, will, (because of the sheer volume) cause an excess production of insulin with the same debilitating effects. Excessive consumption of protein and fat, moreover, a common occurrence with low carb diets, may not offer as much help as promised in moderating insulin, except perhaps in the short term. A study comparing different programs found the Ornish diet (largely vegetarian) with the greatest decrease in insulin release (27%). Meat, in fact, in some instances can cause as much of an insulin spike as carbohydrate. I realize this is controversial, but in any case it is likely that the chief initial benefit of low carb diets lies in the elimination of junk food and refined carbohydrates. Overall, traditional "high natural carbohydrate" diets (whole grains, beans, fruits and vegetables) produce fewer insulin problems than any other. (For more on this topic read Carbophobia (Dr. Gregor Takes On Atkins)).
Overeating, as well as eating too close to bedtime, will accelerate the aging process. Growth hormone levels increase when insulin levels are low, about four hours after eating. Growth hormone is also released at night, when the body gets restored, repaired, and refreshed, with the largest amount being released in the first few hours of sleep - if the body is not too burdened with digesting its last meal.
Eating less than two hours before exercising will also raise insulin levels and therefore counteract some of the beneficial release of growth hormone.
There is also a connection with Vitamin D and insulin, another hidden benefit of outdoor aerobic activity. Increased exposure to the sun increases the level of Vitamin D, which enhances the efficiency of the insulin response, which, once again, promotes higher levels of HGH.
Anaerobic activity (more strenuous exercise in higher heart rate zones) has also been shown to increase HGH production, most likely due to the positive stress it places on the body. This leads to a strengthening of the heart and other beneficial effects. Do not confuse this with overtraining, however, which can exert a negative effect due to the production of increased cortisol and its accompanying stress chemistry. It appears, however, that the benefits of the standard hard/ easy training formula has some basis in fact. This means that most of the time our workouts should be in the easy-moderate aerobic zone, but once or twice a week short sessions of more intense activity can be included. Both forms of exercise provide anti-aging benefits, by different mechanisms.
In summary, it appears to be true regarding exercise and HGH that “if you don’t use it, you’ll lose it!”
While exercise is an essential key to any health and fitness program, and will definitely slow the aging process, it is probably true that there is an inevitable age-related reduction of HGH and other important hormones such as testosterone that effect muscle mass, energy and endurance. It may be useful, therefore, for those who work out regularly and yet still see these factors declining to seek out and consult with a doctor knowledgeable about bio-identical hormone therapy in order to correct such hormone deficiencies safely and without negative side-effects of HGH injections (such as increased tumor growth). Athletes in top shape but who desire a greater edge may also want to explore such therapy. The effects will not be as dramatic as those seen in the average person - some studies have shown an 8% increase in IGF-1 in well-conditioned athletes - but for some that may be considered worth it. It is also the case that elderly non-athletes considering hormone therapy may have reached such a level of HGH depletion that they lack the means to handle an HGH inducing exercise program. For them natural HGH releasers or "secretogogues" (which are simply specific combinations of amino acids) may be useful.
Those who can't resist experimenting can create their own relatively inexpensive growth hormone secretagogue "stack" by taking 2 grams each of Arginine and Ornithine, and 1 gram each of Lysine and Glutamine, one hour before bedtime, five days on, two days off, for one month, and then increasing by 2 grams each. IGF-1 levels can then be checked every three months. The entire subject, however, is controversial. For contrasting views see Growth Hormone Scams and Exercise and Growth Hormone Releasers).
There are many other things one can do and natural substances one can take that have a rejuvenative effect on the body. At the same time, it is perhaps easiest, most economical, and even more important to simply avoid those things that have a degenerative effect, chief among these being refined sugar and flour, trans fats, excess animal products, and lack of exercise.