When it comes to hormones, testosterone, thyroid, and insulin get most of the attention. Yet growth hormone, also known as somatotropin, also plays an essential role in your long-term health, athletic performance, and longevity.
It affects the health of your body as well as your brain.
I’ll explain what growth hormone is, how it affects your health, and then what you can do to sabotage and support it.
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What is growth hormone?
Growth hormone (GH), as its name suggests, influences tissue growth and repair throughout life. Its primary role is in cell regeneration.
This is important to understand because most people’s lifestyle choices conflict with those four circumstances.
- regulates fat, carbohydrate, and protein metabolism
- controls body composition
- affects skin health
- enhances bone density
- helps build and maintain muscle mass
- enhances recovery from exercise and injury.
- may protect against age-related cognitive decline
It stimulates the growth of newborns and teenagers. It helps you build muscle, bone, and connective tissue. When levels fall, muscle mass, and overall health deteriorate.
Growth hormone and metabolism
Thyroid hormone is the primary metabolic rate regulator, but GH influences metabolism as well.
Growth hormone enhances cardiac output, which increases blood flow to muscle tissue and specific organs.
Growth hormone not only increases the number of calories you burn, but it also alters the type of calories you use for energy. As a “nutrient partitioner,” it shifts your body from burning carbohydrates and amino acids and storing fat, to burning fat and storing carbohydrates and amino acids.
It helps to build or rebuild muscle, bone, skin, and organ tissues. However, when energy intake is low or when you fast, GH levels rise to conserve amino acids, sparing muscle and causing your body to burn fat for energy.
Symptoms of Low Growth Hormone
|Increased body fat||Increased waist-to-hip ratio|
|Increased belly (visceral) fat||Muscle loss|
|Decreased bone density||Decreased strength|
|Reduced exercise performance||Reduced VO2 Max|
|Decreased max heart rate||Reduced resilience to stress|
|Decreased physical and mental energy||Lack of motivation|
|Lack of libido||Increased need for sleep|
|Cardiovascular problems||Elevated blood pressure|
Many of these symptoms have similarities with imbalances of other hormones.
For example, low thyroid, low testosterone, elevated estrogen, or excess cortisol contribute to increased body fat, reduced libido, and decreased mental and physical energy. Decreased VO2 Max is also typical in hypothyroidism. And cardiovascular problems occur with low thyroid, low testosterone, and elevated cortisol.
The point is, if you see yourself in some of the symptoms above, it doesn’t guarantee you have low GH. But it does suggest you should order a full hormone panel through your doctor.
What causes low growth hormone?
Genetic factors cause low growth hormone in a small percentage of the population, which may cause small stature. For most people, though, low levels are a self-inflicted situation.
The following are the most common contributors.
Obesity or excess belly fat: Excess fat, especially belly fat, blunts GH secretion. As body fat levels rise, levels decrease, which suppresses fat metabolism even further, making it more likely you’ll gain more body fat.
Sleep debt: Growth hormone secretion peaks during deep sleep. If you go to sleep at inconsistent times, leave lights on at night, drink too much alcohol, eat too close to dinner, or sleep in a bedroom that’s too hot, you’ll compromise deep sleep, and thereby sabotage GH secretion.
Excessive dietary carbs and fat: Your pituitary secretes growth hormone when it senses you need fuel – carbs or fat. When you constantly eat carbohydrate or fat-rich foods, you keep your blood glucose and/or fatty acid levels elevated. That suppresses GH. That said, chronically low blood sugar can also suppress it.
Aging: After the age of 30, levels drop an average of 14% per year. Of course, this is in the average person, who is doing little to support optimal GH levels.
Hormone imbalance: Other hormones can affect growth hormone, just as GH levels can affect other hormones. Low thyroid, low testosterone, low or high estrogen, and even low cortisol/adrenal insufficiency can cause low growth hormone.
Alcohol consumption: Regular alcohol consumption sabotages secretion by disrupting sleep quality. One study showed that even when alcoholic men supplement with a 12 mg dose of melatonin, they don’t experience a rise in GH at night.
Growth Hormone And Insulin-Like Growth Factor-1 (IGF-1)
Insulin-like growth factor-1 is a peptide hormone that has similar effects as growth hormone itself. Because it’s easier to measure than growth hormone, and because in healthy people, IGF-1 levels often correlate with growth hormone levels, IGF-1 is usually used to make assumptions about growth hormone.
In people with healthy body fat, IGF-1 mimics the rise and fall of growth hormone. Normal IGF-1 indicates normal growth hormone, and low IGF-1 suggests growth hormone deficiency.
However, IGF-1 doesn’t always correlate with growth hormone in overweight and obese people. Those with excess body fat almost always have low growth hormone, but IGF-1 can be low, average, or even high. If you are overweight or obese, you can be reasonably sure your growth hormone levels are low, regardless of what your IGF-1 levels may be.
How to Increase Growth Hormone
If you display symptoms of low growth hormone, or hyposomatotropism, there’s a lot you can do to support optimal GH levels. As you saw above, most of the causes are lifestyle and nutrition-related. Optimizing GH becomes more important with age. It has an anti-aging effect for those who maintain ideal GH levels.
Sleep at least 7 hours every night.
When you sacrifice sleep, your mental and physical performance declines. You also do much damage to your brain. So if you’ve convinced yourself you need to sacrifice sleep to get more work done, you have deceived yourself. If you sleep more, you’ll be more productive in your daytime hours. You owe it to yourself, as well as everyone who depends on you, to get enough quality sleep.
- Go to bed at a consistent time
- Stop eating a few hours before bedtime
- Limit alcohol to once or twice a week
- Set your nighttime thermostat to 67-69°
- Try supplementing with melatonin
Fast between meals
Ghrelin, your hunger hormone, rises as you go without food. You usually notice its effects a few hours after your previous meal, when your stomach starts to growl. That’s a good thing. It’s a sign that your entering a post-meal fasted state, where growth hormone levels start to rise again. Avoid snacks, and eat just two or three meals per day.
You might even consider intermittent fasting, which extends the period you go without food and stimulates GH release, which helps you hold onto muscle while you go without food.
Competitive athletes being an exception, most people don’t need to eat more than two or three times per day.
That said, there would be an exception: Those with serious GH deficiencies.
Those with uncontrollable GH deficiency need to eat more frequently. In these cases, protein loss can increase by up to 50% while fasting. In this specific circumstance, using whey protein or an essential amino acid supplement between meals could help minimize calorie intake while providing enough dietary amino acids to conserve muscle.
Strength train 3-5 times per week
Exercise stimulates growth hormone a few ways. First, it causes physical damage to your muscles (assuming your workouts are intense enough). Physical trauma, whether it’s an injury, surgery, or a good training session, stimulates GH release.
Second, assuming you aren’t drinking or eating carbs before your workout (don’t do that), exercise lowers blood sugar. As your workout progresses and blood sugar drops, GH rises, helping you burn more fat as a primary fuel source.
The more fit you become, the more intense you’ll need to train to gain the same GH-increasing effects of exercise.
Eat high-protein each meal
Dietary protein significantly increases secretion, whereas carbohydrates and fat do not. This is one of my many concerns with those who follow a long-term, strict ketogenic diet, and are afraid of overeating protein because they might dip out of ketosis.
Growth hormone and insulin rise in response to protein consumption, as insulin helps shuttle amino acids into cells, and GH stimulates protein synthesis, which fosters the growth and repair of those tissues.
Supplement to support growth hormone
Arginine has been shown to stimulate growth hormone more than other amino acids.* However, tryptophan, ornithine, lysine, and glycine all stimulate growth hormone as well.
One study showed arginine has been shown to increase levels by 700%.* However, carbohydrates blunt this increase, so if you use arginine, take it on an empty stomach, ideally before exercise.
Glutamine has also been shown to increase GH levels with a dose as small as two grams, although most other benefits of glutamine seem to require three to five grams. Glutamine has a ton of other health benefits, so you might want to include this in your daily regimen anyway.*
Melatonin supports GH secretion by enhancing deep sleep, as well as by directly stimulating growth hormone release.
My favorite melatonin-based supplement is Sleep Essence by Young Living. Not only does it contain melatonin; it also includes a number of essential oils that support quality sleep.*
What about high growth hormone?
Excessively high growth hormone is called hypersomatotropism. It is rare, and usually caused by genetics, a tumor, or the illegal use of exogenous growth hormone for sport or bodybuilding. Some bodybuilders use doses up to 10 times what an endocrinologist would use when treating a patient with low growth hormone.
In adolescents and young adults, who do not have fully formed growth plates, hypersomatotropism causes giantism. The growth of their skeleton, along with the rest of their body, grows at an accelerated rate.
Hypersomatotropism in adults after growth plates have fused causes acromegaly, thickening of bone and other tissues. Since they can no longer grow up, their body gets thicker instead.
In addition to the change in growth, hypersomatotropism causes pancreatic cell dysfunction, which can lead to diabetes. It can also cause high blood pressure and Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease.
I hope you take two things away from this article.
- Growth hormone is critically important for the health of your body and brain at any age.
- You have significant control over your production of GH, more-so than most hormones.
Now, you can either tuck that knowledge in your back pocket and sit on it for years, until something dramatically bad develops with your health. Or, you can use what you’ve learned, change your choices, and change the trajectory of your health for the future.