How to Naturally Boost Growth Hormone
Human growth hormone (hGH or GH) is sometimes called the “fountain-of-youth” hormone, and for good reason.
The pituitary gland (a small gland near the base of the brain) is where both the manufacture and release of human growth hormone takes place. Growth hormone is primarily known to promote growth in children and adolescents, but has also various important metabolic functions throughout adult life.[i]
As it’s name suggests, GH is responsible for enhancing muscular growth and strength, burning fat and maintaining the immune system. It also helps boost energy levels, libido, skin elasticity, and mental acuity.
Because of GH’s benefits, exogenous GH (“extra” hormones not produced in the body, such as those that are administered in an injection) has been used therapeutically to treat certain medical conditions. It’s also sometimes controversially used by athletes. However, exogenous hormones may also have unintended, negative effects, both on your body and your wallet.
A healthier way to reap some of the broad benefits of GH is to naturally enhance your body’s own production of the substance. Not surprisingly, these methods closely mirror the basic recommendations of a Paleo lifestyle. In this article, we’ll review how and why this occurs, and give a general overview of supplementation in regards to GH.
But first, here’s how growth hormone works.
The Physiology of GH
GH acts through binding to the GH receptor (the “eyes” and “ears” of an individual cell that receives “instructions” for the cell to carry out). This induces either direct effects or initiates the production of insulin-like growth-factor I (IGF-I), the most important mediator of GH effects. (The primary hormones related to muscle growth are testosterone, human growth hormone, and insulin-like growth factor, i.e. IGF-1). [ii]
As a healthy person ages, he or she will experience a gradual and progressive decrease in spontaneous GH secretions. This is reflected in a parallel fall in circulating insulin-like growth factor (IGF-I), a reduction in lean body mass (i.e. a decrease in skeletal muscle), an increase in body fat and a rise in the “bad” kind of cholesterol—low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol.[iii] This condition is also known as somatopause… or more colloquially, middle-aged spread.
Daily GH secretion peaks around puberty but by the age of 21 has begun to decrease, with a steep drop-off occurring in our late thirties. By age 60, most adults have total 24-hour secretion rates very similar to those of patients with organic lesions in the pituitary gland (i.e. with a medical condition that suppresses their pituitary gland function.) [iv]
Given that GH plays a major role in preserving many things youthful, it’s natural to want to know if GH levels can be maintained or improved as we move into and beyond middle age.
The Real Fountain of Youth
So is the solution a magic pill or potion? In reality, the secret to maintaining as much GH activity in our bodies as possible is considerably less enigmatic.
There are four purported ways of increasing natural GH release. These are:
- Improved diet
- Improved sleep
So that’s the big secret: get enough sleep, exercise intelligently, eat healthfully, and avoid sugar. This sounds obvious, but it’s so important.
Our thoughts are that, once you’ve got those Paleo basics right, then you can start to think about supplementation or, possibly, medical intervention. But you’ve got to get the basics right first!
But don’t just take our word for it. Here’s what the authors of a major scientific review on somatopause[v] concluded about naturally enhancing GH levels:
- Sleep and exercise are the major stimuli for GH secretion.
- Age-related decreases in GH secretion coincide with changes in body composition (fatness) and lipid metabolism (e.g levels of “bad” cholesterol) similar to those seen in adults with GH deficiency.
- In elderly subjects, GH secretion is markedly reduced. However, remaining GH secretion correlates closely with body composition (particularly with lean body mass and inversely with central abdominal fat). In other words, the more muscle and less of a gut you have as you age, the more likely it is that your GH levels are healthy.
So eating, exercising and sleeping healthfully with not only preserve muscle and avoid a beer belly, they naturally help maintain healthy levels of GH as you age.
Here’s how these principles break down in practice.
GH secretion has been stimulated in healthy subjects by both aerobic and resistance exercise of the right intensity and duration.[vi]
Various protocols involving very high intensity exercise (and refraining from carbs immediately post-workout) have been touted as GH-friendly through the years (think of Cybergenics from the 1980’s, or the Peak 8 method that advocates sprint intervals followed by a several-hour carb fast). Turns out the basic concept behind these fads—exercise intensity—is important to GH production.
High Interval Intensity Training (HIIT) has been shown to drastically increase GH production. HIIT is a type of cardio training that involves cycles of high intensity exercise “bursts” and low or moderate intensity recovery.
Try to alternate between short stints of active rest (such as walking) and fast and hard bursts of cardio (such as sprinting hard). Your heart rate should exceed your anaerobic threshold for 30-second intervals. (Also called the “lactate threshold,” this is the exertion level between aerobic and anaerobic training.)
Go hard enough to get out of breath five or more times in a workout to engage super-fast twitch muscle fibers. (Beginners: don’t start with HIIT; establish a base level of cardiovascular fitness first and work your way up to HIIT workouts over time.)
In essence, breaking a sweat, running short of breath, and feeling some “burn” in your muscles is the easiest way to trigger GH production.
Up to half of daily GH release happens while we sleep. A big nighttime burst in GH occurs shortly after falling asleep, and subsequent nocturnal GH secretion correspond with sleep wave patterns. The longer you sleep, the more growth hormone you will produce. Try to get eight hours per night to optimize GH production.
Deep sleep (or “slow-wave sleep”—SWS) appears to be key. Basically, the more deep sleep you get, the more GH release occurs during the night. Deprivation of SWS results in diminished and delayed secretion of HGH in sleep.[vii]
Nightly bouts of SWS tend to reduce in number and duration as we age. So does the release of melatonin (a naturally-occurring hormone involved in regulating the sleeping and waking cycles).
Melatonin supplements are available (and described more below). You can also improve sleep quality by doing things that naturally increase melatonin production, such as sleeping in a completely dark room (use blackout curtains if necessary).
Unsurprisingly, what you eat affects GH production and muscle growth.
First, don’t eat sugar. That’s because insulin suppresses testosterone and GH.
Eating sugar leads to insulin spikes, which promotes fat-gain. Plus eating sweets is an unhealthy habit for so many other reasons. So you can add “GH suppression” on top all of the other negative effects sugar has on your body.
The solution: Minimize or eliminate foods that contain sugar/fructose from your diet, and restrict starchy and simple carbs that convert to sugar in your bloodstream. Basically, go Paleo!
Following this logic, you should avoid sugar after workouts (no candy bars or sugar-packed sports drinks as you walk out of the gym). Not only does this lead to increased body fat, but it severely decreases the release of GH.
To maximize natural GH production, you should eat high quality protein (we recommend grass-fed, organic meat whenever possible.) Focus on high-protein, low-carbohydrate foods before going to bed. The amino acids will help to boost GH, while avoiding too many carbs will keep insulin low so that it cannot inhibit GH from doing its work.
Further, you should eat smaller meals throughout the day with lower-glycemic carbs to keep your blood sugar stable. Remember, high blood sugar inhibits GH release and promotes fat storage. We also recommend avoiding high-glycemic foods two hours before nightly sleep to maximize GH release.
Or… occasionally, don’t eat. Some studies have shown that short-term fasting results in a temporary elevation of GH.[viii] We believe that short-term (24 hours or less), intermittent fasting can be beneficial for other reasons as well. (Note: don’t just jump in blindly here, you should research fasting before deciding whether it is right for you and your specific situation.)
You also should optimize your Vitamin D levels. Vitamin D is helps boost GH in the body, as well as testosterone levels and other bodily functions. Get some sunshine or consider supplementation if you are deficient.
Finally, control your weight. In general, men with high levels of body fat also tend to have high levels of insulin. This suppresses growth hormone production significantly.
Detoxing your body also supports GH function. By “detoxing,” we mean doing everything you can to make sure that the organs that help “clean” your blood and clear unusable waste out of your body (such as your liver and intestines) are as healthy as possible.
Here, we are especially interested in a healthy liver. That’s because, before your body can use GH in any way, it has to go through your liver to be converted into IGF-1 (insulin-like growth factor) for use in the body. Remember, your liver’s job is to filter the blood that comes from your digestive tract, thereby metabolizing nutrients, drugs, alcohol and other substances you’ve consumed. So a poorly functioning liver may lead to lower levels of GH.
To maintain liver health, don’t drink too much (or any) alcohol, don’t overuse or abuse medications or herbal supplements, and avoid environmental toxins such as insecticides and cleaning products. Eat organic foods and avoid smoking. Again, do what your caveman ancestors would have done and think Paleo.
First, let’s start off by saying that there is no “magic GH pill” out there contains straight-up human growth hormone that you can buy at a nutrition store. (Therapeutic GH administered for medical reasons is typically injected and prescribed.) And there’s no silver bullet supplement of any kind that will overcome a bad diet and total lack of exercise. However, there are compounds capable of increasing the body’s own production of real GH.
That being said, what follows is a list of supplements that have been shown to have some positive affect on natural GH.
Melatonin: Remember how deep sleep enhances nocturnal GH production? Some sources recommend taking 0.5 to 5 mg of melatonin—the “sleep hormone”—before bed. Melatonin has been shown to increase growth hormone levels by up to 157 percent.
This was noted in a study that found that, in males, 5.0 mg melatonin increased GH. However, when combined with resistance exercise, even lower amounts appear to help. The same researchers found that doses of both 0.5 mg and 5.0 mg of melatonin appeared to positively impact GH levels. The same response was not observed in females.[ix]
Leucine and Arginine: Leucine and arginine are amino acids—the building blocks of protein in the human body. These can be taken separately or together, and for this reason we have elected to discuss them at the same time.
L-Leucine is known to improves protein synthesis, help with weight loss, and help to build lean muscle mass.
Meanwhile, arginine can boost growth hormone (GH) levels. It does this by inhibiting production of somatostatin, a hormone that impairs GH production.[x]
However, use caution here, as precise dosage is likely needed for real GH results.
Indeed, the ability of oral arginine to boost GH levels has been investigated in numerous studies with conflicting results.
For example, in one study, consuming arginine before exercise did not significantly raise the GH concentrations in either old or young subjects, compared to exercise only. Because of this, it has been hypothesized that oral arginine, unlike intravenously infused arginine (as has been used in other pro-arginine studies) does not appear to be an effective means of enhancing GH secretion.Plus, researchers suspect that arginine may only act as a growth hormone stimulant at night, rather than prior to exercise or during non-exercise daytime conditions.
Notably, L-leucine was very effective in a study where the researchers combined it with L-arginine, with a huge 700% increase in growth hormone levels when both amino acids were consumed.
Ornithine: This is derived from the amino acid arginine. High doses of oral ornithine have successfully raised GH levels in some studies. But unfortunately, the highest dose used to increase growth hormone also caused osmotic diarrhea in the males tested, albeit not females. More research is needed in this area.
Arginine and Ornithine: When administered together, arginine and ornithine do appear to offer anabolic (muscle-building) benefits. These benefits appear to be caused by GH release, but this remains unproven.
For example in one study, a group of researchers wrote that arginine and ornithine taken in prescribed doses can, in conjunction with a high-intensity strength-training program, increase total strength and lean body mass in a relatively short time. The reviewers hypothesized that these changes were due to increases in growth hormone release.
Gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA): This is a neurotransmitter that’s found primarily in the human brain.
Oral GABA supplementation has increased GH levels in humans. In one study, a single oral dose of 5 grams of GABA administered to 19 subjects significantly elevated plasma growth hormone levels compared to placebo-treated controls.
Creatine: This is one of the most respected and studied supplement from the bodybuilding world. Dozens of studies show that it increases growth hormone levels significantly. This is one of the reasons why creatine works so well for muscle building.[xi]
Glutamine: This is the most abundant amino acid in human muscle and plasma, directly regulating both the production of protein and immune cell activity.Researchers have reported that subjects taking this amino acid had an increase in GH levels 90 minutes after ingestion. They noted that subjects consuming 2 g of glutamine experienced increases in GH levels.[xii] Glutamine is also important for proper immune function.
Interestingly, in the small intestine, glutamine is converted into citruline, which in turn triggers the synthesis of arginine, the amino acid shown to release growth hormone in some studies. Moreover, glutamine is converted into glutamate, which can directly enhance growth hormone secretion.
Ornithine-alpha-ketoglutarate (OKG): This compound promotes wound healing and protein synthesis.Few, if any, studies exist on oral doses of OKG and their impact on GH. However, research has shown that in healthy subjects, OKG increases tissue levels of glutamine and arginine, which are regulators of protein synthesis. Oral glutamine has been shown to release growth hormone in some studies.
Arginine and Lysine: These may work together to help release GH. However, some research indicates this may only happen under specific conditions.
Unfortunately, not all studies investigating the use of arginine and lysine have resulted in positive results. For example, some data suggest that consuming oral arginine and lysine is not a practical means of chronically enhancing GH secretion in elderly men, although other research suggests this finding may be dose-dependent.
Glycine: This is a nonessential amino acid and an important component of collagen. Some research has shown that acute ingestion of large oral doses of glycine appears to stimulate release of growth hormone and increase rates of creatine synthesis. Both are desirable if you want to build muscle.
Final thoughts on GH research… and a warning
Broadly speaking, it’s wise to be cautious when examining research in relation to GH. Beware of sweeping conclusions about GH drawn from medical or aging-related growth hormone therapies. The effects of GH on adults are well established from studies with recombinant growth hormone (rGH) therapy in growth hormone deficient subjects (people whose bodies don’t naturally produce the right amounts of GH and require medical intervention).
However, simple extrapolation from these findings to the situations of well-trained, healthy subjects is impossible. Moreover, controlled studies in healthy subjects are scarce. Despite this, abuse of GH seems to be popular among athletes trying to enhance physical performance.[xiii]
Very often, a primary goal of resistance training programs is to get bigger muscles. However, some seek to fast-track the traditional methods of achieving hypertrophy (eating, sleeping and exercising right) by relying on synthetic or “medical” means.
However, shadily marketed, oral or topical sources of GH or GH-“boosters” (such as pills or creams) are not known to have the same effects at GH-related IV injections used by medical patients under a doctor’s care.
Exogenous (e.g. injected) GH has tradeoffs –it may have some positive effects for some people with certain conditions, but it can also introduce negative side effects and should be used with extreme caution and medical supervision.[xiv]
If you think you could benefit from growth hormone (or any other kind of hormonal) therapy, talk to a physician who specializes in this field. Do not buy growth hormones off the internet from some mystery bodybuilding website, whatever you do. That’s just dangerous and horrendously risky. We don’t even recommend buying regular vitamins from untrusted internet sources—as a former FDA investigator Gary can tell you all kinds of horror stories about counterfeit pills.
Bottom line: There are some natural supplements that may boost GH levels, and this area should be further researched. But we wholeheartedly recommend spending your time and money on first getting the basics right—eat mostly organic meats, veggies, nuts and seeds; getting plenty of sleep and regular, intense-for-you exercise.
If you don’t master these habits, supplements can’t save you. We encourage you to look at supplements as icing on the cake. The “cake” here is a Paleo diet and lifestyle. Well, gluten-free and grain-free cake of course.
If you follow a Paleo lifestyle, muscular growth and a healthy, youthful body—the ultimate goal of boosting GH levels—will be naturally enhanced.
Links for Heath, Gary and The Primal Show
Check out Heath Squier’s complete diet here:
Julian Bakery Online Paleo Food Store (Transitional Foods)