While many professional athletes have been denying use of human growth hormone to boost performance, one man is standing tall in his support of poor, misunderstood HgH.
With the take-no-prisoners bravado of the character he plays in "Rambo," the fourth installment in his hugely successful film franchise, Sylvester Stallone, 61, told Time magazine that HgH was behind the super-buff, senior-licious physique he flaunts in the movie while dispatching a reported 236 bad guys to their maker.
Synthetic human growth hormone is used to replace the growth hormone that's normally produced in the pituitary in amounts that decline with age. It is used to treat children with certain growth disorders and adults with pituitary failure or HIV-related wasting disease.
Although HgH has not been approved for any other uses, physicians report that athletes and bodybuilders, convinced that it builds muscle and boosts performance, are lining up for the stuff in growing numbers -- and becoming savvier consumers too. "These guys will come in and say, 'I can get it myself. I want you to tell me if it's bad for me,' " says Dr. Stanley Korenman, an endocrinologist at UCLA's David Geffen School of Medicine.
It's difficult to track use of HgH among athletes (as well as dieters and others using it as an anti-aging drug) for conditions not approved by the Food and Drug Administration, but it's clearly a growing problem, says Dr. Gary Wadler, an internist and clinical associate professor of medicine at the NYU School of Medicine.
"I'm Googling 'human growth hormone' right now, and 8,550,000 entries are coming up," he says.
Most physicians are dismayed at the growing tide. "This is a very powerful drug that has significant side effects associated with its use," says Wadler, who is also a committee chairman for the World Anti-Doping Agency. HgH has been linked to arthritis, muscle aches, joint pain, fluid retention and type 2 diabetes. There is also concern -- but not proof -- that HgH could activate or accelerate the growth of an underlying cancer.
Athletes who choose to procure the drug through their own devices face other risks, too. "When you're buying gray market or black market drugs, you have no idea what you're getting," Wadler says. "You may be buying talcum powder or worse."
Curiously, although there's scant clinical evidence that HgH increases strength, it does appear to improve muscle appearance. Growth hormone "removes the fat from between the muscles, so you get improved definition," Korenman says. "That's what the weight lifters use it for."
And for the professional athlete looking for a chemical edge, HgH has a singular advantage over some of its performance-boosting cousins: It's hard to detect.
"You cannot measure growth-hormone abuse in the blood," says Dr. Shlomo Melmed, senior vice president and chief academic officer of Cedars-Sinai Medical Center and president of the International Society of Endocrinology. "The molecule in the bottle is pretty identical to the molecule in your pituitary. The Olympic committee is faced with a very difficult challenge."
For many professional athletes, the temptation is surely huge. "I don't blame the athletes for wanting it," Korenman says. "They operate in tiny percentage differences . . . and worry about the consequences later. We, as humans, tend to devalue the future."