Better Chicken Soup Than HGH?

While one analysis says human growth hormone offers athletes no benefit, it may not reflect what they're actually doing.

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The strongest performance enhancement aid I've ever used was lukewarm chicken broth, gulped down during the last hours of an Ironman competition (I swear, it perked me right up). But as disillusioned fans of baseball, cycling, track and field, and a host of other sports now know, elite athletes are turning to much more powerful substances in their pursuit of more home runs, higher jumps, or faster times. Many are reportedly pinning their hopes on human growth hormone, for instance. A new study suggests that—even putting aside the fact that most sports leagues and bodies ban the drug, and it's illegal to distribute it for sports enhancement purposes—athletes might be better off sticking with chicken broth.

A team of researchers at the Stanford University School of Medicine, who previously published a review of research that looked at the effects of human growth hormone in healthy seniors, have just published in the online version of Annals of Internal Medicine a similar analysis of the effects on athletic performance in healthy people. Their conclusion, after looking at 27 studies with a total of 303 participants: HGH may produce more lean body mass than a placebo, but that doesn't seem to translate to greater strength. In fact, some studies showed that those who took HGH also experienced more muscle fatigue.

So there's no edge, right? Not so fast. The amount of HGH and number of doses taken in the real world aren't really known except through anecdotes and very likely include far more HGH for far longer duration than was studied, says Hau Liu, a physician and researcher at Stanford and an author of the analysis. (Because of ethical considerations, you probably won't see any human studies looking at very high doses of HGH over long periods anytime soon.)

In addition, elite athletes seeking an illicit edge are probably using multiple agents, says Liu. "It's hard to figure out which drug is doing what," he says. Gary Gaffney, a psychiatrist whose blog, Steroid Nation, tracks news about performance-enhancing drugs, says that using multiple drugs—say HGH along with an anabolic steroid, insulin, and a thyroid hormone—may have a synergistic effect, with greater results than would be gotten using the drugs individually. He gets into greater detail on this in a recent Huffington Post piece, arguing against the view that HGH is ineffective and therefore harmless.

Have you tried either legal or illegal performance-enhancing substances? If so, what did you notice?