The Human Growth Hormone Friendly Lifestyle

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Some people seek to increase their levels of human growth hormone because it confers gains in muscle mass, strength and aerobic capacity. Yet, ‘minor’ concerns such as insulin resistance, reduced lifespan and promotion of diseases such as diabetes, cancer, stroke and heart disease mean recombinant human growth hormone injections are generally unavailable unless you are clinically deficient. There are, of course, other methods of increasing levels, including good ol’ fashioned lifestyle measures. We explore the potential of supplements in another article. Improving your lifestyle may be a valuable, relatively safe alternative if your levels are low  (i.e. below 0.4 -10 ng/mL (or 18 – 44pmol/L) for men or 1 – 14 ng/m (or 44 – 616 pmol/L) for women), or to help attenuate the natural decline in levels with age.  

Key Points:

  1. Optimising your lifestyle can help keep growth hormone levels within a healthy range as we age. This has benefits for body composition, strength and aerobic capacity, while minimising risks such as insulin resistance and disease caused by excess.
  2. Lean bodies produce more growth hormone than overweight or obese bodies, as do those which are insulin sensitive. Attaining and maintaining these through a combination of exercise and a healthy diet appears to be the best option. The jury is out regarding the impact of intermittent fasting.
  3. Exercise acutely stimulates growth hormone secretion from the pituitary gland, in proportion to its intensity.
  4. Sleep and maintaining testosterone is paramount, especially for men.

Maintain- or work towards- a healthy, lean body 

So there’s no need to be a fitness model here, but people with an unhealthy physique tend to have lower levels of human growth hormone. Higher BMI/body weight, less lean body compositions and high levels of belly fat are associated with lower growth hormone secretion (and lower IGF levels). Some studies have demonstrated that levels are normalised among morbidly obese people upon losing significant weight- whether through traditional methods or following bariatric surgery. Other studies show improvements in those who are considered overweight but not obese. 

It would be interesting if we were able to glean from further research, whether or not  those who have a lot to lose reap greater benefits. 

If you do fall into an overweight category, all methods of weight/fat loss may not be equal. In a small study of overweight but not obese people, participants in two groups achieved a similar level of energy deficit either by using caloric restriction alone or caloric restriction combined increased exercise. While the two groups reported a similar amount of weight loss. only those who exercised as well as dieted increased growth hormone levels. To make things less black and white, reducing body weight by 15% through diet and then maintaining this weight also worked a treat. Larger studies should explore this to provide more definitive conclusions. 

I have seen recommendations for people to shed excess particularly around the belly, which makes sense given the association between increasing abdominal adiposity and lower growth hormone levels. However spot reduction is notoriously a fool’s errand- or a dishonest health marketer’s ploy. As you burn fat through healthy eating and exercise, you will lose it from all over your body, including proportional amounts from the tum.

Exercise for growth hormone

Exercise isn’t useful in maintaining or increasing growth hormone levels just because of its role in weight management. With every session of aerobic or resistance training, there is also an acute increase in growth hormone secretion. 

A single aerobic session won’t increase your overall levels of the hormone for the day, as following the session its secretion transiently drops off. However, performing some form of aerobic exercise more than once in a 24-hour period will. This doesn’t necessarily mean you have to do several long hard slogs, but could be smaller bursts of 10+ minutes throughout the day. 

In general, more intense exercise (eg: sprints, interval training; reduced rest in resistance training) produces greater increases in growth hormone release. 

Chronic training at a level where lactic acid begins to accumulate  has been shown to double 24 hour levels among young women. However, we know little about the mechanism of these chronic changes. Also, as yet we have little data on the long-term effects of regular resistance training.

Keep insulin sensitive and growth hormone happy

So insulin sensitivity isn’t strictly a lifestyle measure, but is greatly influenced by lifestyle… and, it seems it’s important for growth hormone, not just for diabetes. In a retrospective study, insulin-sensitive people had higher growth hormone levels while fasting and in response to an oral glucose tolerance test- regardless of whether they were healthy or overweight. Several studies have also shown negative associations between insulin levels and growth hormone. These may be explained by cell culture and mice studies, where insulin has been shown to suppress growth hormone synthesis and/or release. 

Thus it is advisable to check your blood sugar levels and glucose tolerance (surrogate measures of insulin sensitivity) periodically. Do this even if you are unaware of any problem with insulin sensitivity. (eg: you haven’t been diagnosed as diabetic or prediabetic and are asymptomatic). Talk to your doctor about the necessary frequency of testing for you. Diabetes Australia also has a risk calculator for type 2 diabetes. 

Regardless of where your insulin sensitivity currently lies, the healthy lifestyle classics including a balanced diet, regular exercise, not smoking, plus keeping your blood pressure and cholesterol in check will help with insulin sensitivity… and therefore growth hormone.  

Sleep for growth hormone

While women apparently release growth hormone in pulses throughout the day, for men a large proportion is released during slow wave sleep (i.e. stages 3 and 4). So you men out there, get a good night’s sleep! (Okay, us women need to too but not so much for this reason). Moreover, 50-70% of the release occurs in early sleep- so delaying bedtime to get a bit more work done, watch another ep on Netflix, or even doing a late night strength sess might not be the best idea. 

Maintain healthy testosterone levels

Again, this isn’t in itself a lifestyle measure. However, it’s another potentially important one for the men: research has shown positive associations between testosterone levels and human growth hormone. In fact, fancy statistical analysis of one small 1995 study suggested that together, testosterone levels and body fat accounted for 50% of variation in levels among men. 

While testosterone and human growth hormone have unique anabolic effects on the body, they also have additive effects. Also, testosterone can increase the power of growth hormone to increase levels of its mediator, insulin like growth factor (IGF). 

Testosterone release can be supported by the above-mentioned lifestyle behaviours, plus managing stress, limiting alcohol consumption, and possibly vitamin D and other supplements.

Try intermittent fasting… perhaps???

There is a fluctuation in growth hormone levels throughout the day. In men, it usually increases in the early hours of sleep. Some older, small scale studies suggested that fasting can increase both nighttime and average daily levels. These studies tended to employ continuous fasting over several days. One of the problems is that, in the real world, it’s impractical to follow such fasts in the long term. 

Thus it’s been suggested that intermittent fasting might be a better approach. However, I was not able to find any research which directly assessed the impact of intermittent fasting. Fasting for 16 hours a day should not be presumed to have the same impact as fasting continuously for several days. So it’s a bit too much hearsay for my liking- especially given the limitations of the original studies. 

Thus it’s been suggested that intermittent fasting might be a better approach. However, I was not able to find any research which directly assessed the impact of intermittent fasting. Fasting for 16 hours a day should not be presumed to have the same impact as fasting continuously for several days. So it’s a bit too much hearsay for my liking- especially given the limitations of the original studies. 

Sure, it may be a reasonable assumption that growth hormone levels would be higher on the days that intermittent fasting is done- at least during fasting hours. However, we need research to confirm this and to reveal what the cumulative effect is of different regimes. For example, the effect would likely differ if you followed a 16 hour fast everyday versus every second day… and keep in mind, there are many more variations of intermittent fasting than these.

The Verdict

Healthy lifestyle tweaks can go some way towards increaseing human growth hormone levels if they’re low, or managing age-related declines. As in many cases, maintaining a healthy body weight/composition and insulin sensitivity, eating well and exercising regularly are cornerstones. Intermittent fasting may increase levels, but the research is too scarce. Sleeping well and maintaining testosterone levels are particularly important for the men folk.

What lifestyle improvements you intend to make? Feel free to share in the comments below!


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