HGH Threat: Works Like Steroids but Undetectable

Arizona Diamondback pitcher Jason Grimsley will be sitting out 50 games because he used performance enhancing substances, including human growth hormone. Now some coaches worry that students will take Grimsley's lead and start using HGH to improve their performances and physiques.

Like creatine and steroids, HGH reduces fat and builds lean muscle, helping to create an all-star athlete's build. But HGH doesn't put the athlete at risk of getting caught because there's no reliable test for it. The human body naturally produces HGH to help with bone and tissue growth and to repair itself and fight disease.

So some coaches wonder if Grimsley will do for HGH what Jose Canseco did for steroids, and hope that the government works to clamp down on it.

"Everyone wanted to put it [HGH] under the carpet, and now we've got to face the issue," said Rob Davini, executive director of the National High School Baseball Association.

Davini was both a high school and college baseball coach for more than 35 years in Arizona, and he said it's always difficult to tell if high school players are using. "On the high school level kids are getting bigger and stronger, but I can't tell if that's to do with HGH or if they're just going through a growth spurt," he said.

There are no concrete statistics on HGH use yet, mainly because it is so difficult to detect. But Gary Wadler, a fellow at the American College of Sports Medicine, said the use of HGH could approach that of steroids.

According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, approximately 8 to 10 percent of high school students have experimented with or are using anabolic steriods.

"We were all concerned about steroid use in schools; now we're concerned with HGH use trickling down to high schools because they're role modeling off these sports figures," said Wadler.

Jim Hall, a baseball and football coach for 32 years at Rockport High School, in Rockport, Ill., said the use of HGH is nothing new in sports.

"Major League Baseball knew about this for a long time, and they just turned their back," Hall said. "No one complained because they were hitting home runs and making megabucks."

Hall said he hoped that Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., and other legislators would stand by their word to clean up Major League Baseball.

"It's scary that it's out there. It's scary that kids want to use it," Hall said.

'Fountain of Youth' Gets Risky

Not only do athletes use HGH, the hormone has been touted as a fountain of youth pill -- reducing wrinkles, increasing sex drive, producing muscle mass and reducing body fat. For example, Grimsley, who is 38, might produce the same amount of human growth hormone as a 25-year-old by taking the drug.

Yet the side effects of HGH have shown to be as damaging and irreversible as those linked to steroids.

The human body naturally puts out approximately 15 pulses of HGH daily from the pituitary gland. When additional levels of HGH are added to the body, a disorder called acromegaly, or gigantism, can develop. A person could grow a tumor in the brain that results in the elongation of the skull, hands, feet, jaw and tongue; the teeth would begin to separate; and vital organs, like the heart, liver and spleen grow abnormally large.

The risks are even greater for teens and young adults because their bodies are still producing growth hormones. If teenagers take HGH in excess, when it has not been prescribed, it could actually have a reverse effect. Too much hormone production could stunt a young person's growth.

Moreover, injecting additional high-levels of HGH into your body may shut down your own body's mechanism to make HGH in the pituitary gland.

Other dangers of taking HGH, just as with steroids, are emotional instability and mood swings.

Experts warn that HGH should be taken only under a doctor's supervision. HGH is only approved for people with dwarfism and muscle wasting from diseases like cancer and AIDS. A doctor can write a prescription for only those two reasons, according to Wadler. "Anything else is really illegal. Just like cocaine," he said.

Medicinal Substance and Not Illegal

The U.S. Department of Justice can punish those who possess or distribute HGH with a maximum jail sentence of five years. It's a felony to distribute HGH to someone under 18 years, and is punishable by up to 10 years in jail and a fine of $250,000.

"This is criminal, drug-pushing behavior," Wadler said of HGH distribution. "That's exactly why the Department of Justice is involved in prosecuting these cases. People shouldn't lose site of that."

Despite the known dangers of HGH, the Drug Enforcement Administration doesn't patrol it, because HGH doesn't fall under the Controlled Substances Act.

"Lots of things would have to happen before this changes," said Rusty Payne, the DEA's public affairs officer. "Congress would have to get involved and three things would need to be evaluated: potential harm to user, availability and potential for addiction."

Payne said HGH won't fall under the DEA's jurisdiction any time soon but will likely follow the same evolution that anabolic steriods has taken since the 1980s, when they were not illegal.

So although the Department of Justice could bust you for having the intention to distribute the substance, HGH is still considered legal because it can be used for medicinal purposes.

Currently, the responsibility to regulate this medicinal substance falls into the hands of the Food and Drug Administration. Under the Federal Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act, the FDA considers HGH a legal but pharmaceutical substance. The FDA has approved HGH for the treatment of certain diseases, like dwarfism, but not for anti-aging or other cosmetic uses.

The Internet has made it extremely easy for people to get their hands on HGH without a doctor's prescription. Wadler said there's a high level of interest in buying HGH over the Internet, and points to the thousands of Web sites that sell HGH.

On the Internet, HGH is typically marketed as an oral or nasal spray. And at about $60 a day, the HGH sold online is significantly cheaper than the true synthetic hormone, available by prescription and priced at $1,000 to $1,500 per daily injection.