In Defense of Human Growth Hormone

In cases like A-Rod’s, the media vilifies drugs that can give infertile women families and treat serious diseases
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(Reuters/Jose Luis Gonzalez)

Every news story about Alex Rodriguez and his alleged use of testosterone and human growth hormone pains me.  It’s not because I am an A-Rod fan, if there are any of those left. The overplayed A-Rod saga stings because it drags through the mud the drugs that gave me my family.

The day I was told I had significant fertility issues, I noticed a small but foreboding change in my doctor’s office. The bowl of peanut-butter cups that usually sat in the middle of his conference table had been replaced with a box of Kleenex. The swap was thoughtful, but it didn’t matter. Five minutes later, I was beyond the comfort of either chocolate or tissues.

My high levels of a hormone called follicle-stimulating hormone (FSH) indicated poor egg quality. Even though I was 30, I only had as many good eggs left as a typical 40-year-old woman. As a result, the doctor estimated my chances of naturally conceiving a baby to be just 5 percent. It doesn’t take a sports fan to know a stat like that isn’t good. Furthermore, the doctor explained that improving egg quality is a difficult, if not impossible, thing to do. “Once an egg is bad, it’s bad,” he said.

Even after this devastating news, my husband and I decided to keep moving forward with our dream of building a family. We considered our options and then sought out a reproductive endocrinologist who specialized in helping women with depleted ovarian reserve (the fancy medical term for bad eggs).

Our new doctor was more optimistic about our situation. He recommended that I follow a typical in vitro fertilization (IVF) protocol, with a couple of small deviations. Specifically, he suggested that I take testosterone and human growth hormone (HGH), additions that, while not approved by the Food and Drug Administration, are fairly common in the treatment of infertility. The doctor explained that these hormones might be able to turn back the clock on my eggs in the same way they supposedly give has-been ball players a new swing.

Like many people, the assumptions and associations I made with steroids and hormone use back in 2009, in the thick of the BALCO steroid case, were completely negative and all related to athletics. In fact, the first thing that popped into my head after hearing the doctor’s recommendation was an image of Barry Bonds’ bulging skull. Thinking of what changes might occur to my own body brought me to tears.

Still, I took to the IVF field.  Following doctor’s orders, I wore testosterone-leaching patches and stuck a needle, big enough for a horse and full of HGH, into my ass every day for just less than a week. To my delight, after the treatments ended, I did not find hair growing on my chest, and thankfully, my head stayed the same size. On the downside, my arms did not look anything like Dara Torres’s.

Even though I couldn’t see any physical differences, the changes I needed were happening inside my body. My doctor removed enough good eggs to fertilize six embryos. To me, this still feels like a miracle, and in the years since, I’ve delivered two healthy babies from those six embryos. Our daughter is almost 3, and our son is 6 months old.

Turns out, what happened to me is normal and what happens to athletes who abuse performance enhancing drugs is not. Dr. Neil Minkoff said on NPR’s Tell Me More, “If I’m going to be prescribing steroids in a way that is safe…it’s not going to help anybody hit and it’s not going to help anybody tackle, because the effects will be reasonably minimal. That’s the problem. If you’re using steroids in a way that is safe, it will not be effective [in drastically altering athletic performance], and if it is effective, it will not be safe.” (It’s unclear if HGH is, in fact, effective.)

I can’t know for sure why this particular IVF cycle had a different result than our prior efforts to conceive. But that doesn’t stop me from drawing the connection between the steroids and HGH I took and the babies I had, especially given my diagnosis. I certainly feel that I owe at least some of the immeasurable amount of joy and craziness that my children have brought into my life to HGH.

Testosterone and HGH are good for much more than clandestinely beefing up sports stars. Testosterone therapy helps men recover from prostate cancer. Aside from its advantages for infertile women, HGH can be used by people with AIDS to maintain weight, and it can also regulate the pituitary glands of adults with a rare condition that causes them to continue growing. Most notably, HGH helps hormone-deficient children mature. A pediatric cardiologist friend told me that many of his patients take growth hormones to treat short stature, which is caused by many other medical conditions.

University of Illinois professor Robert Costa was quoted in a 2004 Science Daily article, saying that HGH is able to do these seemingly magic things (both in legitimate medical treatment and illegal bulking up) by “activating a gene critical for the body’s tissues to heal and regenerate.”

Even though the experiences of Barry Bonds, Jose Conseco, Mark McGwire, Alex Rodriguez, and every other athlete who has abused testosterone, HGH or other drugs in an effort to enhance athletic performance have little to do with the experiences of individuals like me who have taken hormones to treat actual medical conditions, it still feels like the activity is, in essence, shady. 

Clearly, abusers are to blame, but I also believe there’s a negative understanding of these drugs because when HGH and testosterone enter the public dialogue, the media throws around catchy phrases like “massive illegal distribution network” and users are instantly labeled “villains.”  People start saying the word “drug,” with a tone that has nothing to do with prescriptions and everything to do with a Nancy Reagan-type shame campaign. All these things result in an oversimplified assumption, which I once shared, that HGH and testosterone are universally bad.

That’s why I understand when people look shocked after I tell them that I took HGH.  When they ask, “Where did you get it?” I can tell that they expect to hear “In an alley in Mexico,” instead of the boring, less provocative truth—from the pharmacy around the corner.

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Shawnee Barton is a writer and artist based in Austin, Texas.

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