J.D. Moyer

beat maker, sci-fi writer, self-experimenter

Four Simple Ways to Increase Growth Hormone (Burn Fat, Build Muscle)

Actor/power-lifter/wrestler Nathan Jones (from Troy)

Most of us would like to be leaner and stronger.  The hormones that have the biggest effect on body composition are growth hormone (GH) and insulin-like growth factor 1 (IGF-1).  After the age of 25, most people will experience some negative effects from declining levels of both these hormones, including:

  • weaker bones
  • poorer sleep quality
  • increased body fat, especially in the abdominal area
  • older looking skin
  • less physical strength and slower recovery time

Anything we can do to keep GH and IGF-1 levels up will help us look and feel younger.  So what can we do?

There are a number of simple behaviors that can radically alter our GH and IGF-1 levels.  All of them are simple.  At the same time, none of them are easy.  All four will all cause slight amounts of discomfort for most people.  Personally, I don’t always do all of them.  But knowing what works, and doing those things at least part of the time, has helped me stay lean (29″ waist) and reasonably strong (I can do about 10 pullups), despite the fact that I only workout about twenty minutes a week, and most of my favorite activities are sedentary (making music, writing, reading, drinking wine and talking with friends, playing video games, etc.).

So here’s the list:

1) Eat Low Glycemic Meals

While low-carb diets aren’t ideal for everyone (especially endurance athletes), getting more fuel from fat can increase satiety and decrease overeating.  Robb Wolf‘s approach is the paleolithic diet, a strict way of eating that excludes all grains, legumes, dairy, alcohol, processed foods, and most sugars.  Mark Sisson‘s “primal” diet is more flexible, and allows high-quality dairy products (if tolerated) and moderate amounts of wine, dark chocolate, and coffee.  Tim Ferriss’s “slow carb” diet allows beans and a once-a-week anything goes “cheat day.”  Other diet/weight-loss experts, like Anthony Colpo, are vehemently opposed to the low-carb approach, citing lower performance results for endurance athletes.  Dan Pardi‘s approach is the most balanced and least dogmatic, taking personal preferences and “food values” into consideration.

What all these diet experts agree on is that a diet high in refined carbohydrates and simple sugars will wreak havoc with your hormonal system, preventing growth hormone release (due to constantly high circulating levels of both cortisol and insulin).  In practice this means:

  • greatly reduce or eliminate white bread, pasta, white rice, and other refined grains
  • greatly reduce or eliminate simple sugar in all forms (corn syrup, white sugar, brown sugar, maple syrup, honey, agave nectar, etc.)
  • consume other high glycemic foods that may have some health benefits (dried fruit, fresh orange juice, low-fat milk, beer) only in small quantities (if at all)

Dietary fiber, fat, protein, and eating slowly will all help prevent both overeating, and excessive blood sugar spikes.  However, even experts in the paleo/low-carb community acknowledge that a continuous VLC (very low carb) approach may not be the most effective method for consistent strength gains and fat-burning.  Occasional post-workout “carb refeeds” may help us reach the ideal hormonal profile (including GH, IGF-1, leptin, etc.) for fat loss and muscle growth.  For those who don’t do well with gluten (myself included), foods like yams and brown rice are high carbohydrate, high fiber, high nutrient, and low in anti-nutrients like phytic acid.

2) Turn Off The Lights

Connections between the sleep/circadian rhythm hormone melatonin and growth-hormone release are just beginning to be understood.  What is clear is that disrupted sleep patterns and sleep deprivation rapidly degrade health, and are associated with lower circulating levels of growth hormone.

I realize this blog post is one of about a thousand on the internet that tell the reader how to “naturally increase growth hormone.”  Almost all of them include “get a good night’s sleep” on the list.  But how, exactly, are we supposed to do that, especially if we have less-than-ideal levels of circulating growth hormone (which improves sleep quality)?

For me, a 30-day experiment in living without artificial light gave me some remarkable insights into the relationship between sleep and health.  For my entire life I thought was a “natural night owl.”  After the experiment, I realized that I was just someone who is sensitive to the effects of artificial light.  If the lights are on, I don’t feel sleepy (even if my body and brain are exhausted, and I desperately need sleep).  The same is true for most people; artificial light reduces the secretion of melatonin.

Losing body fat was an unexpected side effect of the sleep experiment — one I attribute to increased GH release (though is could also be related to reduced sugar cravings — sleep deprivation is closely linked to reduced insulin sensitivity).

I don’t want to give up artificial light entirely — it’s too convenient.  But I now have better control over my own sleep patterns.  If I want to get to sleep early, and sleep well, the lights (and the computer, and the TV) need to get turned off early.

3) Do Short, Fun, Intense Bouts of Exercise

If you want to be lean, strong, and mentally sharp, physical exercise isn’t optional.  What is optional is the kind of exercise you do.  You should do something you enjoy.  If you hate running, don’t run.  Same for lifting weights.  You’ll never be able to keep it up if it feels like a grind.

Research in exercise physiology supports the idea that intensity is more important than duration, at least in terms of trigger positive hormonal reactions like growth hormone release, and positive adaptations (like getting stronger and gaining endurance).  In practice this could mean doing short sprints instead of a long slow jog, or doing fewer repetitions with heavier weights (and lifting more slowly to increase difficulty).

4) Stop Eating for 16-24 Hours At Least Once A Week

Fasting induces growth hormone release; GH helps burn body fat to mobilize calories to prevent starvation.

Some bodybuilders fear missing meals.  They worry that their bodies will instantly start consuming hard-earned muscle tissue for fuel.  As Martin Berkhan explains on his leangains.com site, the beneficial (GH-release) effects of fasting kick in much sooner than protein catabolism.

Berkhan also enjoys dismantling other useless dietary myths by citing numerous carefully reviewed scientific studies.  For example, there is no evidence that eating small, frequent meals has any benefits over eating large, infrequent ones, and there is even some evidence to the contrary, but people persist in this mode of eating as though it had some kind of virtue.

You might experience some discomfort the first few times you go without food for half a day or more, especially if you eat wheat and dairy products on a regular basis.  These foods contain exorphins (peptides that mimic the effects of opioids on human physiology); withdrawal can be experienced as muscle aches, flu-like symptoms, and a sense of unease.

Taking relatively short bouts of “time off” from eating is generally called intermittent fasting.  There are many different approaches, but the general idea is to not eat for 16 or more hours at least a few times a week, or even to restrict your eating window to 8 hours or less every day (this is Berkhan’s approach).  Some people choose to fast 24 hours, one day a week.

Personally I have experimented with fasting until 2pm one day a week.  I haven’t noticed any dramatic physical effects from my “dipping a toe in” approach, but the documented physiological effects intrigue me.  I have noticed positive psychological effects; on fasting days I feel mentally clear and buoyant.  I also have more time to get things done.

Edit: Just found this interesting article about food restriction and D2 dopamine receptors, in rats.  Food restriction (such as intermittent fasting) may increase our ability to respond to rewards (and thus increase motivation).

Why Bother?

Why bother attempting to modulate your physiology?  As impressive as he is, most of us don’t want to look like Nathan Jones (above).  While I enjoy not having a spare tire, I think the main benefits of a more youthful hormonal profile are feeling more energetic and stronger.  For the aspects of aging that are optional, I prefer to opt-out.

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26 Comments

  1. Nice article JD !

  2. Thanks Mike, and thanks for the re-blog!

  3. john

    “Anything we can do to keep GH and IGF-1 levels up will help us look and feel younger.”

    I’m a bit confused. I’ve started looking into fasting after watching a BBC documentary on it. It suggested that research into fasting found that it dramatically lowered IGF-1, which was apparently a good thing – redcued amounts was theorised to increase lifespan as well as burning fat and building muscle.

    So that brought me to a post on your website (death will eat itself) which seems to be broadly in favour of occasional fasting and agree with the anti-aging, fat burning, muscle building theory.

    But then *this* post suggests trying to *raise* IGF-1 in order to… gain anti-aging benefits, burn fat and build muscle…

    So on one side some people (not just you) are suggesting we try to increase IGF-1, while on the other hand other people are suggesting we try to decrease IGF-1. But both for pretty much identical reasons/results.

    Have I missed or misunderstood something?

    (the bbc link is here, though obviously it missed a lot of detail that was in the documentary: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/health-19112549)

    • My layman’s understanding is that short-term fasting increases GH release (in order to burn fat and provide fuel) but suppresses IGF-1 (the body isn’t going to try to build muscle without incoming protein). Eating a high protein meal after a fast then spikes IGF-1 and facilitates muscle growth. For more detailed explanations and references to clinical studies, I would recommend Martin Berkhan’s site (www.leangains.com) and Brad Pilon’s blog (bradpilon.com).

      In fact, Brad Pilon’s current post discusses the same Michael Mosley BBC show you refer to:

      http://bradpilon.com/weight-loss/the-52-diet-my-review/

  4. Oliver

    What nonsense is this?? You want LOW IGF1, not to increase it. IGF is linked to cancer,diabetes,alzheimers, everything. Fasting lowers IGF1, but cutting protein works better, bcz IGF is linked more to protein than calorie restriction. The only people trying to increase IGF are muscle builders that don’t know about its harmful effects, they do it bcz they know it’s anabolic, wtf are you recommending it for increased health when it DECREASES life expectancy. The WORST thing you can do is recommend meat and dairy- go blog on pop culture, not science that will kill people.

    • Hi Oliver. What you want for health is hormonal balance, not extremely low or high amounts of any particular hormone. There are huge benefits to maintaining lean muscle mass (for example better blood sugar regulation and increased bone density), and for that you need adequate IGF.

      Personally I have experienced huge health improvements on a high protein, low carb paleo diet. I became leaner, stronger, and experienced cessation of asthma symptoms, which I attribute to lower inflammation levels and a less reactive immune system. Most ancestral and traditional diets are high in protein (including shellfish, wild game, and insects), and modern hunter-gatherer populations are largely free of the diseases you mentioned.

      • Oliver

        You weren’t advocating balance, you were talking about increasing IGF which besides being the opposite of good health, is not a concern. People especially westerners don’t have a problem with low IGF, it’s the exact opposite, it’s too high.You can live worse than any westerner and still never get any of these diseases, you just need to have a rare mutation that means you produce deficient levels of IGF- a tribe in equador have that mutation, they’re dwarves bcz of it, but zero disease and long life expectancy. This mutation effects 300-350 globally. So, forget about maxing IGF and start worrying it’s not low enough. You want to be lean and strong be a male, lift weights and eat to maintain a bodyweight that enables fitness. You want to be healthy, include fruit, veg, essential oils and limit processed. Doing that will keep IGF lower, as will cal restriction, but low protein is most important- something which paleo’s don’t mostly like. Are paleo’s even paleo? Not unless they fast regularly, fasting is a key factor in low IGF. Sidenote, stronger and lighter doesn’t alone mean you’re healthier. It’s easy to get strong and fit without eating fruit or veg, you don’t need optimal hormones, you just need to know what to do in the gym and to keep junk food, alcohol and sleep deprivation to manageable levels. Athletes do not need more IGF, they need less, bcz their bodies are more sensitive to it. Studies show vegetable proteins don’t have the effect animal proteins do on IGF, so a diet with followers salivating over bacon/red meat is as bad as Atkins for its IGF effects. The amount of animal protein for lowered IGF is so low, I doubt any paleo or chronie would go for it. The recommendation is maximally, 0.72-0.82g per kilo bodyweight, most meat eating gym folk eat minimally 1g per pound of bodyweight. I would get your IGF tested, then go for a month with low animal protein and retest. If it’s much lower it shows your IGF isn’t optimal for life expectancy and disease prevention. You can also find online what healthy levels are considered for IGF- most people are at the maximum of “healthy” range or over: considering the size of the range is so big, this is not good. Cancer and Alzheimer’s, can come at any age, they increase dramatically with age and are considered ageing related. In other words, we might think we’re healthy and safe at 30-50 or even 60-80, that doesn’t mean we won’t get one of these diseases if we live long enough. Experiments on ageing show calorie increase reducing life expectancy from 70/80 to 30/50 and calore restriction increasing expectancy to 120 plus by changes in IGF, but changes in IGF were much more significant when protein was reduced.

        • Oliver — I don’t want to get into the ongoing paleo vs. vegan internet battle — here’s why:

          http://jdmoyer.com/2012/01/03/paleo-vs-vegan-a-battle-of-straw-men/

          For me, increasing protein and reducing grain products led to increased muscle mass (about 20 pounds), as well as increased satiety after meals, and generally feeling better. As a vegetarian, I weighed 135 at 5’8″, and I couldn’t put on muscle no matter how much I worked out. I assume my IGF levels went up with my increased protein intake. It is possible that has shaved a few years off of my maximum longevity? Sure. Is it worth it. For me, yes. Those dwarves in Ecuador might make the same trade if they could.

          I do advocate short-terms fasts, as you can read in my post.

          Lower IGF-1 levels may or may not be associated with reduced disease and increased longevity. In this study, IGF-1 levels were similar for people in “nonagenarian” families to others, but glucose levels were lower.

          http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2806046/

          So it may be that sensitivity to both insulin and IGF-1 is more important for health than levels of those hormones. For improved insulin sensitivity and lower blood glucose levels, we know cutting out excessive sugar and starch is effective.

          You mentioned calorie restriction and longevity. The latest research on calorie restriction in mammals indicates lower cancer rates, but no longevity increase:

          http://www.nytimes.com/2012/08/30/science/low-calorie-diet-doesnt-prolong-life-study-of-monkeys-finds.html

          The practices I advocate in this post — lower glycemic load meals, using less artificial light, short bouts of intense exercise, and intermittent fasting — are all conservative, well-researched, and health-promoting, and I stand by them. I look forward to learning more about the mechanisms and pathways of IGF-1, and I will update and change my views and recommendations as more clinical research becomes available.

          • Oliver

            I’m not part of any vegan/paleo feud, I’m simply pointing out your suggestion to purposefully increase IGF to promote health is opposite to the truth. The study you gave on calorie restriction was monkey based, mine mice. They’re different systems so one cannot overrule the other. The thrust of this thread seemed to be about getting stronger, a lot of paleos are in the crossfit crowd- this crowd is not strong per se, they are simply stronger than the average joe. I’m not labelling your work out program, but most folks that say they can’t put on weight overcomplicate a simple process. The most common problem is they fear eating too much, the second varies between an unhealthy lifestyle (nothing as involved as calculating mineral intake or hormone levels, think alcohol/junk and sleep) and overtraining/focussing on the wrong exercises in the gym. Very rarely is there a complex reason, like a genetic condition, for an inability to gain weight in the gym. In the mouse model, it wasn’t a few years, you’re talking 50% longer- but will I drop to 0.7g protein per kg? No, but what I do and what I recommend are different. I am still mindful of the fact growth promoting factors like IGF need to be minimised where possible, and I wouldn’t recommend maximising them for health. Maybe you should distinguish between getting stronger and getting healthier- because they are not the same, they are often opposites. Being strong is also not the same as being fit.

  5. Here’s an interesting study comparing long-term fasting to intermittent fasting. IF does not reduce IGF-1, but does reduce insulin:
    http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC156352/

  6. Another relevant study — long-term calorie restriction decreases cancer (in mice) but is also associated with bone-loss due to low IGF-1:
    http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/15999532

  7. For those who want to learn more about intermittent fasting, Mark Sisson has a 7-part series on his blog that goes into tremendous detail:

    http://www.marksdailyapple.com/fasting-weight-loss/

  8. That article was very informative on eating and lifestyle adjustments for increasing hgh levels naturally. I am a health coach grad from integrativenutrition.com and focus on an integrative approach; I promote,
    increaseyourhgh.com for supplementation; its natural & affordable!

  9. Hira

    Well written and I agree with all points specially the sleep pattern and fasting.

  10. Levy

    Growth hormone is the hormone that causes peoples to age physically Acromegally – causes enlargement of the head, nose, ears, brow, chin. Acromegally happens to everyone it just normally happens very slowly. Increasing growth hormone speeds this up. You may have no body fat on GH but you will end up looking like Herman Munster – not a good idea. The secret to staying young looking is to lower growth hormone, doing so also massively increases life span. I have been looking for a safe drug to lower growth hormone for over 20 years. All the while I hear and read of people saying increasing growth hormone is the way to go. But that’s life most people are wrong about most things. Oh yes that reminds me if someone knows of a substance with few side effects to lower growth hormone please reply to this message.

    • The Standard American Diet and commuting/sitting lifestyle do a pretty good job of suppressing growth hormone release. Add constant stress/permanently elevated cortisol levels and you’ve got a perfect recipe for growth hormone suppression. A steady drip of simple carbs into the bloodstream keeps insulin going through all waking hours and well into the night, thus suppressing growth hormone release (except in cases of acromegaly). No drugs needed!

      http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/19251037
      http://www.yourhormones.info/hormones/growth_hormone.aspx

      Unfortunately, chronically low growth hormone is not the “fountain of youth.” The result instead is muscle weakness and muscle wasting, a weak heart, obesity, and a reduced sense of well-being.

      Would older adults who have eaten high-carb for decades and lived sedentary lives have “more childlike” faces, with smaller noses and smaller ears? It’s an interesting question — maybe so. However I doubt they would look younger, since they would also be fatter and more wrinkly.

      None of the practices I advocate in this post could possibly lead to the chronically high levels of growth hormone you see with acromegaly. I’m simply suggesting that the “normal” levels seen in most modern-lifestyle adults (refined carbs+electric lights+high stress+low exercise) are actually lower than ancestral levels.

      I do think diet and other lifestyle conditions change facial appearance. People’s faces looked different before high fructose corn syrup became a dietary staple. They looked leaner and harder. Faces of people raised without any refined grains look broader, less pinched (this was one of Weston Price’s key observations).

      http://www.westonaprice.org/traditional-diets/ancient-dietary-wisdom

      • nonamejoe

        Agree with this completely. If you look at the typical american their growth hormone levels are probably to low. This is why health in america is so poor. People just automatically look people like Andrea the giant and think “growth hormone bad!” This is an exceptional case, not something that is going to happen as a result of a few lifestyle changes.

  11. Anybody else tired of the inferior serp’s in the big g? I was forced to go 6 pages deep just to discover this web site; it was the only one with useful material, Un-freaking-believable! The big G has really “jumped the shark”, as they say!

  12. Oliver :- Without IGF-1 and Growth hormone, ones body would have limited ability to repair, even ‘normal’ cellular wear and tear.
    Where’s the evidence that calorie restriction will increase life-span to 120+ years? There is only one woman who has lived past 120 years of age (Jeanne Louise Calment, the only person confirmed to have reached over 120 years of age) and she ate 1 kg of chocolate per week…doesn’t sound too calorie restricted!
    Calorie restriction studies done on worms, fruit fly and mice/rats have indeed shown increased life-span. When repeated on higher primates, there was no extension to life span, however the calorie restricted monkeys did not suffer much illness until towards the of end their life – they lived a ‘healthier life’, but not a longer life than the control monkeys.

    Levy:- Acromegaly is the result of rampant growth hormone production over a long period of time and the result of an endocrine disorder. No amount of exercise or protein intake could ever cause this condition. To want low levels of growth hormone is bizarre, how will your body repair? IGF-1 and Growth hormone are needed for cellular repair, without them, you would slowly disintegrate internally.

    “Lower levels of anabolic hormones in older age are well documented. Several studies suggested that low insulin-like growth factor I (IGF-I) or testosterone levels were related to increased mortality.”
    http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0039128X11003096

    “The age-related decline of circulating anabolic hormones in men is associated with increased morbidity and mortality.”
    http://circ.ahajournals.org/content/114/17/1829

    IGF-1 and Growth hormone are both anabolic, as is testosterone. May be you should go for low testosterone levels too – such will definitely increase your mortality risk.
    These hormones are vitally important for health! Why would you want to decrease them?

  13. that;s why if u make a research about islam,u will surprise that islam encourage muslim to fast for a month in a year..thats a must in islam.because we have eat for 11 months,thus we must fast only a month in 12 months..and fasting has shown so many benefits for human body..science has proved it..and some of people also will fast in monday and thursday in a week..(2 days in a week)..but thats not a must for every muslim..thats only something good and encourage by islam.it is mot om;y good for ur health but also show something good u do for god.if u have time,why not try to make some research about islam..dont hate something before you really know and learn about it..trust me,u will surprise as u will see a lot of things that u never expected before about islam..^^..thanks for ur good info.islam is not only a religion but it is the way of life..=)..have a nice day everyone.

  14. dvaid

    Those dwafs in eqcuador would make the same trade if they could loool

  15. alok

    i am 19 years old n 5.6″. i am worried of height, please give some tips to improve my growth morrthan 6″.

    • It’s unlikely you’re going to grow more than a few inches taller (if that). That said, avoiding soy products and eating adequate animal protein (esp. full-fat dairy products) might help you maximize any remaining genetic height potential you might have. Re: the advice in this post, skip the fasting and focus on getting enough sleep and minimizing sugar and fructose. Make sure you eat ENOUGH food too.

  16. Ash lee

    I want to know if this can stimulate height ?

    • If you are still growing, the most important factors in terms of reaching your genetic height potential are probably adequate protein, adequate calories, good general health, getting enough sleep, and avoiding growth-suppressing foods (lots of soy, for example). If you are lactose tolerant, dairy products may be helpful in this regard (organic, whole-milk are best). Zinc is also important. I wouldn’t recommend vegetarianism if you want to reach your maximum height potential.

  17. kerry

    IGF-1 and GH are both essential for health and vitality in adults and children. Without them, we’d soon die. Low levels are associated with drastically increased mortality rates from most forms of vascular disease.

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