Growth hormone in obesity

Int J Obes Relat Metab Disord. 1999 Mar;23(3):260-71. doi: 10.1038/sj.ijo.0800807.


Growth hormone (GH) secretion, either spontaneous or evoked by provocative stimuli, is markedly blunted in obesity. In fact obese patients display, compared to normal weight subjects, a reduced half-life, frequency of secretory episodes and daily production rate of the hormone. Furthermore, in these patients GH secretion is impaired in response to all traditional pharmacological stimuli acting at the hypothalamus (insulin-induced hypoglycaemia, arginine, galanin, L-dopa, clonidine, acute glucocorticoid administration) and to direct somatotrope stimulation by exogenous growth hormone releasing hormone (GHRH). Compounds thought to inhibit hypothalamic somatostatin (SRIH) release (pyridostigmine, arginine, galanin, atenolol) consistently improve, though do not normalize, the somatotropin response to GHRH in obesity. The synthetic growth hormone releasing peptides (GHRPs) GHRP-6 and hexarelin elicit in obese patients GH responses greater than those evoked by GHRH, but still lower than those observed in lean subjects. The combined administration of GHRH and GHRP-6 represents the most powerful GH releasing stimulus known in obesity, but once again it is less effective in these patients than in lean subjects. As for the peripheral limb of the GH-insulin-like growth factor I (IGF-I) axis, high free IGF-I, low IGF-binding proteins 1 (IGFBP-1) and 2 (IGFBP-2), normal or high IGFBP-3 and increased GH binding protein (GHBP) circulating levels have been described in obesity. Recent evidence suggests that leptin, the product of adipocyte specific ob gene, exerts a stimulating effect on GH release in rodents; should the same hold true in man, the coexistence of high leptin and low GH serum levels in human obesity would fit in well with the concept of a leptin resistance in this condition. Concerning the influence of metabolic and nutritional factors, an impaired somatotropin response to hypoglycaemia and a failure of glucose load to inhibit spontaneous and stimulated GH release are well documented in obese patients; furthermore, drugs able to block lipolysis and thus to lower serum free fatty acids (NEFA) significantly improve somatotropin secretion in obesity. Caloric restriction and weight loss are followed by the restoration of a normal spontaneous and stimulated GH release. On the whole, hypothalamic, pituitary and peripheral factors appear to be involved in the GH hyposecretion of obesity. A SRIH hypertone, a GHRH deficiency or a functional failure of the somatotrope have been proposed as contributing factors. A lack of the putative endogenous ligand for GHRP receptors is another challenging hypothesis. On the peripheral side, the elevated plasma levels of NEFA and free IGF-I may play a major role. Whatever the cause, the defect of GH secretion in obesity appears to be of secondary, probably adaptive, nature since it is completely reversed by the normalization of body weight. In spite of this, treatment with biosynthetic GH has been shown to improve the body composition and the metabolic efficacy of lean body mass in obese patients undergoing therapeutic severe caloric restriction. GH and conceivably GHRPs might therefore have a place in the therapy of obesity.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Body Composition
  • Diet, Reducing
  • Growth Hormone-Releasing Hormone
  • Human Growth Hormone / metabolism*
  • Human Growth Hormone / therapeutic use
  • Humans
  • Insulin-Like Growth Factor I / metabolism
  • Leptin
  • Nutritional Physiological Phenomena
  • Obesity / physiopathology*
  • Obesity / therapy
  • Proteins / physiology
  • Weight Loss


  • Leptin
  • Proteins
  • Human Growth Hormone
  • Insulin-Like Growth Factor I
  • Growth Hormone-Releasing Hormone