March 2, 2023 12:00 am ET
After decades of turning to diet pills, steroids and plastic surgery to alter their bodies inside and out, people are increasingly open to an alternative method: injecting themselves with peptides at home.
Proponents say that peptides—a broad category of substances including FDA-approved drugs, supplements and experimental treatments—can help them build lean muscle, shed weight, increase energy and get a dewy glow. Though the term has appeared on a range of consumer products for years, injectable peptides are getting more attention as celebrity doctors and influencers share stories of physiological transformations that go beyond diet and exercise.
These substances are being prescribed to patients by doctors as well as paramedical providers such as nurses and naturopaths, even though several in-demand peptides are not approved by regulators. The lack of oversight has raised concerns about the purity of ingredients, improper dosing and unknown side effects. But advocates say they’re comfortable with any risks.
“I remember filling up my first syringe, and I was thinking, ‘Oh, my God, I can’t believe I’m gonna do this,’” said actor Brian Austin Green. Despite his fear of needles, he started taking peptide injections in 2021, when he was a contestant on “Dancing With the Stars,” under the guidance of William Seeds, an orthopedic surgeon.
Soon, he was taking three injections every morning for several months. He said that even with the show’s physical demands and grueling rehearsal schedule, “I so didn’t feel my age.”
Actor Brian Austin Green started injecting himself with peptides while competing on ‘Dancing With the Stars.’PHOTO: GETTY IMAGES
This year, Mr. Green turns 50. Heis in talks with Telegenixx, a telehealth startup where Dr. Seeds is a board member and co-founder, to start peptide injections again and promote the treatments on social media. The startup’s chief executive declined to disclose which peptides it offers.
“People are more interested now in, What can I do to protect myself as I am aging, against disease, against stress?’” Dr. Seeds said.
Mr. Green, a father of five, said it’s important to him to be an active dad. “I don’t necessarily want to feel like I’m aging,” he said.
For years, peptides such as BPC-157, CJC-1295 and ipamorelin have been popular among bodybuilders and athletes who are seeking to speed up healing or build muscle. The substances are being procured from compounders, a patchwork industry made up of state-licensed and FDA-registered providers, whose quality standards vary. Regulators have cracked down on their sales, and the World Anti-Doping Agency has expressly banned their use.
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That hasn’t crimped broader interest. Doctors and medical spas nationwide are listing “peptide therapy” among their services and supplying injections to patients who are paying hundreds of dollars a month to take them at home. Some consumers are going directly to suppliers of ingredients intended only for research in order to obtain the substances cheaply and without medical consultation, providers said.
In scientific terms, a peptide is a short chain of amino acids. There are thousands in the human body, and lab-produced versions that mimic them—insulin has often been cited as the first—marked great advancements in modern medicine. Peptide-based drugs have been approved for treating diseases such as multiple sclerosis, Type 2 diabetes and obesity. But as the term “peptides” has entered the consumer vernacular, some providers have come to market them not as drugs but as rejuvenation treatments.
“We’re in this age of hyperfocus on wellness, antiaging, preventive health,” said Abraham Malkin, co-founder of two companies that offer at-home medical care. Both of them have six peptide injections on the menu, some of which Dr. Malkin takes himself. Only two of them have FDA approval, but Dr. Malkin’s website lists them for purposes outside those uses.
“We are very clear with our patients that peptides are generally not FDA-approved at this time, however we do talk to our patients to understand their health needs and enable them to purchase peptides that we feel can allow them to meet their health goals,” Dr. Malkin said.
Bec Donlan, a 36-year-old fitness coach and wellness consultant in Los Angeles, was introduced to peptide injections several years ago, as she sought to address autoimmune symptoms she believes were related to her breast implants.
“I’ve gotten back to normal health, but now I’m like ‘Great, so what else can I do?’” Ms. Donlan said. She is following a peptide regimen that she says has reduced inflammation, boosted her immune system and increased her metabolism. Sometimes she posts about her regimen on Instagram, where she has more than 59,000 followers.
“If I can be a superhero and function at my absolute optimum, why wouldn’t I?” Ms. Donlan said.
Jamie Sherrill, a registered nurse who specializes in aesthetics, shared a TikTok last year in which she described “peptide therapy” as the future, holding a syringe in one hand and a vial in the other. She is known on the platform as Nurse Jamie.
Ms. Sherrill said her medical spa in Los Angeles County has a naturopath doctor who writes prescriptions for peptide injections. Speaking of the laser treatments and fillers she offers clients, she said, “I just think it all works so much better if you are taking a peptide.”
Some clients remain squeamish about at-home injections, Ms. Sherrill said. But she has seen interest rise over the past two years, especially as Type 2 diabetes drug Ozempic, which is taken by injection, has gained traction among people looking to lose some weight.
In addition to injections, some peptides are sold and prescribed as nasal sprays or capsules.
“I’ll have influencers or models come in and say, What can I use in addition to my Botox, microneedling or whatever else they are having done,” said Neil Paulvin, a regenerative-medicine doctor in New York City.
Tyler Jean, a 30-year-old naturopathic doctor in Los Angeles, started injecting the peptide BPC-157 daily—and sometimes twice a day—last fall alongside regular exercise and a healthy diet.
Upgrade Labs CEO Dave Asprey injected himself with peptides on his podcast.PHOTO: GETTY IMAGES
“I wanted to see how I could leverage some of these resources to better support my body’s ability to slow aging, optimize metabolism, maintain lean muscle,” said Dr. Jean, who is a patient of Dr. Paulvin. (Ms. Donlan, the fitness coach, is also one of Dr. Paulvin’s patients.)
Dr. Jean said that he stocks up on injections in New York, where they’re easier for him to get. After recently running out, he began taking BPC-157 in pill form.
Regulators have taken action against providers who sell unapproved peptides, including Tailor Made Compounding, which formerly supplied to patients of Dr. Paulvin. In 2020, the Kentucky-based compounder pleaded guilty to a federal charge for distributing unapproved drugs, including peptides BPC-157, ipamorelin and melanotan II, also known as the Barbie peptide for its purported weight loss and tanning effects. The company was ordered to forfeit $1.7 million and placed ona three-year probation.
Now under new ownership, the company does not dispense the unapproved drugs referenced in the settlement, said Blake McLeod, the chief operating officer. Dr. Paulvin said he now works with multiple other compounders.
Generally speaking, pharmacies are not permitted to compound drug products with unapproved substances, the FDA said. A representative for the agency added that “compounded drugs should only be used to meet the needs of patients whose medical needs cannot be met by an FDA-approved drug.” Unlike supplements that come in the form of capsules and powders, injections are subject to the agency’s premarket approval process.
While many of the peptides aren’t new, they have found new resonance in an era where influential podcasters are promoting nonconventional treatments to their audiences. In March 2020, Upgrade Labs CEO and well-known biohacker Dave Asprey self-injected various peptides on his podcast, which included a video component. In an emailed statement, Mr. Asprey said, “You are in charge of your biology. Not your doctor. Not your government. You.”
Podcast host Joe Rogan has said he’s used peptides.PHOTO: GETTY IMAGES
Joe Rogan, who apologized in 2022 after critics said his popular podcast spread misinformation about Covid-19 vaccines, discussed his use of peptides on the show “Flagrant” the same year. Mr. Rogan did not respond to requests for comment.
Jordan Green, a biomedical engineering professor at Johns Hopkins University, said peptide-based drugs can sometimes be safer than other drugs meant to treat the same conditions. In 2011, he co-founded a startup that researches and develops peptide-based treatments for eye diseases. “But, as with any drug, it needs to be carefully studied before the government and then physicians feel comfortable prescribing it to patients,” he said. Some of the results patients are describing could simply be placebo effects, he added.
Musician George Clanton, 35, learned about the at-home injections from watching the reality show “90 Day Fiancé,” on which a cast member was self-injecting a peptide called sermorelin. “I looked it up and found a whole subculture of thousands of people discussing it every day on Reddit,” Mr. Clanton said. He ordered a few peptides online from a site that sells the substances for research purposes and indicates that they are not for human consumption. “I realize it’s stupid,” he said.
For several months before going on tour, he self-injected.
“It wasn’t like I was getting jacked,” he said, but “slowly, I just started to realize, I was waking up in the morning, ready to talk and think, instead of having to lay in the bed for an hour, and then have coffee and then mope around.”
Aside from some bruising and soreness, he hasn’t seen any downsides.
“People in my line of work, you know, sometimes there’s people injecting black-tar heroin into their bloodstream,” he said. “So I feel like this is so much less risky.”
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