Earlier this year, E, a software engineer at one of the FAANG tech giants in Silicon Valley, hit a wall in the gym. The 32-year-old had been working out consistently with a personal trainer for over a year, but his weight lifting progress was starting to plateau.
His trainer began encouraging him to order supplements online to push his body further, which he called “peptides.” E finally decided to take the plunge in April and bought two bottles of 60 pills from a website for $180.
In the era of the “buff business leader,” some tech workers have begun using peptides — a broad class of oral and injectable drugs, treatments, and supplements — to improve their health and appearance. They range from the FDA-approved diabetes medication Ozempic to unregulated compounds imported from China.
Enthusiasts claim they can not only treat disease, but also increase weight loss, boost muscle growth, or give you a tan without needing to sit out in the sun. Since the end of last year, the relative popularity of Google searches in the U.S. for “peptides” rose nearly 60%, according to Google Trends.
“The tone around peptides went from ‘this is some obscure thing’ to ‘this is a normal thing,’” said E, who asked to use his middle initial to protect his privacy.
Peptides are short chains of amino acids that are used by all living creatures to make proteins. More than 80 peptide therapies have been approved worldwide — the most well known example is insulin.
Bodybuilders and biohackers have long dabbled with taking peptides, but providers say the practice has become more popular since the COVID-19 pandemic and the rise of injectable obesity medications such as Ozempic, Mounjaro, and Wegovy, which Elon Musk has credited for helping him to drop 30 pounds.
Demand for these specific peptide drugs — referred to as GLP-1 medications — has skyrocketed over the last year, leading to shortages. In order to access them, people began turning to online telehealth services that often partner with compounding pharmacies, which can produce GLP-1 drugs readily and cheaply. Some clinics, like Concierge MD and Telegenixx, also offer other, more fringe peptides to their patients.
“We can help manage things like mental clarity, focus, and sexual wellness,” said Erin Keyes, the co-founder and CEO of Telegenixx. The company announced in June that patient enrollment had increased 350% since the start of the year, and competitors around the country have recently begun adding peptide therapy to their practices as well.
Keyes said that peptides are particularly appealing to people in industries like tech, where many roles are mentally demanding and physically sedentary. Abe Malkin, the CEO and founder of Concierge MD, said his patients often listen to podcasters like Joe Rogan and Andrew Huberman, who have both previously discussed peptides on their shows.
Regularly injecting multiple peptides, or what biohackers often refer to as “stacking,” can quickly get expensive. Telegenixx’s service starts at $299 a month for one peptide and increases to $499 if patients add on another.
One peptide user, who had previously used two other compounds to help him recover from an elbow injury, said he was currently considering a round of tesamorelin, a synthetic human growth hormone peptide that is FDA-approved to treat HIV patients. The $1,200 price tag for a three-month supply, however, gave him pause.
Patients must also contend with the potential side effects from taking peptides, especially when it’s not always clear what may be in them. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration periodically cracks down on websites selling unapproved versions of the drugs, but it still remains relatively easy to find them online.
E said the pills he bought almost immediately made him feel stronger, less stressed, and improved his sleep. But he stopped taking them after noticing clumps of his hair falling out in the shower, which he learned was a common side effect after reading accounts from other users online. “If I didn’t start losing my hair, I’d still be on them today,” E said.
I was initially really tempted to start taking peptides. The idea of losing a few pounds, sleeping better, and having more energy sounded great. I pored over Reddit posts in which people swore the medications made them feel thin for the first time ever, or helped them heal from stubborn injuries after nothing else worked. I wanted to find out if I could reap the same kinds of benefits.
But then I saw how peptides were being discussed on platforms like YouTube and TikTok. Their purported upsides were often touted by burly male influencers, who received a commission from each sale when someone used their discount code or a special link in their bio. Taking unregulated substances that were being promoted in this way started to look less appealing.
Last month, the nonprofit Center for Countering Digital Hate published a report that looked at how peptides are marketed to teenagers on TikTok, connecting them to the wider industry of workout supplements and steroid-like drugs that often preys on the insecurities of young men. CCDH looked at 9 hashtags specifically for peptides, which it found had been viewed 163 million times in the last three years, more than half coming from users ages 18 to 24.
“There’s a big new cultural problem where all the ills we have recognized with regards to body image for young women are being revisited in a new form for men,” said Callum Hood, head of research at CCDH.
The View From The FDA
Late last month, the FDA announced that it would “consider taking action” against compounding pharmacies that produce a number of substances the agency concluded “raise significant safety risks.” The list included several peptides popular among biohackers, including BPC-157, AOD-9604, and GHRP-2. A spokesperson for the FDA did not respond to questions in time for publication.
- “If I can be a superhero and function at my absolute optimum, why wouldn’t I?” asked a Los Angeles fitness coach in this Wall Street Journal article about peptides.
- 4% of male and female subscribers to tech news site The Information say they spend between $100 and $500 on weight-loss medications each month.
- X Prize founder and longevity guru Peter Diamandis was criticized for falsely promoting certain peptides as cures for COVID-19 in 2021.