Is Natural Deer Antler Velvet a Performance Enhancing Drug?

Is Natural Deer Antler Velvet a Performance Enhancing Drug?

After the fallout from last years Baltimore Ravens' Ray Lewis deer antler velvet controversy, it is important to clear up a few misunderstandings about what is a very beneficial supplement. Deer antler velvet (DAV) is the fuzzy outer layer of the deer antler and is rich in IGF-1 (insulin-like growth factors), as well as a wide range of useful nutrients like collagen, chondroitin, calcium, choline, lecithin, phosphorus, magnesium, protein, lipids, amino and fatty acids, uronic acid, prostaglandins, proteoglycans, and glycosaminoglycans. Each year the deer's antler fall off and re-grow, making it the most dense concentration of growth hormones seen anywhere in nature. According to researchers at Oxford University, "the biochemistry that contributes to the rapid growth of velvet antlers probably has undiscovered medical potential for humans with regards to cell growth and repair."

In the 1960's, DAV was popularized as a supplement in the west by Russian bodybuilders who had been using it to increase muscle strength and mass. While new to us, DAV has been used and prized by Chinese healers for 1000s of years. They consider it to be one of the most important healing tonics, first mentioned as a health aid on a 2000 year old scroll found in a tomb in the Hunan province. It has a long traditional history of medicinal benefits for heart, nervous system, and endocrine system disorders, wounds and pain, ulcers, arthritis, insomnia, anemia, impotence, and infertility. But it is specifically the effects of the IGF-1 contained in DAV that has brought it into controversy lately.

IGF-1 is an important hormone that is closely related to insulin, has anabolic anti-catabolic effects in the human body and aids repair by building protein bases on which cells grow. It has a powerful erythopoietic effect, increasing the formation of red blood cells (erythrocytes.) and enhances the healing process by maximizing the number of new cells that accumulate on this protein matrix base. IGF-1 binds to the IGF receptors within the cells which causes a stimulation of cell growth and an inhibition of cell death.

Because of the many positive effects, it has been utilized by athletes, especially for increased nitrogen retention and protein synthesis.  IGF-1 promotes growth of new muscle cells, thereby increasing the overall number of cells in the muscle. It may be effective in promoting healing in tendon and cartilage injuries. It is believed that IGF-1 contributes to DAV's anti-ageing benefits, benefits for children with growth issues, for people with dwarfism, for cellular regeneration, for immunopotentiation, and for anti-viral and anti-tumor characteristics.

Despite continuing research, we are only starting to understand the biochemistry of the growth process, and this may underlie the IGF-1 problem. It is possible that because DAV increases the production of testosterone and its metabolites, appearing in many ways to have the same effect as androstenedione (which was also brought into controversy by Mark McGuire in 1998,) and because it is attributed to enhanced muscular and physical performance, it has been labeled as a performance-enhancing drug and consequently frowned upon. For valid reasons, IGF-1 use has been banned by many agencies like the NFL and the MLB and is not permitted for sale by many large online retailers. The question now becomes, is the negative attitude toward DAV justified just because it contains some amount of IGF-1? After all, there are other food sources of IGF-1.

Should natural form deer antler velvet really be considered a performance-enhancing drug?

According to a physicians group that studies performance enhancers and helps adopting organizations decide on policies, there is little reason to associate DAV with IGF-1 when it comes to sporting benefits. While DAV does contain IGF-1, the amount is not sufficient enough and varies according to deer's diet, health and age at the time the antlers were harvested, and the soil conditions, making many sources both relatively low and highly inconsistent in concentration. They state that at the end of the day, "there is just no support for the idea that DAV supplies an unfair IGF-1 boost to athletes." Russian researchers (Korobkov 1974) that studied its use for athletes clearly stated that DAV's key function was as a recovery booster, increasing the body's resistance to unfavorable external influences and its restorative response to them.

Moreover, the tests that are usually quoted to support the position that DAV is a performance-enhancing product involve participants who took approx 210mcg per kilo of body weight per day of IGF-1. At this level, a normal 150 pound person who wanted to derive the benefits shown in the study would need to consume 25 million nanograms of IGF-1 per day. Clearly this is unachievable, so at the levels of a DAV supplement, the fact is that DAV is not providing any athletic performance enhancement that would afford any real advantage. While there are plenty of scientifically supported benefits from DAV supplementation, athletic performance is not a significant one of them. Exercising alone can increase IGF-1 levels in the body much more than taking DAV. From this perspective, DAV should be perfectly acceptable for athletes to use as part of their health supplement regimen.

So what's the problem then with IGF?

Likely the major issue from a sports performance standpoint is that many companies are producing spray extracts of DAV that contain highly concentrated forms of IGF-1 and that actually fall closer to the category of a performance enhancing drug. While banning this type of synthetic extract supplement might make sense, we must remember that this form is not the same as the natural forms of DAV -- sliced and powdered -- which are a 100% natural food. When scientists study the pharmacological and bio-activity of DAV, they report that the benefits derive from a broad complex of hundreds of nutrients, all of which are bonded to protein enzymes, alive and working synergistically together. We simply cannot compare the synthetic extracted DAV supplements to the natural form -- it is much more than just its IGF-1 content and should not be banned any more than other natural sources of IGF-1 like milk or eggs. It just makes no sense.

So when you are considering adding a quality deer antler velvet supplement to your health regime, consider that the clearly significant benefits come from the entire natural complex, not just one ingredient. Avoid the highly extracted sprays that are essentially just IGF-1 concentrates. If you are focused on athletic performance, then look for a DAV supplement that combines the natural form with a small amount of concentrated (extracted) DAV for optimum results but without crossing into the realm of problematic drug. Make sure to choose wisely -- the best environments make the best end product. New Zealand is considered the ideal DAV source for its rich soil content, ideal climate, and natural antler farming techniques that do not traumatize the animal. Make sure that the DAV supplement is processed without heat to preserve bio-availability. The bottom line is that if you are looking for a health supplement that provides a wide range of benefits, especially useful for physical requirement and recovery, DAV is still the best natural substance available.

Related Posts: 
Deer Antler Velvet Research


Sleivert G, Burke V, Palmer C et al. The Effects of Deer Antler Velvet Extract or Powder Supplementation on Aerobic Power, Erythropoiesis, and Muscular Strength and Endurance Characteristics. International Journal of Sport Nutrition and Exercise Metabolism. 2003. 13:251-265
Broeder C, Percival R, Quindry J et al. The effects of New Zealand deer antler velvet supplementation on body composition, strength, and maximal aerobic and anaerobic performance. AgresearchNZ: Advances in Antler Science and Product Technology. 2004. 161-165.
Wang B. Advances in Research of Chemistry, Pharmacology and Clinical Application of Pilose Antler: Proceedings of the 1996 International Symposium on Deer Science and Deer Products
Suttie J, et al. The New Zealand Velvet Antler Industry: Background and Research Findings . International Symposium on Cervi Parvum Cornu . KSP Proceedings. 1994;86:135.
Yudin A, et al. A Guide for the Preparation and Storage of Uncalcified Male Antlers as a Medicinal Raw Material. In: Reindeer Antlers . Academy of Sciences of the USSR. Vladivostock: Far East Science Center; 1974.
Suttie J, et al. G.I.B. Component of Velvet Antler Programme: Evaluation of Velvet Antler . New Zealand: Varne Ltd. 1996.

The opinions expressed in this article are of the author. Content and other information presented on the site are not meant to be medical advice or any substitute for professional advice, counseling, diagnosis, or treatment. Never delay or disregard professional medical or mental health advice from your physician or other qualified health provider.

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