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Deer Antler Spray: An Evaluation of Efficacy and Claims

deer antler spray

Deer antler spray, a supplement derived from the velvet of growing deer antlers,has gained both fame and notoriety in recent years as a natural performance-enhancing supplement. At the center of the controversy is its key ingredient - insulin-like growth factor-1 (IGF-1)[1], a substance once banned by the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) for its anabolic properties.

What is IGF-1?

IGF-1 is a protein hormone that plays a vital role in human growth and development[1]. Produced primarily by the liver in response to growth hormone stimulation, IGF-1 mediates many of the growth-promoting effects on tissues like muscle and bone. While critical for childhood growth, IGF-1 continues to have anabolic, muscle-building effects in adults.

The source of IGF-1 in deer antler spray is deer antler velvet, which is harvested from deer during the early stages of antler growth[2]. Deer antlers are one of the fastest growing tissues in mammals during this velvet stage, requiring high levels of IGF-1 to facilitate rapid growth. As a result, deer antler velvet is rich in IGF-1, making it a natural source for supplements.

WADA initially banned deer antler spray due to its IGF-1 content, citing concerns over its performance-enhancing properties. However, after further review, WADA lifted the ban, determining that the levels of IGF-1 present in deer antler spray were too low to provide any significant performance benefit[3]. Despite this ruling, the use of deer antler spray remains controversial. Proponents tout its natural source of IGF-1 and potential muscle-building benefits, while critics dismiss it as an ineffective and unproven supplement.

In discussing the content and effects of IGF-1 in deer antler products, it's important to differentiate clearly between deer antler velvet—the tissue harvested from growing antlers of deer, which is rich in IGF-1—and deer antler spray, a processed product derived from the velvet. While deer antler velvet contains high levels of IGF-1, which is thought to contribute to its rapid growth properties, the processing into spray form significantly reduces the concentration of IGF-1 available in the final product. This distinction is crucial because although the raw material (deer antler velvet) may exhibit high IGF-1 levels and associated growth-promoting properties, these do not necessarily carry over to the spray due to its reduced potency.

The controversy surrounding deer antler spray partly stems from this misunderstanding. While proponents of deer antler spray claim it retains the beneficial properties of the velvet, including muscle growth and enhanced recovery, the scientific evidence does not fully support these claims, especially given the lower levels of IGF-1 in the spray.

Claims and Traditional Uses

During the annual antler growth cycle in male deer, IGF-1 levels are significantly elevated to facilitate the rapid growth of antler cartilage, known as velvet antler[4]. A study published in Endocrinology reported a strong positive correlation between antler growth rate and circulating IGF-1 concentrations in red deer (Cervus elaphus)[4]. This suggests that IGF-1 may act as an "antler-stimulating hormone," promoting the rapid growth of velvet antler tissue.

Claims of various potential benefits of deer antler spray:

  1. Increased muscle growth and strength
  2. Enhanced recovery from exercise and injury
  3. Improved immune function
  4. Anti-inflammatory and anti-aging effects
  5. Improved cardiovascular function

However, the scientific evidence supporting these claims is limited and inconsistent.

Claim #1: Increased Muscle Growth and Strength

A recent study[5] explored the effects of a special deer antler extract, on mice to see if it could help them swim longer by reducing fatigue. The mice that received the extract did indeed swim longer compared to those that didn't get the extract. However, when researchers checked usual signs of fatigue like blood sugar and lactic acid levels, they didn't find any significant improvements.

The study also looked at how the extract might be working by examining changes in the mice's genes. They found that certain genes linked to muscle strength and energy were more active, which could explain why the mice could swim longer.

Despite these findings, the study leaves some questions unanswered. The lack of significant changes in traditional fatigue markers makes it unclear how effective the deer antler extract truly is in combating overall fatigue, as opposed to just helping with swimming endurance.

Interestingly, the evidence in human subjects is limited. A study[6] from East Tennessee University, investigated the effects of deer antler velvet on muscle strength, performance, and soreness in resistance-trained males over a 10-week period. It involved measuring muscle composition, strength, and soreness levels before and after supplementation. The results showed no significant improvements in muscle size, strength, or performance, nor did it reduce soreness levels following resistance training. Essentially, deer antler velvet did not demonstrate any benefits for enhancing muscular development or performance, or for alleviating muscle soreness, in the context of this study.

Claim #2: Enhanced Recovery from Exercise and Injury

Proponents of deer antler velvet claim that its high IGF-1 content can aid in recovery from exercise and injury by promoting tissue repair and reducing inflammation.

A research study on mice[7] explored how deer antler velvet extract can affect lung inflammation. The extract was found to reduce inflammation by decreasing several inflammatory markers and enhancing the activity of antioxidant enzymes. It also prevented certain proteins involved in inflammation from activating. The findings suggest that deer antler velvet has potential anti-inflammatory benefits and could be developed into a health product. Another study[8] suggested that deer antler velvet may enhance wound healing by stimulating the proliferation of fibroblasts, which are involved in tissue repair.

There is a lack of human studies investigating the effects of deer antler velvet on exercise recovery. A human study from 2018[6] on 16 resistance-trained males, examined the effects of deer antler velvet supplementation over a 10-week resistance training period. The findings indicated that deer antler velvet did not significantly enhance muscle recovery or performance after exercise.

This suggests that, despite traditional uses and some animal study results suggesting benefits for recovery and injury, deer antler velvet may not effectively improve recovery from exercise in resistance-trained human subjects.

Claim #3: Improved Immune Function

Some proponents of deer antler velvet claim that it can enhance immune function due to its high content of various bioactive compounds, including IGF-1. A study by Yao et al.[9] looked at how extracts from deer antlers help cells called chondrocytes, which are found in cartilage, to grow and stay healthy in mice. They found that the extracts make these cells grow well and protect them from damage caused by stress and inflammation. Another study in the Journal of Veterinary Science[8] reported that deer antler velvet extract enhanced immune function in mice by increasing the production of cytokines and antibodies.

Currently, there are no randomized controlled human trials available. The proposed immune benefits of deer antler velvet are based on traditional uses and anecdotal evidence, rather than on rigorous clinical trials in humans.

Claim #4: Anti-inflammatory and Anti-aging Effects

Deer antler velvet has been traditionally used in some Asian cultures[10] for centuries its purported anti-inflammatory and anti-aging properties. A recent study by Pham et al[11]., aimed to create an anti-aging cosmetic formulation combining coconut oil and deer antler stem cell extract, exploring their effects on aging skin in a mouse model. It successfully developed a stable serum that significantly improved skin texture, reduced wrinkle counts, enhanced skin elasticity, and increased collagen density and epidermal thickness after just two weeks of application on mice. This suggests the formulation's potential as an effective anti-aging cosmetic product.

However, while coconut oil contributed to skin moisturization and had anti-inflammatory properties, there wasn't clear evidence on how well deer antler stem cell extract worked in synergy with coconut oil beyond the formulation's general performance on the mice.

Interestingly, there are no direct human studies examining markers of inflammation like C-reactive protein, cytokine levels, etc. after deer antler spray use. Without scientific evidence from well-conducted research, assertions regarding the health benefits of deer antler spray remain speculative and potentially misleading. It is crucial to base health-related claims on robust clinical data to ensure safety and efficacy for human use.

Claim #5: Improved Cardiovascular Function

Some studies have suggested that deer antler velvet may have beneficial effects on cardiovascular function due to its potential to improve blood flow and reduce oxidative stress. A study by Ming-Jing Shao and colleagues[12] looked at how a traditional Chinese medicine, Velvet Antler of Deer (VAD), affects heart function in rats that had a heart attack and developed heart failure. They treated the rats with VAD, a common heart medication called captopril, or just water for four weeks and then checked their heart function and certain heart health markers. The results showed that VAD helped improve some heart functions, suggesting it might be useful as a treatment for heart failure.

Another study[13] examined the effects of velvet antler, a traditional Chinese medicine, on heart failure in rats caused by a heart attack. Researchers found that administering velvet antler improved heart function by reversing damage to heart muscle and helping the heart pump blood more effectively. The benefits were linked to the increased activity of a specific enzyme involved in heart muscle relaxation, which helps the heart fill more effectively between beats.

While animal studies like those on velvet antler suggest beneficial outcomes, it's crucial to recognize that these results may not directly translate to humans. Rats, commonly used in such research, exhibit distinct metabolic rates and cardiac physiology. Differences in heart rate and tissue regeneration capabilities between rats and humans can significantly impact how treatments like velvet antler influence heart function and recovery from myocardial infarction. Furthermore, although basic cellular mechanisms are generally conserved across species, variations in gene expression and molecular interactions may alter the way such treatments function in human bodies. Consequently, the effects observed in rat models may not reflect identical outcomes in humans.

Besides several animal studies, there do not appear to be any clear, well-designed human clinical trials examining cardiovascular parameters like blood pressure, heart function, or cardiovascular diseases.

Conclusion

The availability of deer antler spray as an over-the-counter dietary supplement raises important questions about its actual IGF-1 content. If deer antler spray genuinely contained effective doses of IGF-1, it would fall under the regulation of the FDA as a drug rather than a supplement. This regulatory distinction implies that the IGF-1 levels in deer antler spray, if present at all, are probably not significant enough to confer the therapeutic benefits attributed to pharmaceutical-grade IGF-1 treatments.

Synthetic IGF-1 is classified as a drug and is not allowed for use as a dietary supplement[14]. Its administration requires a prescription, underlining its potent biological effects and the necessity for medical supervision. Moreover, IGF-1 is considered a performance-enhancing drug[14] and is banned by the WADA, similar to growth hormones. This status further validates the strict control over substances that can significantly influence physiological functions and performance in sports. Therefore, the casual sale of deer antler spray as a supplement suggests that it does not contain pharmacologically active levels of IGF-1, aligning with regulatory standards that differentiate dietary supplements from pharmaceutical products.

In Summary:

  • Weak Human Data: There is only one (non-peer reviewed) human clinical trial data to support claims about deer antler spray's effectiveness for muscle growth, recovery, immune function, and cardiovascular health.
  • Reduced IGF-1 Efficacy: Processing deer antler velvet into spray form significantly diminishes IGF-1 levels, negating the purported performance-enhancing benefits.
  • Safety and Regulatory Changes: Originally banned by WADA for its IGF-1 content, deer antler spray was later permitted after finding the IGF-1 levels too low to enhance performance. Usage remains controversial.
  • Unsupported Claims: Claims of improved muscle growth, recovery from exercise, immune function, anti-inflammatory effects, and cardiovascular benefits lack support from human studies.

 

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References

1. Laron, Z. “Insulin-like growth factor 1 (IGF-1): a growth hormone.” Molecular pathology : MP vol. 54,5 (2001): 311-6. doi:10.1136/mp.54.5.311

2. Sleivert, G.; Burke, V.; Palmer, C.; Walmsley, A.; Gerrard, D.; Haines, S.; Littlejohn, R. 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. https://doi.org/10.1123/ijsnem.13.3.251.

3. Cox, H. D.; Eichner, D. Detection of Human Insulin-like Growth Factor-1 in Deer Antler Velvet Supplements. Rapid Communications in Mass Spectrometry, 2013, 27 (19), 2170–2178. https://doi.org/10.1002/rcm.6678.

4. Suttie, J M et al. “Insulin-like growth factor 1 (IGF-1) antler-stimulating hormone?.” Endocrinology vol. 116,2 (1985): 846-8. doi:10.1210/endo-116-2-846

5. Chen, Jaw-Chyun et al. “Deer Antler Extract Improves Fatigue Effect through Altering the Expression of Genes Related to Muscle Strength in Skeletal Muscle of Mice.” Evidence-based complementary and alternative medicine : eCAM vol. 2014 (2014): 540580. doi:10.1155/2014/540580

6. Percival, R. S. (2001). Examining the effects of deer antler velvet supplementation on muscular strength, performance, and markers of delayed onset muscle soreness. East Tennessee State University.

7. Chang, J.-S.; Lin, H.-J.; Deng, J.-S.; Wu, W.-T.; Huang, S.-S.; Huang, G.-J. Preventive Effects of Velvet Antler (Cervus Elaphus) against Lipopolysaccharide-Induced Acute Lung Injury in Mice by Inhibiting MAPK/NF-κB Activation and Inducing AMPK/Nrf2 Pathways. Evid Based Complement Alternat Med, 2018, 2018, 2870503. https://doi.org/10.1155/2018/2870503.

8. Gu, L.; Mo, E.; Yang, Z.; Fang, Z.; Sun, B.; Wang, C.; Zhu, X.; Bao, J.; Sung, C. Effects of Red Deer Antlers on Cutaneous Wound Healing in Full-Thickness Rat Models. Asian Australas. J. Anim. Sci, 2008, 21 (2), 277–290. https://doi.org/10.5713/ajas.2008.70348.

9. Yao, B.; Zhang, M.; Leng, X.; Liu, M.; Liu, Y.; Hu, Y.; Zhao, D.; Zhao, Y. Antler Extracts Stimulate Chondrocyte Proliferation and Possess Potent Anti-Oxidative, Anti-Inflammatory, and Immune-Modulatory Properties. In Vitro Cell.Dev.Biol.-Animal, 2018, 54 (6), 439–448. https://doi.org/10.1007/s11626-018-0266-2.

10. Kawtikwar, P. S.; Bhagwat, D. A.; Sakarkar, D. M. Deer Antlers- Traditional Use and Future Perspectives. IJTK Vol.9(2) [April 2010], 2010.

11. Pham, T. L.-B.; Thi, T. T.; Nguyen, H. T.-T.; Lao, T. D.; Binh, N. T.; Nguyen, Q. D. Anti-Aging Effects of a Serum Based on Coconut Oil Combined with Deer Antler Stem Cell Extract on a Mouse Model of Skin Aging. Cells, 2022, 11 (4), 597. https://doi.org/10.3390/cells11040597.

12. Shao, M.-J.; Wang, S.-R.; Zhao, M.-J.; Lv, X.-L.; Xu, H.; Li, L.; Gu, H.; Zhang, J.-L.; Li, G.; Cui, X.-N.; et al. The Effects of Velvet Antler of Deer on Cardiac Functions of Rats with Heart Failure Following Myocardial Infarction. Evidence-Based Complementary and Alternative Medicine, 2012, 2012, e825056. https://doi.org/10.1155/2012/825056.

13. Shi, H.; Zhao, T.; Li, Y.; Xiao, X.; Wu, J.; Zhang, H.; Qiao, J.; Huang, L.; Li, L. Velvet Antler Ameliorates Cardiac Function by Restoring Sarcoplasmic Reticulum Ca2+-ATPase Activity in Rats With Heart Failure After Myocardial Infarction. Front. Pharmacol., 2021, 12. https://doi.org/10.3389/fphar.2021.621194.

14. Anderson, L. J.; Tamayose, J. M.; Garcia, J. M. Use of Growth Hormone, IGF-I, and Insulin for Anabolic Purpose: Pharmacological Basis, Methods of Detection, and Adverse Effects. Molecular and Cellular Endocrinology, 2018, 464, 65–74. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.mce.2017.06.010.

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