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BLOG: Oh Deer! Does it Really Work? Deer Antler Spray as a Performance Enhancer

Author: Austin Thomas, MS
Published: Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Ever since Baltimore Ravens’ Ray Lewis denied supplementing with Deer Antler Spray this past football season, sales have reportedly skyrocketed. So what is the supplement that the football star was accused of taking for the rehabilitation of his triceps injury?

Saint Louis University Dietetic Interns deer supplements

Deer Antler Spray comes from the “velvet” or “hair” that is found on the antlers from various species of deer and elk. Antlers are the only known mammalian appendage that can fully regenerate – this is linked to a substance known as IGF-1 (insulin-like growth factor-1) that is found in the antlers, and more specifically the “velvet”. IGF-1 is also naturally found in humans and is also attributed to enhanced physical performance. IGF-1 is a proven performance enhancer and helps stimulate muscle growth and is related to increased endurance through the production of red blood cells (which carry oxygen throughout the body), however supplemental use with IFG-1 is banned in both NCAA and professional athletes. Some research shows that supplementation may lead to negative side effects such as an increased risk of cancer.[1] Since small amounts of IGF-1 are found in deer antler spray, it is banned substance. Even if deer antler spray wasn’t banned in competitive athletics, is the substance even proven to work?

Saint Louis University Dietetic Interns deer supplements

Many of the claims and positive performance enhancing benefits, such as increased muscle mass, anti-inflammatory properties, and increased endurance come from ancient oriental usages. Oriental medicine has been using deer antler spray to treat ulcers, arthritis, anemia, and infertility for thousands of years and has been taken to prevent heart, nervous system, and endocrine system disorders.[2] Broeder et al performed research in recreational athletes and concluded that supplementation with deer antler spray may have a positive effect on body composition, and may be responsible for improving VO2 max in these athletes.[3] However, it needs to be taken into consideration that this study did not account for the possibility that the experimental group also consumed more protein on average than their placebo counterparts, according to their dietary records. The difference in protein consumption in combination with the exercise-training program that was followed by all participants could have been responsible for these findings. Research has proven that increased protein consumption along with weight training improves body composition.3 Other research found that there were no significant changes across those who supplemented with deer antler spray or those who did not.[4] Broeder et al also found that LDL was significantly lowered in the group who supplemented with deer antler spray, but did not provide any potential reasons for how the two may be correlated.

Saint Louis University Dietetic Interns deer supplements

Although this does improve health and decrease risk for heart health, it is not a direct measure of physical performance enhancement. When applied to a real world setting with male and female rowers, aerobic capacity, potential enhancing hormonal changes, and improvement in race times were not significantly different in those who supplemented vs those individuals who did not.[5]

Some research suggests that deer antler spray may be beneficial for individuals who suffer from osteoarthritis.[6] At three and six months, when compared to the individuals who did not take the supplement, deer antler spray was associated with pain improvement. It was also associated with an improved physician assessment of the patients’ arthritis. While this obviously benefits athletes who suffer from osteoarthritis, it may also explain Broeder et al’s results of increased strength of a six rep max squat. There were no hormonal or blood chemistry results to correlate with this improvement, so the deer antler spray may cause a numbing/pain reducing effect in the athletes.[3]

For now there is no clear evidence that deer antler spray has a performance enhancing effect in athletes. Most of the claims reported still come from ancient Chinese and oriental medicine, and more controlled studies are needed to determine if there are significant benefits to supplementing with deer antler spray.

Resources:

  1. Lucio S, Graziani G. Doping with growth hormone/IGF-1, anabolic steroids or erythropoietin: is there a cancer risk? Pharmacological Research May 2007;5(5):359-369.
  2. 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
  3. 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.
  4. Cribb P, Williams A, Carey M & Hayes A. The Effect of Whey Isolate and Resistance Training on Strength, Body Composition, and Plasma Glutamine. International Journal of Sport Nutrition and Exercise Metabolism. 2006;(16)494-509.
  5. Syrotuik D, MacFadyen K, Harber V, Bell, G. Effect of Elk Velvet Antler Supplementation on the Hormonal Response to Acute and Chronic Exercise in Male and Female Rowers. International Journal of Sport Nutrition and Exercise Metabolism. 2005;(15):366-385
  6. Edelman J, Hanrahan P, Ghosh P. Deer Antler Cartilage in the Treatment of Arthritis: Results of a 6 Month Placebo-Controlled double blind study with Cervusen in 54 Patients with Osteoarthritis. APLAR Journal of Rheumatology. 4(2): 95-100.
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