The latest buzz about performance enhancing drugs (PEDs) is all about the deer antler spray. I know I’ve heard plenty of people wondering aloud what exactly deer antler spray is, followed up by wondering if something like that would actually work.
Deer antler spray, also known as deer antler velvet, is a supplement made from, you guessed it, deer antlers. Male moose, elk, and deer produce and shed antlers every year as do female reindeer and caribou. When the antlers begin to grow, they are covered with a highly vascular and innervated skin, called velvet (literally because it looks and feels like velvet). The antlers grow from a bony pedicle that is attached to the skull. Antlers grow faster than any other mammal bone and similar to bone development in humans, the bone is initially cartilage until it is mineralized and becomes bone. Once the antlers are full size the velvet is lost and the remaining antler is basically dead bone that will eventually fall off so the process can occur again.
When deer are farmed, velvet antler harvesting happens before the antlers begin to harden. Because antlers grow at such a rapid rate, the process is very nutritionally demanding on the deer and the velvet antlers are rich in growth factors and nutrients, including insulin-like growth factor I (IGF-1). Harvesting the velvet antlers is painful to the deer and should only be done by a veterinarian or trained professional with proper anaesthesia. Velvet antler has been used in Chinese medicine for thousands of years for a variety of things, including: joint health, boosting immune system, mental alertness, speed wound healing and recovery, slow aging and to improve libido. Velvet antler does contain glucosamin and chondroitin (often found in joint supplements) however there is insufficient scientific research done to examine the effects of deer antler supplements.
The fuss about deer antler spray is mainly due to the IGF-1 that it contains. In childhood, IGF-1 is important for growth (the highest levels in humans occur during puberty) and in adults has anabolic effects. Human growth hormone is made and released by the pituitary and when released into the bloodstream it triggers the liver to make IGF-1. IGF-1 in similar in molecular structure to insulin, hence the name “insulin-like” growth factor. When released by the liver, IGF-1 can stimulate growth in most cells of the body. Skeletal muscle, cartilage, bone, liver, kidney, nerves, skin, and lungs are especially impacted by IGF-1.
Synthetic forms of IGF-1 have been used to treat growth failure and certain types of drawrfism, but also have been used as PEDs. Deer antler spray is taken as a spray under the tongue, however there is still no scientific research to back up it’s claims in aiding recovery.
Deer antler spray is widely available online and in your local vitamin shop. Just like other nutritional supplements, it may work for some people and not for others, however the onus is always on the athlete to know what they are putting in or on their body.