If I offered to sell you a liquid extract made from the velvety coating of deer antlers, claiming that it will catalyze muscle growth, slow aging, improve athletic performance and supercharge your libido – I’d expect you'd be a little skeptical. But what if I added that a huge percentage of professional athletes are using the stuff and paying top dollar, $100 or more an ounce, and swear up and down that just a few mouth sprays a day provides all benefits as advertised? Would you be willing to give it a try?
Ever since former Baltimore Ravens star Ray Lewis admitted a few months ago that he used deer antler spray (though subsequently denied it), the market for the stuff has exploded. Some estimates say that close to half of all professional football and baseball players are using it and a hefty percentage of college players as well, to say nothing of the army of weightlifters and bodybuilders that have made the spray a daily part of their routines.
TV journalism bastion 60 Minutes recently ran a special sports segment about "Deer Antler Man" Mitch Ross, the product's highest profile salesman, and the tsunami of buyers for oral deer antler spray and its growing list of celebrity devotees. Without question, deer antler spray has captivated the attention of the sports world and is rapidly pushing into mainstream markets.
Let’s take a look at the science behind the claims and try to find out what’s really fueling the surge in sales for this peculiar product.
The velvety coating of deer antlers is a chemically interesting material. For centuries it’s been used in eastern traditions as a remedy for a range of maladies, and there’s an underlying rationale for why it theoretically could be useful for certain conditions. The velvet coating contains small amounts of insulin-like growth factor 1, or IGF-1, that has been studied for several decades as a clinically proven means to reverse growth disorders in humans. For example, in children born with Laron Syndrome—a disorder that causes insensitivity to growth hormone, resulting in dwarfism—treatment with IGF-I has been shown to dramatically increase growth rates. IGF-1 appears to act as a chemical facilitator for the production of growth hormone from the pituitary gland, and in sufficient amounts even synthetically derived IGF-1 can help boost physical growth.
That’s the reason why IGF-1 has been banned by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the World Anti-Doping Agency in certain forms as having similar outcomes to using human growth hormone and anabolic steroids. The forms these agencies have banned, however, are high-dosage, ultra-purified liquids administered by injection.
Why can’t the FDA and anti-doping agencies ban IGF-1 outright? For the simple reason that the chemical, in trace amounts, is found in things we eat every day: red meat, eggs and dairy products. Every time you eat a juicy ribeye or have a few eggs over easy, you’re ingesting IGF-1.
In the tiny amounts of the substance found in these foods, we may experience a cumulative, positive effect on muscle repair over time, but you’ll never be able to drink enough whole milk in a sitting to experience the anabolic effects you’d get from a syringe full of concentrated and purified IGF-1.
As I mentioned, the velvety substance on growing deer antlers also contains trace amounts of IGF-1, and (along with oddities like powdered tiger bone) has been sold in China for centuries as a traditional cure for several ailments. In traditional Chinese medicine, the antler is divided into segments, each segment targeted to different problems. The middle segment, for example, is sold as a cure for adult arthritis, while the upper section is sold as a solution for growth-related problems in children. The antler tip is considered the most valuable part and sells for top dollar.
The main source for the market explosion in deer antler spray is New Zealand, which produces 450 tons of deer velvet annually, compared to the relatively small amount produced by the US and Canada: about 20 tons annually. Deer can be killed outright for their antlers, but in New Zealand the more accepted procedure is to anesthetize the deer and remove the antlers at the base. The antlers are then shipped overseas to the growing market demanding them.
The reason why deer antler velvet is usually turned into an oral liquid spray instead of a pill (although it is also sold in pill form around the world) is that the trace proteins in the substance are rapidly broken down by the digestive system, so only a fraction of the already tiny amount actually makes it into the bloodstream. In spray form, IGF-1 can potentially penetrate mucosal membranes and enter the bloodstream intact more quickly. Purchasing the spray form can run from anywhere between about $20 for a tiny bottle to $200 for two ounces. Standard doses are several sprays per day, so the monthly costs of using the product are exorbitant.
The question is does using deer antler spray deliver the benefits its sellers claim? These alleged benefits include accelerated muscle growth and muscle repair, tendon repair, enhanced stamina, slowing of the aging process, and increased libido – a virtual biological panacea of outcomes.
The consensus opinion from leading endocrinologists studying the substance, including Dr. Roberto Salvatori at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine and Dr. Alan Vogol at the University of Virginia, is that the chances of it delivering on any of these benefits are slim to none. The reason is simply that there's far too little of the substance in even the purest forms of the spray to make any difference.
Think of it this way: If a steak contains roughly the same trace amount of IGF-1 as deer antler velvet, is there any evidence to suggest that eating steak can provide the same array of benefits claimed for deer antler spray? No, there’s not a shard of clinical evidence to support that claim.
And yet, thousands of people are paying close to $200 a bottle for the spray believing that it will deliver these benefits. With such high-profile celebrity connections as Ray Lewis and golf superstar Vijay Singh, there’s little wonder why the craze has picked up momentum. But in light of scientific evidence, there’s no credible reason to pay $200 or any amount for a bottle of deer antler spray.
Aside from the lack of evidence supporting benefits, it’s unclear what the negative effects may be of using the product long-term. WebMD reports that the compounds in the spray may mimic estrogen in the body, which could contribute to spawning a variety of cancers or worsening of conditions such as uterine fibroids in women. Elevated estrogen levels in men can throw off hormonal balance and lead to a thickening waistline and a host of related metabolic problems.
The takeaway is this: deer antler spray is the latest high-priced snake oil captivating the market. Not only will it cost you a lot of money and not deliver promised benefits, but it could lead to negative health outcomes. Let the deer keep their antler velvet and keep your cash in your wallet.
You can find David DiSalvo on Twitter @neuronarrative and at his website, The Daily Brain. His latest book is Brain Changer: How Harnessing Your Brain’s Power To Adapt Can Change Your Life.