Deer antler spray — a supplement commonly used in the fitness and sports industries that has a long history of use in Eastern medicine — is pretty much as strange as it sounds. Derived from the tissue found inside deer antlers, it’s reported to work by providing IGF-1 (insulin-like growth factor), a natural growth hormone found inside the human body that has potential to increase muscle mass and support recovery from injuries.
The IGF-1 found in deer antler spray is derived from deer antler velvet, the tissue found inside the deer's antlers before they fully harden. Since deer antlers grow incredibly fast, it is not surprising that the horns are rich in IGF-1. This is a naturally-occurring form of IGF-1, meaning it is not made in a lab. As a result, deer antler velvet is considered a dietary supplement by the Food and Drug Administration, and unlike synthesized drugs, the product does have to be proven safe or effective before it's sold to the public.
IGF-1 is currently on the World Anti-Doping Agency’s prohibited list due to how it gives athletes an unfair advantage in terms of building strength and muscle mass. (7) However, it’s still legal to use supplements that may provide IGF-1 or similar effects. Most of the studies that show positive results from using deer antler supplements have used high doses. And some have tested the product on animals (mice or rats) rather than humans.
Now, you’ll probably read a lot about the power of IGF-1 in many reports about Ray Lewis. And while it’s true that IGF-1 is illegal in man-made form, let’s not mistake illegal products (because they are synthetic) with guaranteed amazing results. IGF-1 can have a significant impact on your body, but it’s not that easy to get the levels you need from deer antler. In fact, given what’s in a typical bottle, it is damn near impossible.
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According to an article in Sports Illustrated, Lewis spoke by telephone after his injury with Mitch Ross, co-owner of the supplement company S.W.A.T.S. (Sports with Alternatives to Steroids) to ask about treatments that could speed his recovery. Sports Illustrated reported that among Ross’ recommendations were deer antler pills to “rebuild your brain via your small intestines.” In addition to recommending the pills, Ross reportedly also told Lewis to spray deer antler extract under his tongue. Lewis has denied following this advice, and Ravens’ management has said that the star player has never flunked a drug test.
I know of no scientific evidence to support any of the marketing claims made for these supplements. I discussed your question with Tieraona Low Dog, M.D., an internationally recognized expert in the fields of integrative medicine, dietary supplements and women’s health, and an authority on botanical medicine. She explains that IGF-1 in the velvet promotes rapid growth of the antler. Dr. Low Dog notes that the two studies examining the effects of deer antler velvet supplements taken by athletes have yielded conflicting results. One showed some improvements in endurance and knee strength in weightlifters, but the other found no differences in rowers after 10 weeks of supplementation.
In Asia, velvet antler is dried and sold as slices, or as a powder which may be boiled in water, usually with other herbs and ingredients, and consumed as a medicinal soup. In the traditional commercial trade of Korea and China, whole stick antler velvet is divided into three sections based upon their supposed properties. Although there is an absence of uniform standardization, these sections are known as the wax piece (uppers or tips), the blood piece (middles), and the bone piece (bottoms): the wax piece may be marketed as a growth tonic for children, the blood piece supposedly for joint and bone health, and the bone piece supposedly for calcium deficiency and geriatric needs. Early commercial activity in Russia between the 1930s and 1980s led to the production of an alcohol extract from deer antler velvet marketed under the Russian drug trade name Pantocrin (also pantocrine or pantokrin).