Deer Antler Velvet in Chinese Medicine
The Chinese have utilized deer antler velvet as a Chinese Herb for thousands of years. Today, usages of DAV include modern ailments such as high cholesterol, migraines, osteoporosis, muscle aches and pains, asthma, indigestion, cold hands and feet, disorders related to the liver and kidney, chronic skin sores or ulcers, overactive bladder, and sore or weak lower back and knees.
It has also been used to promote youthfulness, improve immunity, counter the effects of stress, speed the recovery from illness and injury, help the production and circulation of blood, protect the liver from toxins, and sharpen thinking skills.
Furthermore, the Chinese traditionally utilized Deer Antler Velvet as a tonic for children with developmental delays referred to as a “failure to thrive” resulting in slow growth, learning disabilities, and bone problems including rickets.
In Pinyin, deer antler velvet (or the velvet of young deer) is called Lu Rong which translates to Deer Antler (its pharmaceutical name is Cornu Cervi Parvum). It’s earliest known documentation as a Chinese Herb is in the Shen Nong Ben Cao Jing (Divine Husbandman’s Classic of Materia Medica). Researchers believe that this text is a compilation of oral traditions that were written down sometime between 200 and 250 CE.
According to the text on Chinese Medical Herbology and Pharmacology, chemically, Lu Rong is composed of:
Pantocrine (Pantocrinum), lysophosphatidylcholine, ganglioside, putrescine, spermidine, spermine, PGE1, PGE2, PGF, chondroitin sulfate, androgen, estradiol, oestrone, ceramide, lecithin, cephalin, cholesterol, lipids, ganglioside, sphingomyelin, calcium phosphate, calcium carbonate, magnesium, and phosphorus.
DEER ANTLER VELVET BASICS
Deer antler velvet is a Yang tonic that is sweet, salty and warm. It enters the Kidney and Liver channels. Traditional Chinese Theorists believe that because animals are closer to human beings than plants or other substances, animal substances are more beneficial than plants or minerals in tonifying the jing (essence) of the body. This idea of like treats like is referred to as the Doctrine of Similarity.
Furthermore, the ancient herbal text known as the Ben Cao Gang Mu (Materia Medica), expounds that deer are among the most helpful animals for tonifying yang and jing (essence). For this reason, many deer parts, including the horn/antler, blood, bone marrow, kidney, and placenta are used to tonify yang and replenish jing.
But what is all this discussion of yang, kidney, liver, and jing mean?
YIN AND YANG THEORY
In Chinese Theory, yin and yang describe the fundamental law of opposites that rule all phenomena. If something exists, it’s opposite or compliment must also exist to create balance. Opposite or contrary forces are considered complementary, interconnected, and interdependent in the natural world. They give rise to each other as they interrelate to one another. Day becomes night and night becomes day. Light and dark represent another tangible example of this duality, as do hot and cold or wet and dry.
As a general rule, Yin is the more passive, element associated with night, darkness, cold, water, the moon, heaviness, density, etc. Yang is the more active principle, and it supplies energy, light, the sun, fire, heat, etc. Nothing is ever wholly yin or yang; however, an imbalance in one will commonly create an imbalance in the opposite. For example, if your car is running low on coolant, it will overheat because of a deficiency in yin (fluids) that give rise to an excess of heat. In Chinese Medicine, overheating due to a lack of fluids is known as Yin deficiency heat or Yin fire due to lack of fluids.
Deer antler velvet is contraindicated in cases of Yin fire because it is a warm herb in the same way that when a car overheats due to lack of fluids, the last thing you want to do is to expose it to more heat.
From yin and yang theory, Chinese Medicine divides everything into 5-elements; wood, fire, earth, metal, and water. Each of these five elements connects to the body’s physical organ systems and their corresponding meridians (or channels) that run through the body. There are 12 major organ systems with related meridians and eight extra meridians that work on deeper channels of the body. Imagine that one of your organs, like the heart, is a lightbulb. The heart meridian is like an internal, energetic wiring system connected to that lightbulb that effects it and all its associated physical systems. For more information on the 5-elements, see here: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wu_Xin
Each of the 12 organs is a part of a Zang-Fu pair where the Zang organ is the yin organ, and the Fu organ is the yang organ. As an herb, deer antler velvet focuses on the Kidney and Liver organs. The Liver is a yin (Zang), wood organ, and the Kidney is a yin (Zang), water organ. For more information on the Zang-Fu system, see here: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Zang-fu
THE EIGHT EXTRAORDINARY VESSELS
Deer antler velvet also affects four of the eight extraordinary channels (vessels), including the Governing (Du Mai), Conception (Ren Mai), Penetrating (Chong Mai) and Girdle (Dai Mai) vessel, but delving into the extra channels is a bit advanced for this article.
Lu Rong (deer antler velvet) is considered a yang tonic herb. Most yang tonics focus on deficient yang of the Kidney, Heart, and Spleen, but the most significant use of the class of herbs focuses on Kidney Yang. Deficiency, in pinyin, is Xu (pronounced similarly to shoe), and you will more commonly hear Chinese Medicine practitioners refer to Kidney yang deficiency as Kidney yang xu.
Systemic Exhaustion is the principal manifestation of Kidney yang deficiency. Common signs and symptoms of Kidney yang xu include withdrawal from social interaction, a severe dislike or fear of cold, cold limbs, sore or weak lower back and knees, painful lower extremities, pale tongue, and a deep, weak pulse. Other problems frequently associated with Kidney yang xu include impotence, spermatorrhea (excessive, involuntary ejaculation), premature ejaculation, infertility in both males and females, watery vaginal discharge, enuresis (bed-wetting), polyuria (production of abnormally large volumes of dilute urine), wheezing, and daybreak diarrhea.
From a modern biomedical standpoint, Kidney yang xu is far from being understood. The endocrine system, which is a chemical messenger system consisting of a group of glands that produce and secrete hormones, appears to have a connection to a part of the etiology of Kidney Yang Xu.
From a biomedical standpoint, Yang Tonic herbs generally:
- Regulate the adrenal cortex which produces hormones that are vital to life, such as cortisol (which helps regulate metabolism and helps your body respond to stress) and aldosterone (which helps control blood pressure).
- Regulate energy metabolism
- Promote healthy sexual function and fertility
- Promote growth
- Strengthen the body’s resistance to illness, degeneration, and injury
Because most yang tonics are warm and have drying effects, they can injure the yin and assist fire as explained by the earlier example of an overheating vehicle. For this reason, when patients have symptoms related to yin deficiency (xu) heat or fire, such as; thirst, dry mouth, night sweats, fevers, dizziness, vertigo, tinnitus, constipation, and loss of appetite yang tonics should be avoided.
In Chinese Theory, the Kidneys store Jing. There is no direct translation for the Chinese word jing into English, so essence or “essential qi,” are often used. Consequently, there is no direct translation for qi into English either, are life-force or energy are considered the closest concepts.
Jing is considered to be the underpinning of all aspects of organic life. Protecting and preserving jing is instrumental for longevity. Stored in the kidneys, it is responsible for human growth, development, fertility, and many other functional activities. Two main kinds of jing exist, Prenatal Jing (Pre-Heaven Essence) and Postnatal Jing (Post-Heaven Essence).
The quantity of Prenatal Jing a person has is determined at birth when it passes onto the fetus from the parents. Prenatal Jing determines the constitution, strength, and vitality of the fetus. After that, Jing can only be conserved or used up more slowly. Living a balanced life of moderation in diet, work, rest and sexual activity may preserve Prenatal Jing. In Chinese Medicine, once all of the prenatal jing lost, we die.
Postnatal Jing is refined Qi from food, drink and practicing breathing exercises such as Qi Gong and Tai Chi.
Kidney Jing controls the growth of bones, teeth, hair, brain development, sexual maturation, reproductive function and fertility, and healthy development into adulthood. It declines naturally with age, producing the characteristic signs of hair or tooth loss, signs of aging, impairment of memory, etc. Kidney Jing also influences our strength and resistance, and if it is “wasted” or poorly stored, the person may have lowered immunity to exogenous pathogenic influences and suffer from constant illnesses. Deficiency of Kidney Jing also affects Kidney Qi in general and can result in problems like impotence, chronic weak or sore lower back, weak knees, tinnitus, urinary incontinence, deafness, loose teeth, etc.
DEER ANTLER VELVET IN DEPTH
According to the Essentials of Chinese Medicine Materia Medica, deer antler velvet is “the ultimate tonic herb for the Liver and Kidney.” It tonifies the Governing Vessel (Du Mai) and stabilizes the Penetrating (Chong Mai) and Conception (Ren Mai) vessels, which are 3 of the extra meridians mentioned earlier.
Deer antler velvet’s ability to fortify Kidney yang, augment the essence and blood, and strengthen the sinews and bones make it a highly valued yang tonic in Chinese culture. Primary uses of deer antler velvet include Kidney yang deficiency, jing and blood deficiency, weakness of the sinews and bones, developmental delays in children, Gushing and Leaking Syndromes, excessive vaginal discharge due to unstable Penetrating (Chong Mai) and Conception (Ren Mai) vessels, and generating tissue to promote the healing of yin-type abscesses.
For more information, here are the four most significant Traditional Chinese Therapeutic uses of Deer Antler Velvet (Lu Rong).
TRADITIONAL CHINESE THERAPEUTIC ACTIONS
- Tonifies Kidney Yang and Replenishes Kidney Jing (Essence)
Kidney Yang Deficiency with impotence:
In Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), Lu Rong is a beneficial herb for Kidney yang and jing deficiencies. Kidney yang and jing deficiency present with symptoms such as: fatigue, lassitude, lightheadedness, dizziness, tinnitus, impotence, premature ejaculation, spermatorrhea, nocturnal emissions, soreness or lack of strength of the lower back and knees, cold pain at the lower back and knees, cold extremities, weakness of sinews and joints, and frequent copious, clear urination.
Another frequent use of deer antler velvet something known as insufficient Kidney fire resulting in deficiencies of the Ren (Conception) and Chong (Penetrating) channels. Clinical manifestations of depleted Kidney fire include clear, watery leukorrhea, constant uterine bleeding, and a cold womb which may lead to female infertility. Cold causes stagnation, which means that the body’s reproductive processes “freeze” up much in the same way that excess cold causes water to freeze and stop flowing naturally. Deer antler velvet warms the Kidney yang and the uterus, helping to regulate menstruation and contract the uterus to stop bleeding. It also treats deficient cold of the Ren (Conception) and Chong (Penetrating) channels with unremitting Gushing and Leaking syndrome and an unstable girdle (Dai Mai) vessel with a deficient cold type of excessive vaginal discharge.
- Nourishes Blood, Ren (Conception) and Chong (Penetrating) Channels.
Severe anemia due to blood and Kidney Jing (essence) deficiencies:
Deer antler velvet is often used to counter severe anemia due to blood and Kidney Jing (essence) deficiencies. In Chinese Medicine, blood and jing arise from the same source. In cases of severe blood deficiency or blood loss, jing will be deficient as well. Deer antler velvet has traditionally been used to tonify blood and nourish jing to promote the production of red blood cells and reticulocytes (which are immature red blood cells). Therefore, in Chinese Medicine, deer antler velvet is believed to be well suited for patients that are thin and weak with severe blood and jing deficiencies.
- Augments the Essence and Blood and Strengthens Sinews and Bones
Weakness of sinews and bones:
Chinese theory states that the Kidney stores jing (essence), which is vital for healthy bones, marrow, and a healthy brain. Furthermore, the Liver stores blood and controls the sinews and tendons. Thus, when the Liver and Kidney are deficient, the bones, sinews, and joints become weak. Deficiencies of Kidney yang and jing in children with lack of strength in sinews and bones can manifest as delayed mental and physical development. Deficiencies of Kidney yang and jing in elderly patients may lead to Wei (atrophy) syndrome, weakened bones, and joints, confusion, or memory loss.
- Heals Chronic Yin Sores and Boils
In China, deer antler velvet has been used to help heal chronic non-healing ulcerations and sores or non-perforated yin-type ulcers or abscesses that are the result of qi and blood deficiency for hundreds of years. These sores are most commonly concave and discharge a clear fluid. They are also slow-healing in nature, with dark, dull skin surrounding the lesion.
In the Chinese Medical Herbology and Pharmacology and the Chinese Herbal Medicine Materia Medica, a variety of pharmacological effects of Lu Rong have been analyzed from a biomedical perspective, including, but not limited to:
- Cardiovascular: In several animal studies it was shown that the cardiovascular effect of deer antler velvet varies according to dosage. With low doses, there was no significant change noted in the cardiovascular system. Moderate doses were shown to have a significant positive inotropic (modifying the force or speed of contraction of muscles) and chronotropic (affecting the heart rate) effect, leading to increased cardiac output in heart specimens. This effect was most significant when given to individuals with weak hearts. Furthermore, when it was given orally to subjects with chronic poor circulation and low blood pressure, it increased both the blood pressure and pulse strength. Large doses resulted in negative chronotropic and inotropic effects, leading to dilation of blood vessels (peripheral vasodilation) and a decrease in blood pressure. Its clinical applications for the cardiovascular system include treatment of arrhythmia and hypotension caused by excessive blood loss.
- Endocrine: In one study, mice received oral administration of deer antler velvet at the dosage of 100 to 200 mg/kg. Researchers evaluated the plasma levels of testosterone before and after the dosage. Testosterone levels increased significantly in old and young mice, but there was no change observed in healthy adult mice. When rats that had their gonads removed received preparations of deer antler velvet, no significant sexual hormonal effect was noted.
- Gastrointestinal: Studies show that deer antler velvet stimulates the production of PGE2. PGE2, or prostaglandin E2, is a naturally occurring prostaglandin often used as a medication and as a principal mediator of inflammation. It has shown healing-promoting effects on gastric ulcers and intestinal lesions and is beneficial for patients with peptic ulcers.
- Impact on local healing: Pantocrine, one component of deer antler velvet, has been shown to enhance healing and promote granulation of chronic, long-standing wounds and ulcerations, as well as the healing of bone fractures. The local metabolism of nitrogen and carbohydrates is also affected by Pantocrine.
- General strengthening: Pantocrine, one component of deer antler velvet, is a general tonic that has demonstrated marked effectiveness to increase work capacity, improve sleep, increase appetite, and decrease the rate of muscle fatigue. When given deer antler velvet over an extended period, patients showed an increase in body weight and red blood cell count. In animal studies, deer antler velvet increased the oxygen uptake of the brain, liver, and kidneys of white rats. When rats ingested deer antler velvet, their body weight increased within two weeks.
- Hematological effect: When rabbits were given powdered deer antler velvet orally or injected with preparations of the substance, there was an increase in both red and white blood cells. When rabbits received large amounts of deer antler velvet, there was a marked increase in the production of red blood cells.
- Immunological effect: Pantocrinum given to animals that are sensitive to a particular substance inhibits a reaction when they are re-exposed to the material.
- Impact on the Kidneys: Preparations of deer antler velvet have a diuretic effect.
For more information on these effects, please see the secondary resources listed at the end of this article.
CLINICAL STUDIES AND RESEARCH
In the Chinese Medical Herbology and Pharmacology textbook, several studies on Lu Rong are presented, including:
- Hyperplasia of mammary glands: An injectable preparation of deer antler velvet showed 87.2% effectiveness in treating 86 women with hyperplasia of the mammary glands. The treatment protocol was to administer 2 ml via intramuscular injection, twice daily for 10 to 15 days before menstruation.
- Diarrhea: Patients with diarrhea characterized by deficient Kidney yang received one intramuscular injection of deer antler velvet daily, or every other day, for a total of two doses. Out of 16 patients, 12 had a complete recovery, 3 showed moderate improvement, and 1 showed no response.
- Impotence: Intramuscular injections of deer antler velvet given every other day and oral ingestion of herbs were administered daily to treat 42 patients with impotence, with marked effectiveness. The treatment protocol was to inject 0.5 ml of deer antler velvet into the acupuncture points Qihai (CV6), Guanyuan (CV 4), Zhongji (CV 3), Qugu (CV 2), and Zusanli (ST 36), and 1.0 ml into Mingmen (GV 4). The composition of the herbal formula varied depending on the presentation of each patient.
- Atrioventricular block: In one study, 20 patients with atrioventricular block were treated with 2.0 ml intramuscular injection of deer antler velvet for 25 to 30 days with an 85% effective rate.
For more information on these studies, please see the secondary resources listed at the end of this article.
ADDENDUM ON ANTLERS OF MATURE DEER
Mature deer antlers are known as Lu Jiao (Cornu Cervi). This herb is salty and warm and enters the Liver and Kidney channels. The ability of Lu Jiao to tonify the Kidneys and assist the yang is weaker than that of deer antler velvet. However, Lu Jiao also invigorates blood and reduces toxic swelling and sores. As such it is used for breast abscesses, pain from blood stasis and deep pain in the lower back. The dosage of Lu Jiao is 5-10g either in decoctions or taken directly as a powder which can be ingested or applied topically.
Lu Jiao Jiao (Gelatinum Cornu Cervi), is a gelatin made from mature deer antlers. Lu Jiao Jiao is cheaper and weaker than deer antler velvet and is often substituted when the primary substance is not available. It is sweet, salty, slightly warm, and not as strong as the velvet in tonifying the Kidney Yang. However, it is still able to nourish and tonify essence and blood. It is also useful to stop bleeding. Lu Jiao Jiao is beneficial for patients with deficient and wasted jing and blood with bleeding or yin-type sores. The dosage is 6-12g.
The dregs left over from boiling Lu Jiao Jiao are known as Lu Jiao Shuang (Cornu Cervi Degelatinatium). Sweet, salty and slightly warm, Lu Jiao Shuang’s ability to augment jing and blood does not approach that of deer antler velvet. However, it does have a stronger retaining effect. Clinically, it is beneficial for deficient uterine bleeding and vaginal discharge due to cold. It can also be applied to stop bleeding.
Please note, all of these herbs are contraindicated in patients with heat from yin deficiency.
Chinese Herbal Medicine Materia Medica, 1993; 336-337
Essentials of Chinese Medicine Materia Medica, 2003; 230
Chinese Medical Herbology and Pharmacology, 2004; 878-880
Yao Xue Xue Bao (Journal of Herbology), 1991; 26(9):714
Xian Dai Zhong Yao Li Xue (Contemporary Pharmacology of Chinese Herbs), 1997; 1232-1233
Yi Xue Xue Bao (Report of Medicine), 1991; 26(9):714
Chem Pharm Bull, 1988; 36:2587:2593
Yao Xue Xue Bao (Journal of Herbology), 1985; 20:321
Ibid., 1991; 26(9):714
Zhong Yao Da Ci Duan (Dictionary of Chinese Herbs), 1997:2232
Shang Hai Zhong Yi Yao Za Zhi (Shanghai Journal of Chinese Medicine and Herbology), 1980; 3:31
Ji Lin Zhong Yi Yao (Jilin Chinese Medicine and Herbology), 1985; 2:22
Zhe Jiang Zhong Yi Za Zhi (Zhejiang Journal of Chinese Medicine), 1983: 11:498
Zhe Jiang Yi Xue (Zhejiang Journal of Medicine), 1988; 1:22