Deer Antler Velvet in the West
Even though the use of deer antler velvet can be traced back 2,000 years to the Ming Dynasty in China, Western medicine has been slower to accept its use to treat and prevent the health conditions touted by traditional Chinese medicine (TCM). However, the number of studies conducted on deer antler velvet is increasing in the U.S. and Canada.
Sedation of Deer and Antler Harvesting in Canada
Xylazine hydrochloride (Rompun) is a sedative, analgesic, and muscle relaxant that is used in veterinary medicine either alone or in combination with another analgesic when removing deer antlers. It is the only drug licensed for use in food-producing animals in Canada and is administered intramuscularly. Yohimbine, which is an herbal drug, is often used intravenously to reverse the sedation from Rompun.
The dosage given to red deer stags with an average body weight of 97-118 kg is 1.5-2 ml of 2% xylazine by intramuscular injection in the neck. The drug acts rapidly, and the antlers are then removed with a saw and inverted to retain the blood. A tourniquet is applied to the base of the antler buttons to stop the bleeding. Xylazine can be detected in the velvet antlers between 25 minutes and 72 minutes after administration at levels of 70-220 ng/g of antler. It is not considered to have any adverse effects on consumers of deer antler velvet products.
Insulin-Like Growth Factor (IGF-1) and Athletes
In the past, there has been controversy over whether athletes should be allowed to consume deer antler velvet supplements because they have been considered a source of insulin-like growth factor (IGF-1), which in its synthetic form is a banned substance by the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA). However, IGF-1 in deer antler velvet is a natural product that is similar to what is found in red meat or dairy products. In its natural form, IGF-1 is not considered a banned substance.
Because IGF-1 functions to promote cell growth and regeneration, it has been used as a performance enhancer for athletes. IGF-1 cannot be consumed orally because it is broken down in the digestive system, but it is absorbed into the circulatory system when administered sublingually.
A recent study evaluated whether sublingual deer antler velvet capsules increased IGF-1 levels in humans. The hypotheses of the study were:
- Hypothesis 1: Deer antler velvet supplementation would increase levels of IGF-1 post-intervention.
- Hypothesis 2: Participants with a higher fat-free mass index estimated by the SECA medical body composition analyzer would have a positive correlation to levels of IGF-1.
- Hypothesis 3: Participants with higher dairy consumption would have a positive correlation to levels of IGF-1.
These hypotheses were not proven. The findings showed that there was no increase in IGF-1 levels between the deer antler velvet and placebo groups after seven days of supplementation and no correlation between dairy consumption or fat-free mass and IGF-1 levels.
Deer Antler Velvet and the Risk of Cancer
With the increased uptake of deer antler velvet, there have been questions concerning its safety and any associated risks of developing cancer. A recent literature review evaluated whether there was a correlation between deer antler velvet consumption and cancer in healthy subjects. The most important findings include:
- IGF-1 does not directly affect the proliferation of tumor cells.
- Cancer proliferation is increased by activation of IGF-1 receptors in the body when increased levels of circulating IGF-1 in the body are present.
- Higher levels of circulating IGF-1 are associated with an increased risk of common cancers.
- IGF-1 provides an environment that weakly favors the survival of genetically damaged cells, but long-term exposure to a large number of damaged cells can accelerate carcinogenesis.
- Genetic factors influence individual levels of IGF-1.
- A diet high in protein and energy mildly increases IGF-1 levels while starvation has the opposite effect.
The author concluded there was no evidence supporting the hypothesis of increased risk of cancers in healthy participants using deer antler velvet; however, it is recommended that these supplements be used with caution because there is insufficient data from clinical trials and other studies to provide information about its safety in humans.
Effects of Elk Antler Velvet on Physical and Neurological Development of Offspring
The evidence regarding the effects of elk antler velvet supplements on different developmental life stages is lacking.
Researchers in Canada and China teamed up to investigate the effects of long-term dietary supplementation of female rats with elk antler velvet supplementation on the physical and neurological development of their offspring. In the study, female rats were fed standard food or food containing 10% elk antler velvet for 90 days before mating and throughout pregnancy and lactation. In each group, 56 male and 56 female newborn rats were assessed for physical, neuromotor, and reflex development.
They found that for the physical developmental parameters, incisor eruption occurred one day earlier in the group receiving elk antler velvet. For the neuromotor developmental parameters, the length of time of supported and unsupported standing was longer for those receiving elk antler velvet. Neurological reflexes were acquired earlier in those receiving elk antler velvet. Even though those receiving elk antler velvet experienced accelerated developmental milestones in some areas, there were no discernible adverse effects on developing offspring.
The researchers concluded that further investigation is needed to determine if the possible benefits of maternal elk antler velvet supplementation on postnatal development can be supported for promoting maternal and child health in humans.