Deer antler velvet (DAV) is considered an ergogenic aid in many countries, and some athletes in the United States also ascribe significant benefits to it, including the following:
*Improves iron uptake and hemoglobin levels and increases red blood cell count
*Helps slow fatigue
*Increases muscle strength and endurance (in animal and human studies)
*Shows antiaging effects through increased protein synthesis, increased antioxidant activity and upgraded release of hormones, including testosterone
*Accelerates the healing of injuries, such as bone fractures
*Stimulates the release of various growth factors, including insulinlike growth factor 1 (IGF-1), which is known to have anabolic effects in muscle
*Shows anti-inflammatory and pain-reducing effects, which would help lessen the pain associated with diseases characterized by out-of-control inflammation, such as arthritis
*Promotes increased sexual behavior
So what's it got that promotes so many diverse beneficial effects? Analysis of deer antler velvet shows an array of minerals, fatty acids and amino acids. Certain parts of it contain IGF-1 and IGF-2.
Several reports, mostly from Russia, show the various effects outlined above. The Russian supplement formula was known as Pantocrin and was commonly used by champion Russian athletes. Many of the Russian studies, however, involved animal subjects. What happens in an animal may not be duplicated in a human, and human studies on DAV thus far have shown paradoxical results.
A Russian study found that athletes who competed in a 3,000-meter run had improved running times after supplementation with DAV, but it was poorly designed and proves nothing about the efficacy of DAV. A study from New Zealand that featured a better, double-blind design found that a conservative dose of DAV improved muscular endurance during an eight-week strength-training program.1 The mechanism for the improvement, however, couldn't be explained.
A Web search turned up comments about an intriguing, though apparently unpublished, study involving 18 healthy male Canadian police officers in Edmonton, Alberta. They were divided into two groups: One group took a DAV supplement and the other a placebo. Both groups participated in a nine-week strength-training program. The aim was to determine whether DAV had any anabolic effects on humans engaged in weight training. Those in the DAV group showed plasma testosterone levels five to six times higher than normal'although no gains occurred in measures of strength or muscular endurance. No changes occurred in other hormones, such as cortisol and IGF-1.
How did DAV increase testosterone levels? The authors offer several possible explanations. It's a rich source of branched-chain amino acids, which other studies have shown increase testosterone synthesis through upgraded release of leutenizing hormone (LH). Another theory is that it somehow blocks testosterone excretion by the kidneys'an odd explanation since by the time testosterone gets to the kidneys, the liver has converted it to a water-soluble version amenable to kidney excretion.
It's more likely that the half-life of testosterone in the plasma increases, or perhaps DAV binds with sex-hormone-binding globulin (SHBG), a liver-produced protein that binds with testosterone in the blood. Tying up SHBG would have the effect of increasing free testosterone, the only form of the hormone metabolically active in cells.
The latest double-blind study of DAV featured 38 active men randomly assigned to groups receiving DAV extract, DAV powder or a placebo.2 All subjects were tested before and after using the supplements and participated in a 10-week strength-training program. They underwent various tests for hormones and red-blood-cell activity.
All groups showed equal increases in six-rep-maximum strength tests, but those in the DAV-powder group showed additional gains in isokinetic knee extensor strength and muscular endurance. No changes occurred in any hormone levels, red-blood-cell mass or oxygen uptake. The authors could not explain the increased muscular endurance they observed in the DAV-powder group, but they suggest that it may have involved an analgesic, or pain-killing, effect.
That study confirms the findings of another group of researchers, which were presented at the First International Meeting of the Congress on Nutrition and Athletic Performance. Their study featured a 10-week program of both weight training and endurance exercise, but none of the subjects using the supplements (at a dose of 560 milligrams daily) showed hormonal changes different from those of the placebo group. ALL Even the long-held reputation of DAV as a sexual-enhancement substance has recently been called into question.3 In a study featuring 32 men and their female partners, ages 45 to 65, those taking DAV for 12 weeks experienced no beneficial effects on sexual desire or function.
An interesting aspect of that study was an analysis of the DAV supplement, which revealed that DAV contains small amounts of androstenedione, DHEA, progesterone, testosterone and estrogen. Androstenedione is a direct precursor of testosterone and was a popular pro-hormone supplement until studies showed that it was more effective at increasing estrogen than testosterone in men, though it did raise testosterone levels in women. DHEA, an adrenal androgen, works much like andro, though it has more beneficial health effects. Progesterone is a female hormone. Add it all up, and one thing becomes clear: Leave deer alone.
1 Gerrard, D.F., et al. (1999). Clinical evaluation of New Zealand deer velvet antler on muscle strength and endurance in healthy male university athletes. Dunedin: Human Performance Centre, University of Otago.
2 Sleivert, G., et al. (2003). The effects of deer antler velvet extract or powder supplementation on aerobic power, erythropoiesis and muscular strength and endurance characteristics. Int J Sports Nutr Exerc Metab. 13:251-65.
3 Conaglen, H.M., et al. (2003). Effect of deer velvet on sexual function in men and their partners: A double-blind, placebo-controlled study. Archives of Sexual Behavior. 32:271-78.