What are deer antler supplements? Health and Safety Effects

In recent years, deer antler supplements – specifically deer velvet extracts and powders – have gained popularity among bodybuilders and athletes looking to increase their strength and endurance.

Historically, they have been used to promote youth, fertility, blood pressure, and more.

While some of the research on these supplements is intriguing, minimal scientific evidence supports their ability to improve athletic performance in men.

This article explains what deer antler supplements are, what they’re typically used for, and what the science says about their health benefits and risks.

Deer antler pile is the soft, fluffy, protective coat that covers the bone and cartilage of newly grown antlers that have not yet calcified or hardened.

What makes deer antlers so special is that they are some of the fastest growing bones of all animals. In fact, deer and elk shed and regrow their antlers every year (1, 2, 3, 4).

This is probably why deer antler velvet supplements are revered by many traditional medicine practices. For example, they have been used in traditional Chinese medicine for thousands of years (2, 3, 5, 6).

How are supplements made

To make deer antler velvet supplements, young, uncalcified deer or elk antlers are surgically removed.

The animals are put to sleep under anesthesia before the velvet antlers are cut near the base. Then the velvet is removed from the wood bone, dried, crushed into a fine powder and made into its supplement form.

The powder is sometimes sold in bulk or in capsule form. You can also find deer antler extracts and sprays, which are made by combining the powder with an extract solution.

Traditional uses and today’s health claims

Traditionally, deer antler velvet has been used to strengthen bones, improve immunity, and treat illnesses, including toothaches and tissue damage (2, 7, 8, 9).

Today, a quick online search could easily come up with a list of over 30 conditions that the supplement is supposed to treat.

For example, people commonly use it to improve strength, endurance, athletic performance, and repair injured muscles and tissues.

The supplement is also believed to lower blood pressure and cholesterol levels, promote youthfulness, improve fertility, and more. Unfortunately, many of these touted benefits are poorly studied.

SUMMARY

Deer antler velvet is a protective, hair-like skin that covers newly grown deer antlers. It has been used in traditional medicine practices for thousands of years. Today, it is often marketed to athletes for strength, endurance, and healing.

Deer antler velvet contains nutrients that could, in theory, have health benefits.

A velvet antler sample from the Formosa sambar deer, native to Taiwan, was found to contain several enzymes with antioxidant properties. These included superoxide dismutase (SOD), catalase (CAT) and glutathione peroxidase (GPX) (ten).

Additionally, an older review from 2013 found that deer antlers can boast certain medicinal properties due to their amino acid and peptide content. Amino acids are the building blocks of proteins, while peptides are strings of connected amino acids (11).

More recent research has also attributed the health benefits of antler velvet to its protein content (7, 12, 13).

Numerous recent test tube studies also support the idea that the protein peptides in deer antler velvet may have anti-inflammatory, immune-regulating, and heart-healthy properties (14, 15, 16, 17).

Finally, deer velvet contains organic molecules called nucleosides, which are the building blocks of DNA. These could be responsible for the touted anti-fatigue effects of deer antler velvet (18).

SUMMARY

Deer antler velvet is rich in bioactive compounds such as antioxidants, proteins, polypeptides, nucleosides, etc. They are believed to be responsible for its medicinal properties.

While deer antler velvet may contain beneficial nutrients and bioactive compounds, little research has investigated specific health benefits in humans.

Possible benefits that researchers are currently studying include:

  • Growth of bones and cartilage. Test-tube studies suggest that deer antler velvet may treat bone disease and cartilage damage. What’s more, an animal study found that it increased the length of the femoral bone and the levels of bone enzymes (19, 20, 21, 22).
  • Anti-fatigue and fortifying properties. Studies have tried giving mice deer antler velvet supplements. They found that the more nucleosides in the supplements, the faster the mice swam. This indicates improved strength and reduced fatigue (12, 23).
  • Treatment of osteoarthritis. Deer antler velvet contains chondroitins, a component of cartilage, which may improve pain levels in people with osteoarthritis. In addition, other compounds in deer antler velvet may strengthen bones (24, 25, 26).
  • Anti-cancer properties. Numerous test-tube and mouse studies have observed that deer antler velvet supplements exhibit anti-tumor and anti-cancer activity (27, 28, 29, 30).
  • Hair growth and skin health. A few studies in mice, humans, and test tubes have shown that deer antler velvet supplements can stimulate skin and hair cells. Therefore, they could potentially improve hair growth and skin health (31, 32, 33).

Despite these promising results, not enough high-quality human studies have been conducted to support specific uses of deer antler supplements in humans.

Is it good for bodybuilding?

One of the most cited claims about deer antler velvet is that it can increase your strength and endurance.

Unfortunately, these claims are based on a small 2003 study that included 38 men.

The study found that those who took deer antler velvet powder for 10 weeks while participating in a concurrent strength program had a greater increase in knee strength and endurance than men who took a placebo (34).

Even early researchers noted that more testing was needed to confirm their observations. To date, no other study has replicated the results in humans, although a few have found similar effects on endurance in animals (12, 23, 34).

Ultimately, experts agree that there is not enough strong evidence to support claims that deer antler velvet supplements improve athletic performance or weightlifting abilities (35).

SUMMARY

The labels of deer antler supplements often claim to improve performance and athletic strength, but almost no research supports these uses. Scientists continue to study its use for other purposes, such as treating osteoarthritis and preventing fatigue.

Currently, there are no known unwanted side effects from taking deer antler supplements.

However, it’s important to note that supplements typically contain insulin-like growth factor 1 (IGF-1), which has several known side effects. These included (35, 36):

  • headache
  • articular pain
  • edema or swelling
  • low blood sugar

Also, keep in mind that IGF-1 is banned by many sports leagues and sports associations. So, if you are an athlete, the use of these supplements might be prohibited.

In addition, these supplements are poorly regulated. Thus, they could be mixed or contaminated with other compounds and substances which cause side effects in some individuals.

For example, some researchers are concerned that supplements could be contaminated with harmful pathogens if the deer antler pile was harvested from unhealthy animals (37, 38, 39).

Due to the lack of studies on the safety and effectiveness of deer antler velvet, be extremely careful with the supplement. This is especially true if you are pregnant, breastfeeding, immunocompromised, taking birth control pills, or taking hormone replacement therapy.

Finally, because deer antler pile is surgically removed from live animals, some people have moral and ethical concerns about its use as a supplement.

SUMMARY

Although it appears that the side effects of deer antler supplements may be minimal, more research into their safety and effects on humans is warranted. Also, keep in mind that deer antler supplements are banned by many sports associations.

At this time, there are no official dosage recommendations for deer antler velvet supplements.

Still, most supplement manufacturers recommend a daily dosage for their product, typically 500 to 1000 mg.

However, it is best to consult with a trusted health care provider before starting to take the supplement. They can help you determine the appropriate and safe amount for you, if any.

SUMMARY

If you do decide to take deer antler supplements, review the dosage suggested by the manufacturer and consult your health care provider first.

Deer antler velvet supplements have been used for ages to support bone health and repair tissue damage.

Numerous test-tube and animal studies have investigated their potential medicinal qualities. However, little of this research has been translated into the safety or effectiveness of deer antlers for humans.

Therefore, it is best to proceed with caution. Also, keep in mind that these supplements are banned by some sports organizations.


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