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Deer Antler Velvet: Not just a Sex Potion

By Suzanne Mathis

(Reprinted with permission from Physical Magazine)

It’s been used as a virility booster in the Orient for centuries. New research shows it can boost your athletic performance as well.

It’s the latest rage for enhancing athletic performance with Western weight lifters and endurance athletes. Yet, velvet deer antler is anything but new in the Far East. In fact, a 2,000-year-old silk scroll recovered from a tomb in the Hunan province of China lists 52 different medical conditions for which velvet deer antler is the preferred remedy.

Highly prized for centuries throughout Asia as a sex-enhancing potion as well as an essential immune-system booster and health tonic, velvet deer antler is rapidly being embraced by world-class athletes. Among those in the know, "velvet" is considered to be an elite medicinal solution for improving muscular strength, combating the effects of stress and fatigue and reducing recuperation time. Used by Russian athletes for decades, an impressive body of scientific data substantiate many of its claims to fame.

Velvet Ranks Alongside Ginseng

One of the few "pure" tonics among the thousands of natural remedies in the Chinese pharmacopoeia, velvet deer antler is in the same exalted category as ginseng. It is named after the soft, velvet like covering that deer antlers have while they are growing and before the antlers turn into formidable bony weapons.

Antlers that are harvested at just the right time contain powerful nutrients, including free amino acids, free fatty acids, phospholipids, pentose sugars, prostaglandins, IGF (insulinlike growth factor) and pantocrin—an anti-fatigue substance. The velvet is sought after because of its abilities to strengthen muscle contractions, enhance nerve impulses and heighten a sense of well-being and sexuality.

Russians Pioneer Research

For more than a decade, Arkady Koltun, M.D., Ph.D., and chairman of the medical committee for the Russian bodybuilding federation, has conducted research into anabolic agents that are known to improve strength, performance and musculature in athletes. In studies with powerlifters, weight lifters and bodybuilders, Koltun found that velvet antler has both muscle-strengthening and nerve-strengthening properties. It also contains nutrients that stimulate the immune system and increase energy.

Russian researchers Yudin and Dubryakov were the first researchers to study the effect of velvet antler extracts on the static load-bearing capacity of healthy men. (This measures their ability to hold a weight in a single position.) The extract increased their work capacity by 2 to 4 seconds. Subsequently, researchers conducted another study with 50 men, ages 18 to 23 who ran 3 km. A single administration of 20 ml of velvet antler extract 30 minutes before the next race reduced their completion time from 14 minutes, 48 seconds to 14 minutes, 4 seconds.

Researchers have also shown that the nutrient-rich antlers help athletes to increase their strength and stamina by increasing the blood’s oxygen-carrying capacity, repair minor tissue damage that occurs during training or competition, and boost the immune systems of athletes whose systems have been compromised during extreme exertion.

According to an article in Life Extension magazine, co-authored by fitness and health experts Abdo and Alex Duarte, research on the value of cartilage in dramatically improving a weakened immune system has exploded in the last 30 years. At the forefront of pioneering research is Arthur Johnson, of the University of Minnesota, who discovered that cartilage contains a small molecular weight protein "that has the unique ability to modulate the immune system."

Hard-pumping athletes may benefit a good deal from the velevt antler’s ability to accelerate wound healing. Abdo and Duarte cite the work of researchers such as John Prudden, who more than 30 years agoc discovered that an element found in cartilage, called N-Acetyl-Glucosamine, has consistently been proven to speed wound healing significantly.

Natural Sex Steroids Only Part of the Picture

Much of the intense scientific interest in velvet antlers is centered on its complex, unique bioactive properties. As part of AgResearch Invermay’s highly anticipated studies, natural sex hormones and natural steroids are only facets of the extensive biology being investigated. Velvet antler is a rich source of calcium, phosphorus, sulfur, magnesium, potassium, sodium, manganese, zinc, copper, iron, selenium and cobalt—all heart-friendly minerals. Fifty percent of the extract is made up of amino acids; and it also contains high-quality collagen, anti-inflammatory prostaglandins and gangliosides. The Invermay research team measured high levels of the natural hormone, IGF-l, an "insulinlike growth factor" that becomes depleted as we age, and negatively impacts muscles, which tend to atrophy. Studies conducted at the Academy of Traditional Chinese Medicine reveal potent anti-inflammatory peptides present in velvet antlers. This is significant because of the extract’s pain-reducing ability, as well as its help in quick recovery time.

New Zealand Leads New Frontier of Research

While studies conducted in Russia are not easily accessed, the Invermay Research Center, in association with the universities of Canterbury and Otago is the key Western research source conducting investigations into the properties and medicinal values of velvet deer antler. According to the New Zealand Board of Trade, the Invermay team, led by David Gerrard, has found that antler extracts improve cell growth and also have anti-tumor and anti-viral properties. They have also found that during the antler growth period, deer blood has high levels of IGF-l, as well as receptors to IGF-l in the antler itself, which promoted growth in laboratory cell lines when tested on mice.

In addition, after findings last year that deer velvet is effective in stimulating the immune system, the same researchers launched a new study to test velvet antler’s efficacy for strength enhancement. Athletes from the university in New Zealand were tested before and after 10 weeks of strength training: 24 males, averaging 21.4 years of age, were divided into two groups. One group received 70 mg velvet antler extract per day for 10 weeks, while the other group received a placebo. Strength-performance tests were carried out using resistance-training apparatus. Muscular endurance was tested using the Biodex isokinetic dynamometer, and power was tested on a stationary bike for 30 seconds against a set resistance.

Although results of the Phase I trials were not considered highly significant statistically, they suggested that velvet deer antler can improve fat loss, total work, max torque, peak power, mean power and max weight lifted. The researchers speculate that the dose was too low for statistical significance. Currently, much higher doses are being used in Phase I and III trials.

Early word from the researchers via the New Zealand Trade Association Office is that Phase II results are highly significant statistically. Jimmy Suttie of AgResearch Invermay and the School of Physical Education at the University of Otago in Dunedin, New Zealand, notes that velvet antler does not necessarily increase muscle size, but enhanced strength "must be due to an improvement in the dynamic ability of the muscle to do the work."

The New Zealand Trade Association reports that four world-class New Zealand athletes used deer velvet antler to help their strength training and endurance, and to improve their recovery rate after training or competition. All have been taking the deer velvet since February 1998.

Of the group, triathlete Hamish Carter, No. l in 1998 world championship ratings, says, "Velvet helps my training, energy and endurance. I feel better when taking velvet." The others, swimmimng champs Trent Bray and Nick Tongue, and world champion single sculler Rob Waddell report achieving their best form yet, attributing the success in part to velvet’s effect. Bray said, "I found I have a lot more energy during the day than I was used to ... since taking velvet I have been able to put more effort into all my training sessions."

In addition, the athletes say they feel less tired during training and have not become sick during the season, which has been a common vulnerability before taking velvet.

With benefits like increased strength, a heightened sense of overall well-being and reduced recovery time, it’s safe to assume that athletes will be using a lot more velvet deer antler in the future.

Antler Harvesting: A Humane Procedure

Antler harvesting, a booming industry in New Zealand, is closely monitored by government agencies and humane organizations. Allowed to romp among hundreds of acres of pristine prairies where the deer feeds on ginseng, rye and other herbs, the animals’ antlers are removed about 65 days into their new spring growth. Seventy years of rigorous scientific testing have shown that the blood, nerves and cartilage are in their prime state of bioactivity at precisely this time. Veterinarians supervise the painless removal of the antlers in a time-tested procedure.

Many veterinarians and animal behaviorists worldwide view painless antler removal as a safeguard for animal welfare, according to fitness guru John Abdo in a "Health World Online" article. "In autumn, during the mating season, stags become aggressive; defending their territory and harem of females from would-be suitors, and they often pose a mortal threat to other stags in their paddock. This aggressiveness is due to these animals’ high levels of testosterone and other circulating hormones. This hormonal surge stimulates rapid growth, awesome strength and sexual power." So removing the antlers at this time actually prevents some gruesome combat between stags.

Velvet Deer Antler at a Glance

Benefits: Used in Asia for 2000 years as a general health tonic and aphrodisiac. Research in the United States, Russia, New Zealand and the Far East suggests that velvet deer antler may improve strength for power lifters, bodybuilders and endurance athletes; reduce recuperation time and pain; increase energy; and heighten your sense of well-being.

Recommended Dosage: Take 2 to 4 250-mg capsules 4 times per day.

Side Effect: On rare occasions, users experience an upset stomach.

Form: Freeze-dried, pharmaceutical grade capsules

Selected References

Abdo, J "Nature’s ergogenic phenomena: Pantocrine velvet deer antler" Health World Online (1998) 1-8

Church, JS "Velvet antler: Its historical medical use, performance enhancing effects and pharmacology. Review of the scientific literature" Elk Tech International, elk-tech.com (1998) 1-60

Duarte, A and Abdo, J "A 2000-year-old medicine from deer antlers" Life Extension (1994) 14: 99-103

Sadogjo, M, Haines, SR, Skottnes, A et al "Effects of insulin-like growth factor-I (IGF-l) and IGF-II on the growth of antler cells in vitro" Journal of Endocrinology (1994) 143: 461-469

Zhang, ZQ, Zhang, Y, Wang, BX et al "Purification and partial characterization of anti-inflammatory peptide from pilose antler of Cervus nippon Temminck" Yao Hsueh Hsueh Pao (1992) 27: 321-324