Every living organism comes with a preprogrammed “owner’s manual” with instructions organized by maintenance and repair topics. Take antlers on deer. In all deer species, the stags grow antlers (female caribou or reindeer also produce antlers). Around 6 months of age, a buck fawn will develop a pair of bumps called pedicles, the base from which antlers will grow. According to its owner’s manual, growing and shedding antlers is an annual cycle based on internal hormones and external light.
The cycle begins in spring
The growth cycle typically starts around April when the days are lengthening. Antlers are produced on the tops of the pedicles, and they are the fastest growing animal tissue, up to ¼ inch per day. The buck’s body produces biochemical resources that tissue cells use for growth, regeneration and repair.
Velvet facilitates antler growth
As the antlers begin the early surge in the summer months, they are not yet hard bone but instead feel spongy to the touch. While they are dynamically forming, they are rich in blood vessels and nerves. These are especially dense in the outer covering, a hairy skin called velvet. The stag needs velvet for antler formation because its blood vessels and nerves deliver growth factors and hormonal biochemicals. If the velvet is cut or removed during this time, it bleeds profusely and is very painful for the deer. Meanwhile, mineral deposits such as calcium and phosphorus gradually fill in and replace the spongy tissue, turning the antlers into true bone.
As summer turns to fall, the increasing bone deposition starts to cut off the blood supply to the velvet. When this is complete, the velvet dries up and sheds from the antlers. The stag may rub its antlers against trees to facilitate the shedding, and deer have been observed eating their shed velvet. As daylight hours continue to shorten, the stag’s testosterone levels start to rise and breeding season begins, lasting until late fall or early winter.
Finally, the winter solstice brings the year’s shortest days, mating season ends, and testosterone levels drop. Per its owner’s manual, the stag’s bony antlers now erode at the pedicle seam. The antler loosens and falls off, “leaving a bloody depression which quickly scabs over.”[i] In spring, the cycle starts anew.
Is deer antler velvet good for humans?
It’s not known when or how humans figured that if velvet is good for dear, it might also be good for humans. In traditional Chinese medicine, antler velvet has been used medicinally for thousands of years. In our own time, an abundance of lab analysis has revealed that velvet contains female hormones, growth factors, amino acids and other essential molecular messengers that can regulate gene activity and promote tissue growth/repair. In short, science supports theoretical health benefits. In particular, velvet is rich in insulin-like growth factor 1 (IGF-1), a hormone that potentially offers anti-aging and performance-enhancing effects, but which may promote cancer development. Here is just a short list of what people take antler velvet for:
- Reduce cholesterol
- Treat high blood pressure
- Prevent osteoporosis
- Strengthen the lower back and knees
- Boost the immune system
- Improve cognitive skills
- Help with sexuality and fertility
- Support women’s reproductive health
- Protect men’s erectile function
- The list goes on and on!
Does research confirm human health benefits?
In addition to molecular analysis, there have been numerous animal studies that have demonstrated better vascular healing after cardiac events[ii], injury prevention through anti-inflammatory properties[iii], and suppression of prostate cancer cell activity[iv]. While this seems promising, please consider:
- To date, there are no Level One studies (controlled, randomized, blinded) studies that support specific improvements in physical or mental conditions. Level One is the highest level of research. “There is some evidence that deer antler spray may work for improving performance and physique. However, it seems that an individual needs to take very high doses in order for these benefits to occur.”[v]
- Small observational studies report no harmful side effects over 10-12 week periods of daily use.
- Many commercially available antler velvet supplements are formulated with additional herbs or compounds that do have a beneficial track record, e.g. L-arginine supports blood vessel health which can have some benefit for cardiovascular and erectile performance—making it difficult to tease out velvet itself as a bioactive ingredient.
- Swallowing antler velvet as a powder or pill diminishes any effect it might have, since the digestive system breaks it down. Manufacturers recommend absorption under the tongue (spray or tablet) where the tissues take a “shortcut” into the bloodstream.
- A 2018 study conducted by a Master’s degree candidate at the University of Nevada Las Vegas Graduate College compared blood levels of IGF-1 between those who took antler velvet vs. a placebo, and found absolutely no before-and-after difference in blood levels in either group.[vi]
Law of unintended consequences?
Humans tend to capitalize on something that looks wonderful, but often overlook its impact on the source. Ancient medical wisdom advises: Above all, do no harm. While use of antler velvet appears to be harm-free for humans, if deer could talk what would they say? Harvesting velvet (the process is called velveting) is done before the antlers fully harden. Velveting involves
… the surgical removal of velvet antler from male deer (stags). The animal is sedated, restrained, and given an appropriate local anesthetic to prevent pain. After an appropriate time delay that allows the anesthetic to take effect, a rubber tourniquet is applied to the base of each antler, and the antler is surgically removed. … Once harvesting of velvet is done, deer is usually free to roam, without feeling any side effects from the procedure. The harvested velvet is then frozen, sterilized, sliced and then manufactured to what are the available forms in the market today.[vii]
I am skeptical that the stags feel no side effects, including pain and trauma. In countries where deer farming is part of agribusiness, velveting practices are regulated by laws intended to enforce humane treatment. In a blog from well-respected Andrew Weil, MD, he notes that “… the United Kingdom has banned the removal of deer antler velvet under its welfare-of-livestock regulations, unless the antlers have been damaged or most of the velvet has been shed.”[viii]
Finally, consider the ultimate impact on the natural genetic hardiness of deer. During breeding season, stags do battle with their antlers in compete for access to does. Only the fittest are victorious, nature’s way of ensuring that their offspring are best fit for life and future procreation. A stag with no antlers still has a testosterone surge needed for mating, but stands no chance to prove himself a worthy sire.
I am not recommending for or against the use of deer antler velvet. While I find no good evidence that it is effective, I also find no indication of harm. I do, however, strongly urge interested persons to research manufacturers and read ingredients. The expense of the products is partly due to the farming and velveting practices, but I detect broader ethical issues beneath the surface of this business.
The Latin principle caveat emptor best sums it up: Let the buyer take responsibility for checking the quality, safety and effectiveness of deer antler velvet before purchasing it.
NOTE: This content is solely for purposes of information and
does not substitute for diagnostic or medical advice. Talk to your doctor if
you are experiencing pelvic pain, or have any other health concerns or
questions of a personal medical nature.
[i] Knox, W. Matt. “About Deer Antlers.” http://www.iwla-rh.org/html/DGIF_articles/deer_antlers.html
[ii] Li Y, Wang Z, Mao M, Zhao M et al. Velvet Antler Mobilizes Endothelial Progenitor Cells to Promote Angiogenesis and Repair Vascular Endothelial Injury in Rats Following Myocardial Infarction. Front Physiol. 2019 Jan 17;9:1940.
[iii] Jui-Shu C, Hung-Jen L, Jeng-Shyan D, Wen-Tzu W et al. Preventive Effects of Velvet Antler (Cervus elaphus) against Lipopolysaccharide-Induced Acute Lung Injury in Mice by Inhibiting MAPK/NF-?B Activation and Inducing AMPK/Nrf2 Pathways. Evid Based Complement Alternat Med. 2018;2018:2870503.
[iv] Tang Y, Fan M, Choi Y, Yu Y et al. Sika deer (Cervus Nippon) velvet antler extract attenuates prostate cancer in xeonograft model. Biosci Biotechnol Biochem. 2019 Feb;83(2):348-356.
[vi] Navalta, M. Changes in IGF-1 Levels Post Deer Antler Velvet Supplementation. Thesis submitted in partial fulfillment of requirents for the Master of Science-Kinesiology. UNLV. 2018. https://digitalscholarship.unlv.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=4288&context=thesesdissertations