Deer Velvet Antler for Enhancing Sexual Function and Athletic Performance

By Michael Cirigliano, MD, FACP

The desire to enhance physical strength and sexual prowess has been the subject of study and conjecture since the beginning of time. Both natural products as well as synthesized pharmaceutical agents, including anabolic steroids, have been utilized with positive and negative results. In some cases, use of these agents has led to significant morbidity and mortality.

There is growing interest in the use of natural products because of the popular belief that they are somewhat safer than prescription pharmaceuticals. The media also has promulgated the use of a number of natural products to enhance both sexual as well as athletic performance. Professional athletes, including former Olympic champions in track and field, elite cyclists, a three-time winner of the Boston Marathon, and Mark McGwire, have admitted using such agents including androstenedione.1

Although much has been stated about the therapeutic properties of deer velvet antler, its medicinal value remains unclear and its safety in doubt. Much of the available information has been derived from Russian and Chinese literature.

Origin

In a number of countries including New Zealand, Australia, Canada, Russia, and China, antlers are removed from various species of deer while they are still growing tissues and contain abundant blood and nerve supplies.2 At this stage of development, antlers have little or no compact bone. This has led to the term "velvet antlers," which refers to the short, velvet-like hair that covers them.

Sourcing

Deer velvet antler is obtained by administering anesthetic agents to animals and scraping the velvet off the antlers. Processing continues with autoclaving followed by freeze-drying the deer velvet antler.3

Increased consumption of deer velvet antler has led to annual production of 450 tons in New Zealand, 400 tons in China, and approximately 40 tons in North America. Currently, Korea is the largest exporter of velvet antler, grossing nearly $1.6 billion in sales.

Historical Context

Traditional Chinese medicine incorporates a large number of plant and animal products for prevention and treatment of illness. Certain medicinal agents have been categorized as "fine drugs."4 These include ginseng, deer velvet antler, rhinoceros horn, musk deer navel gland, and cow bezoar. Deer parts, including deer velvet antler, are utilized for a wide variety of symptoms. Deer velvet antler formulations traditionally have required laborious and time-consuming preparation by extremely knowledgeable practitioners of Chinese medicine.4

Traditional Uses

Deer velvet also is known in other cultures as "lu rong," "nokyong," "rokujo," and "Cornu Cervi parvum." According to the Chinese medical text Pen Ts’ao Kang Mu, deer velvet antler was considered a universal tonic, but also held an important place in the list of medications meant to produce virility, reinforce vital energy, and strengthen stamina.5 Deer velvet antler also has been used in traditional Chinese medicine to treat symptoms of impotence and lower back and knee pain, and as a tonic for children with skeletal deformities. In Korean medicine, deer velvet antler is used at the onset of winter to ward off infections.6

Mechanism of Action

Deer velvet antler consists primarily of protein, of which collagen is a major constituent. Most of the carbohydrate content in antler is proteoglycan, which is a combination of protein and carbohydrate.7 The carbohydrate portion is primarily glycosaminoglycan of which chondroitin sulfate is by far the predominant constituent.8 The weight of chondroitin sulfate in growing antler depends on the state of growth of the antler at the time of harvesting. Content also varies according to the section of antler used, with the tip and upper sections containing more than the base. Amino acids, including tryptophan, lysine, vitamin A, estrone and estradiol, sphingomyelin, ganglioside, prostaglandins, and epidermal growth factor, also are found in deer velvet antler.9

Brechman et al found that pantocrin (Siberian deer velvet antler extract), exerted androgenic effects on the prostate and seminal vesicles of immature rodents.10 In another study, extract from deer velvet antler was noted to have a hypertrophic effect on the rodent prostate gland, supporting an androgenic effect of velvet antler use.4

Deer velvet antler also contains significant amounts of growth hormone precursor and prostaglandin. Insulin-like growth factor-1 (IGF-1) has been isolated from deer velvet antler and may play a role in cell growth, particularly reticuloendothelial cells and leukocytes.11 Deer velvet antler was observed to increase protein synthesis in mice, with an increase in total RNA synthesis.12 Finally, estrone and estradiol also have been isolated.9

Animal Studies

Although deer velvet antler is considered one of the ultimate medicinal animal parts in traditional Chinese medicine, there is a paucity of literature regarding safety and efficacy. Review of the literature revealed several small studies utilizing poor statistical methodology. In one of these studies, rats made anemic experimentally via administration of phenylhydrazine were noted to have an increase in packed cell volume, hemoglobin content, and serum iron content after administration of deer velvet antler.13

In two other small animal studies, an increase in bone marrow iron activity in anemic rats was noted after administration of deer velvet antler. Of note, four species of antler were tested, with elk antler being the most effective in stimulating hematopoetic activity.14,15

In the Brechman et al study, pantocrin was reported to increase serum testosterone levels and to have gonadotrophic effects on laboratory animals, resulting in enlargement of the prostate and seminal vesicles of immature rodents.10 Reduction of fatigue and increased working capacity of mice also were noted. However, other investigators have disputed these claims and have not found a similar testosterone effect after administration of red deer antler extract.4

Other in vitro experiments investigating the effects of pantocrin have been reported. Although pantocrin increased the tone of spontaneous contraction in the rabbit duodenum, both the frequency and tone of spontaneous contraction of the rabbit uterus were reduced.16

Studies with pantocrin also have revealed no obvious effects on cardiovascular function. Clifford et al conducted a detailed study of the effect of a Korean antler extract on 11 cardiovascular parameters in the dog.17 Only stroke volume was elevated significantly during this period of observation.

Several small animal studies indicate that pantocrin may aid in the recovery from cervical spinal injury by promoting glycolysis in spinal tissue by stimulating hexokinase, phosphofructokinase, aldolase, and glycerolkinase in rat spinal nerves.18

Clinical Studies

Minimal information exists regarding the use of deer velvet antler products in humans despite thousands of years of use in Chinese medicine. In one of the few published scientific studies on deer velvet antler involving human subjects, improvement of psychogenic impotence in 13 of 16 subjects was noted and no improvement was noted in six patients suffering from organic causes of impotence.19 Unfortunately, this small study lacked placebo controls and is of questionable value. Injectable extracts were utilized.

In one small study in Russia, athletes given pantocrin exhibited an increased dynamic work potential (74 kg/m) on an exercise bicycle compared to those receiving placebo (15 kg/m).20 Several other unsubstantiated studies of strength-training parameters have concluded beneficial effects. Unfortunately, most references are not published in peer-reviewed journals, lack specific dosing information, and represent anecdotal testimonials rather than hard science. One study in particular has been the subject of significant controversy.21

Chondroitin sulfate, a significant component of deer velvet antler has been the subject of numerous well-done randomized, placebo-controlled studies for the treatment of arthralgia and arthritis.2

Formulation and Dosage

No accepted formulations of deer velvet antler exist. Typical dosage ranges from 400 to 600 mg/d, but higher dosages of 900 to 2,400 mg/d are recommended in certain deer velvet antler-containing products.2

Pantocrin is available as an alcohol extract in 1 or 2 mL ampules. Tablets contain 1% of extract. Pantocrin has been prescribed internally in doses of 25-40 drops or 1-2 tablets twice daily, taken 30 minutes before eating. Typical courses of treatment last from two to three weeks; however, three courses are given with a seven- to 10-day break between courses.3

Adverse Effects and Interactions

Although serious adverse effects have not been reported in the clinical literature, the safety of Russian deer velvet antler has been investigated in a number of studies. Pantocrin was noted to have an LD50 of 34 mL/kg in male mice and 18 mL/kg in male rats when given intravenously.22

Although no toxic or teratogenic effects were observed when pantocrin was given to pregnant rats and mice, there was a 50% reduction in the number of implantation sites and a subsequent reduction in the number of live fetuses at a high dosage level of 6 mL/kg.

When the pantocrin preparation was concentrated to a dry powder and given to mice at high rates of 1 g/kg IV and to rats 0.75 g/kg intramuscularly, the only toxic effect observed was transient tachypnea, tremor, depressed respiration, and enhanced lacrimation.16

A number of theoretical concerns exist. Because of deer velvet antler’s potential androgenic activity, use in lactation and pregnancy is contraindicated. Because of potentially increased testosterone levels, deer velvet antler also is contraindicated in patients with a history of prostate cancer. Used as an anesthetic for antler harvesting, xylazine has been found in freshly harvested velvet antler.23 Xylazine and other anesthetics possess mutagenic properties.

Recurring contact with deer products has been associated with severe allergic rhinitis and a pruritic dermal reaction in farmers.23 Allergic rhinitis and asthma also have occurred as a result of cross-reactivity with extracts from other mammals, and may arise because of animal dander exposure.

Velvet antler extract has been documented to decrease the side effects of morphine given to rats repetitively.24

Given its high chondroitin content, side effects may include epigastric pain, nausea, diarrhea, constipation, eyelid edema, and allergic reactions.2

Conclusion

Placebo-controlled, scientifically sound research assessing deer velvet antler’s effectiveness as a treatment for enhancing sexual performance and physical strength is absent, although historical, cultural, and folkloric evidence for deer velvet antler’s use is present. As is the case with a number of natural products, "in God we trust, with everyone else, show me the data," holds true.

Although there is a growing body of evidence suggesting efficacy of chondroitin for osteoarthritis, other sources of chondroitin are much more easily obtained than mining deer velvet.

Large randomized, placebo-controlled trials evalu-ating the health benefits of deer velvet antler are needed to assess its therapeutic potential and likely adverse effects. Ethical and ecologic questions arise when the large-scale harvesting of deer velvet in living animals is considered, especially if it is not performed by a licensed veterinarian or producer accredited by a licensed veterinarian.

Recommendation

Based on the present data, taking deer velvet for enhanced sexual performance cannot be recommended. Although chondroitin is found in significant quantities in deer velvet, its presence cannot recommend deer velvet’s use.

Other conventional, effective, scientifically based treatments are available for sexual dysfunction that arises from organic and psychogenic causes.

It is far more beneficial to attain goals of strength and stamina by undertaking a well-balanced nutrition and fitness program than by utilizing deer velvet antler at the present time.

References

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2. Jellin JM, et al. Pharmacist’s Letter/Prescriber’s Letter Natural Medicines Comprehensive Database. 3rd ed. Stockton, CA: Therapeutic Research Faculty; 2000:363.

3. Batchelder HJ. Velvet antler: A literature review. Available at: http://www.qeva.com/research/batch.htm. Accessed March 26, 2002.

4. Kong YC, But PPH. Deer—The ultimate medicinal animal (antler and deer parts in medicine). Royal Soc N Zeal 1985;22:311-324.

5. Anonymous. The Encyclopedia of Chinese Medicines. 2 vols. Shanghai People’s Press; 1977.

6. Anonymous. Immunostimulatory effects. Available at: http://www.countrylodge.co.nz/nutrition.html. Accessed March 26, 2002.

7. Yasui N, Nimmi ME. Cartilage collagens. In: Nimmi ME, ed. Collagen. Vol 1. Boca Raton, FL: CRC Press; 1998:225-241.

8. Sunwoo HH, et al. Chemical composition of antlers from wapiti (Cervus elaphus). J Agri Food Chem 1995;43:2846-2849.

9. Huang KC. The Pharmacology of Chinese Herbs. 2nd ed. Boca Raton, FL: CRC Press; 1999:266-267.

10. Brechman II, et al. The biological activity of the antlers of the spotted deer and other deer species. 2. Method of biological assessment of spotted deer antlers according to the gonadotrophic effect on sexually immature albino mice. Proc Siberian Branch Acad Sci USSR 1969;10:112-115.

11. Suttie JM, et al. Insulin-like growth factor 1 (IGF-1) antler stimulating hormone? Endocrinology 1985; 116:846-848.

12. Wang BX, et al. Stimulating effect of deer antler extract on protein synthesis in senescence-accelerated mice in vivo. Chem Pharm Bull 1988;36:2593-2598.

13. Yong J. The effect of deer horn on the experimental anemia of rabbits. J Pharm Soc Korea 1964;8:6-11.

14. Shin MK, et al. Effect of deer horn on the iron bone marrow in experimentally induced anemic rats. Kyang Hee Univ J Oriental Med 1979;2:69-72.

15. Kim KL, et al. Effects of several kinds of antler on the erythrocytic phase in experimentally induced anemic rabbit. Kyuang Hee Univ J Oriental Med 1979;2:33-42.

16. Takikawa K, Imai M. General pharmacological studies of Pantui extracts, Pantocrin (II). Pharmacometrics 1977;13:603-609.

17. Clifford DH, et al. Can an extract of deer antlers alter cardiovascular dynamics? Am J Chin Med 1979;7:345-350.

18. Takikawa K, et al. Studies of the experimental whiplash injury and evaluation of the drugs, especially of Pantui extracts. Pantocrin Pharmacometrics 1971;5:747-758.

19. Sato K, et al. Effects of pantocrin injection on male sexual disorder. Nishinihan J Urology 1970;31: 273-277.

20. Yudin AM, Dubryakov YL. A Guide for the Preparation and Storage of Uncalcified Male Antlers as a Medicinal Raw Material in Reindeer Antlers. Academy of Sciences of the USSR. Vladivostock: Far East Science Center; 1974.

21. Anonymous. Look who’s funding them now? Available at: http://www.dietfraud.com/Dietcraze/scams_elkvelvet_funding.html. Accessed March 26, 2002.

22. Sano M, et al. General pharmacological studies and antigenicity test of Pantui extracts, Pantocrin. Pharmacometrics 1972;5:717-726.

23. Dalefield RR, Oehme FW. Deer velvet antler: Some unanswered questions on toxicology. Vet Hum Toxicol 1999;41:39-41.

24. Kim HS, et al. Antinarcotic effects of the velvet antler water extract on morphine in mice. J Ethnopharmacol 1999;66:41-49.