On the eve of the Super Bowl, Baltimore Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis had to deny using a supplement containing deer antler velvet to speed his recovery from a torn muscle.
Three-time golf major champion Vijay Singh also found himself in hot water when a Sports Illustrated article reported that he paid $9,000 for the supplement, stickers with holograms on them, an oscillating “beam ray” light bulb, as well as a powder that allegedly put muscle mass on a woman who was in a coma.
Singh is in trouble because the company selling the supplement, which comes in the form of a liquid that you spray under your tongue, says that it contains insulin-like growth factor-1 (IGF-1), a natural anabolic hormone which is on golf’s banned list. Singh has pulled out of the Phoenix Open while PGA Tour officials “investigate” the matter.
If there are any PGA Tour officials reading this, let me save you some time and tell you in advance exactly what your investigation will find.
First, the idea that deer antler velvet spray contains a meaningful amount of IGF-1 is completely ridiculous.
IGF-1 doesn’t last very long in water (unless it’s frozen), so how it’s supposed to remain stable after being sat in a bottle for months on end I have no idea. You’d probably find more IGF-1 in a glass of milk.
Second, you won’t get a “biologically significant” dose of IGF-1 (i.e. a dose that’s big enough to have an impact on muscle growth) from a spray. It needs to be injected.
If all you needed to get IGF-1 into your bloodstream was to encase it in “sub-microscopic liposomal spheres” and then spray it under your tongue, nobody would bother with injections.
Test deer antler velvet spray and you will find little or no IGF-1 in there. Give deer antler velvet to someone, extract some blood and you will see no change in their IGF-1 levels. Claims to the contrary are just marketing nonsense.
And even if you could get a signficant amount of IGF-1 into your bloodstream from a deer antler velvet spray, there’s a lot of debate about the extent to which IGF-1 in the blood (as opposed to IGF-1 produced in muscle cells) contributes to muscle growth.
The general consensus is that it doesn’t. Not by much anyway.
Moreover, when deer antler velvet supplements have been put to the test, they haven’t performed particularly well.
A 2003 study shows that 11 weeks of deer antler velvet supplementation failed to increase IGF-1, EPO or testosterone levels. A follow-up study also found that antler velvet had no effect on rowing performance or hormone levels.
A third trial, published in Advances in Antler Science and Product Technology, claims that a deer antler velvet supplement (1350 milligrams twice a day for 10 weeks) “may have positive effects on body composition and strength/power” in men lifting weights.
But when I looked through the research in detail, there was actually very little difference in results between the men using the supplement and those given a placebo. The full study is here in case you want to check it out for yourself.
If you do read through it, keep in mind that half the subjects dropped out of the study before it was finished, and that both groups were following completely different training programs.
So even if there was a big difference in results between the two groups (which there wasn’t), we wouldn’t know whether it was down to the deer antler velvet supplement or the type of training they were doing.
And these are just the studies that we know about. There may very well be a bunch of others that have gone unpublished because they didn’t show what the people paying for them wanted them to show.
Supplement companies will often pay research groups to test their product. If the results are positive and show that the supplement works, they’ll use those results in subsequent promotional material.
If the results of study are negative (meaning that the supplement didn’t work) some form of “non-disclosure agreement” signed in advance means that the results will remain tucked away in a file drawer somewhere never to see the light of day.
I can remember when deer antler velvet extract first popped up about 20 years ago, and even then the general consensus was that it was a complete waste of time and money.
It was crap in the 90’s and it’s still crap now.
UPDATE: In a somewhat unsurprising turn of events, the PGA Tour has dropped the case against Vijay Singh for his use of deer antler spray. Singh is now suing them, claiming the organization damaged his reputation by not doing a thorough job of researching the supplement.
According to the lawsuit, the amount of IGF-1 in deer antler spray is so diluted that it would be comparable to pouring a shot glass of bourbon in an Olympic-size swimming pool, and then drinking a shot from the pool water. Who would have thought it?
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About Christian FinnChristian Finn holds a master's degree with distinction in exercise science, is a certified personal trainer and has been featured on BBC TV and radio, as well as in Men's Health, Men's Fitness, Fit Pro, Zest, and Perfect Body magazine.