Deer velvet is the common name of a product made from growing antlers of deer, during a stage when they are covered in soft velvety hair. New Zealand is a major exporter of deer velvet, shipping tens of millions of dollars worth to Asia and the U.S. each year.
According to Asian tradition, deer velvet has “tonic” properties, meaning that it tends to enhance energy and vitality. More recently, it has been called an “ adaptogen .” This term, invented by early Soviet scientists, refers to a hypothetical treatment that can be described as follows: An adaptogen should help the body adapt to stresses of various kinds, whether heat, cold, exertion, trauma, sleep deprivation, toxic exposure, radiation, infection, or psychological stress. Furthermore, an adaptogen should cause no side effects, be effective in treating a wide variety of illnesses, and help return an organism toward balance no matter what may have gone wrong.
The only indisputable example of an adaptogen is a healthful lifestyle. By eating right, exercising regularly, and generally living a life of balance and moderation, you will increase your physical fitness and ability to resist illnesses of all types. The herb ginseng is widely said to have adaptogenic properties. However, there is no reliable evidence that any herb or supplement actually has adaptogenic properties, and the term is not accepted by conventional medicine.
In the 1960s, an injectable form of deer velvet was used by Japanese physicians to treat male sexual dysfunction . Deer velvet first began to become popular in the U.S. beginning in the late 1990s. Today, numerous books and websites claim that deer velvet can enhance sexual performance by increasing levels of male hormones. However, these claims are based on extremely preliminary research. Only double-blind, placebo-controlled studies can actually prove a treatment effective, and the one study of this type reported for deer antler failed to find evidence of benefit. (For information on why double-blind studies are essential, see Why Does This Database Rely on Double-blind Studies? )
In this study, 32 healthy men age 45–60 were given either deer velvet (1 gram daily) or placebo for 12 weeks. 1 The results showed no significant change in sexual function or male hormone levels in the treated group as compared to the placebo group.
A 6-month, double-blind, placebo-controlled study of 168 people with rheumatoid arthritis failed to find that elk velvet antler enhanced the effectiveness of conventional treatment for rheumatoid arthritis . 13
Deer antler contains cartilage . On this basis, as well as one study in dogs, it has been promoted as a treatment for osteoarthritis2 ; however, cartilage is not a proven treatment for this condition. Numerous other proposed benefits of deer velvet are based on test-tube studies or other forms of evidence that are too preliminary to rely upon at all. These include cancer prevention , drug addiction support , immune support , liver protection , osteoporosis treatment , pain control, sports performance , and bodybuilding enhancement. 3-11
A typical dosage of deer antler is 1 gram daily, taken all at once or divided throughout the day.
Other than occasional allergic reactions, deer velvet does not appear to cause many obvious, immediate side effects. However, there are concerns based on contamination with the tranquilizers and anesthetics used during the process of removing the horn from the deer. One of these substances used, xylazine, is carcinogenic, and studies have found that low but potentially dangerous levels of xylazine are contained in deer antler product. 12
Another set of risks derives from the proposed effects of deer velvet: raising male hormone levels. If deer velvet did in fact increase male hormones as it is advertised to do, this could lead to a range of potential problems; however, as noted above, there is no real evidence that deer velvet actually does raise such hormones.
Safety in young children, pregnant or nursing women, or people with severe liver or kidney disease has not been established.
3. Ivankina NF, Isay SV, Busarova NG, et al. Prostaglandin-like activity, fatty acid and phospholipid composition of sika deer ( Cervus nippon ) antlers at different growth stages. Comp Biochem Physiol B Biochem Mol Biol . 1993;106:159–162.
4. Price JS, Oyajobi BO, Oreffo RO, et al. Cells cultured from the growing tip of red deer antler express alkaline phosphatase and proliferate in response to insulin-like growth factor-I. J Endocrinol . 1994;143:R9–R16.
5. Zhou QL, Guo YJ, Wang LJ, et al. Velvet antler polypeptides promoted proliferation of chondrocytes and osteoblast precursors and fracture healing. Zhongguo Yao Li Xue Bao . 0253-9756. 1999;20:279–282.
Last reviewed December 2015 by EBSCO CAM Review Board
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