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From traditional Chinese medicine comes the latest supplement being touted as a remedy for everything from joint pain
to a dull sexual life. And, yes, it's supposed to improve athletic performance as well.
Sound too good to be true? Could be, but it depends on whom you ask. According to the New Zealand Game Industry Board (NZGIB), the proposition that this velvet may benefit athletes seems strained to say the least. However, historical use and the latest studies suggest that, for some individuals, velvet may actually provide - albeit marginal - health benefits.
Deer antler velvet, according to the NZGIB, "is the flame given to deer antlers in their early stages of growth, before the antlers harden into bone. In the early stages of growth, antlers are soft tissues, covered with fine soft hair - hence the name velvet." It is at this stage of growth that veterinarians or other specially trained individuals surgically remove the animals' antlers under analgesic and antiseptic conditions. Pantocrine, a supplement that has come into vogue more than once over the past 30 years, is the name given to an alcohol extract of red-deer antler velvet.
For thousands of years, antler has been considered an aphrodisiac and tonic - a preparation utilized throughout Asian communities that is believed to enhance health and reproduction. However, Russian research done in the 1940s highlighted the adaptogenic potential of the substance to enhance exercise recovery and perhaps increase performance.
This early work, plus anecdotal evidence that antler velvet may play a legitimate role as an effective health supplement prompted the NZGIB to finance research designed to more clearly delineate the physiological/ health effects and active ingredients of the substance.
The studies performed to date have been primarily on the composition of the material, as well as in vitro (test tube) and on animals. Antler velvet is made of amino acids, lipids, minerals and trace minerals, and biologically significant polypeptides (growth factors). In vitro and animal studies have investigated the effects of antler velvet on immune function, whole body growth, hematology, cytotoxicity (anticancer effects) and joint health. Human trials are still sparse and currently limited to aspects of exercise recovery.
Fundamentally, research indicates that 1,200 milligrams (mg) of velvet per day may positively affect humoral immunity (in the blood) and red-blood-cell count as well as reduce exercise-induced muscle cell damage (shown as a decrease in creatine phosphokinase). This is where bodybuilding benefits may be seen. Anything that reduces exercise-induced trauma should help promote recovery and growth.
The latest studies using human subjects indicate no real positive effect on strength or lean mass. In addition, growth factor (lGF-I) levels are not elevated by the daily use of 1,200mg of deer antler velvet. This puts to rest the theory that velvet elevates serum levels of IGF-l, which in turn could produce an anabolic effect in muscle tissue.