Across the United States, interactions between deer herds and humans is becoming more common as populations increase. Deer populations in the 1900s were 500,000 and are now around 32 million. Fewer hunters, better conservation, and deer survival instinct have put them safe from extinction, but some people are interested in these creatures for another reason: deer antler velvet.
The deer velvet that grows on their antlers is prized as a… cognitive enhancer?
In fact, using deer antler velvet for improving mental and physical performance is not new. It dates back thousands of years to traditional Chinese medicine where many teachings proclaim velvet antler as a great boon and one of the top natural medicines they could find.
Modern science is not so clear cut. In this article, we will look at the traditional claims for velvet antler and see whether there is any substantial evidence to use velvet antler supplements (and what to watch out for).
Velvet Antler in Chinese Medicine
The traditional Chinese medicinal texts focus on health across the body and mind, which means their terminology can sometimes be hard to interpret.
In short, velvet antler was used to treat a “yang deficiency”, which can be translated into a deficiency of masculine behaviors (libido, arousal, virility, drive, and energy).
It is no wonder that modern science is looking at studies that focus on libido, general stamina, endurance, and other quantifiable measurements that would correlate with the way traditional Chinese medicine describes it.
There are three pieces of the velvet antler being used (primarily in China) today:
- Wax piece (upper / tips) – used as “growth tonic” for children
- Blood piece (middle) – used for joint or bone health
- Bone piece (bottom) – used for calcium deficiency / geriatric needs
There is real crossover between what traditional Chinese medicine claims are the benefits according to their literature and the scientific literature… but how effective is deer velvet antler?
What Does Science Say About Deer Antler Velvet?
The scientific literature doesn’t actually distinguish between deer antler velvet versus the velvet antler from elk or other animals in the family. Most of the research is clumped together as “antler velvet”, which makes sense given that most of the products come from farm-raised deer.
It is hard to find scientific evidence about deer antler velvet as there has not been much research performed. According to one of the most reputable sources, which was a 2012 review summarizing results from all clinical research:
“Claims that velvet antler supplements have beneficial effects for any human condition are not currently supported by sound clinical data from human trials” .
From this statement alone, one might conclude that velvet antler does not work, but nothing is so black and white. The review only used double-blind, placebo controlled studies, excluded anything that was non-human or focused on safety.
Looking at 478 various articles available, the authors chose 7 that met the criteria they were looking for. From this they actually found moderate (but not convincing) research on sports performance enhancement and bone health. Within the article the researchers write on multiple occasions and in multiple domains that “There were some potentially promising findings for treating…”
The best conclusion I can come with from this article is that nothing is confirmed, but with little good research, nothing is firmly denied either.
Proposed Velvet Antler Benefits
The benefits of velvet antler according to traditional Chinese medicine and the corresponding use across the globe are manifold. Primarily they focus on:
- Improved sports performance (endurance, strength, capacity)
- Improved sexual performance and libido (male and female)
- Reduced stress and anxiety
- Bolstered immune functioning
- Joint pain benefits
One thing that may underlie all of these purported benefits is IGF-1 or insulin growth factor, which is an anabolic hormone all humans have at varying levels that can alter muscle mass, recovery, and strength.
According to a Velvet Antler literature review by Helen Batchelder, “It has been postulated that velvet antler may be a valuable source of unrefined IGF-1…IGF-1 levels decline in humans as we age, with detrimental effects…” 
These are untested assumptions (or hypotheses), but the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) issued interesting statements on the topic. They lifted the ban on deer antler spray, but warned that it may contain IGF-1 and therefore athletes should be vigilant or else it could lead to positive test results .
Having an agency as credentialed as that make those statements suggested there was merit to the IGF-1 argument with velvet antler, but a consensus opinion of leading endocrinologists released a statement adding more doubt and uncertainty to the conversation:
“There is far too little of the substance in even the purest forms of the spray to make any difference…there is no medically valid way to deliver IGF-1 orally or in a spray” .
Theory and Practice: Does Velvet Antler Work?
The theoretical value of velvet antler cannot be denied no matter how murky the scientific evidence. Deer and other animals with antlers produce a velvet during certain times of the year, which they rub off and consume themselves for their own health and virility.
It would make sense that this animal product (similar to many other animal products) would have some measured benefit for health especially in terms of IGF-1 and physical health.
Beyond that, millions of people find subjective benefits from using the velvet antler and even if this is from the placebo effect, we should embrace and support boosting performance no matter how it happens.
Of course, there could be potential risks. Not only does the scientific literature remain unclear, but much of the velvet antler is processed through farm raised animals in facilities where the animals may not be treated well (and a sick animal leads to a sick product).
Hunting antlered animals during the spring when they have velvet antler is not legal in most places, which means the only way to get wild velvet antler is through roadkill cleanup and a single tincture of 1 mL can cost up to $100.
Everyone will have to decide for themselves whether it is worth it to go down the velvet antler route. Traditional products can be expensive and as salacious web editorials show, the manufacturers make millions on velvet antler, which may or may not be valuable for performance enhancement purposes.