In recent years, deer antler supplements — more specifically, deer velvet extracts and powders — have been gaining popularity among bodybuilders and athletes looking to increase their strength and endurance.

Historically, they’ve been used to promote youthfulness, fertility, blood pressure, and more.

Though some of the research on these supplements is intriguing, minimal scientific evidence supports their ability to boost athletic performance in humans.

This article explains what deer antler supplements are, what they’re typically used for, and what science says about their health benefits and risks.

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Deer antler velvet is the soft, fuzzy, protective hair that covers the bone and cartilage of newly grown antlers that haven’t yet calcified, or hardened.

What makes deer antlers so special is that they’re among the fastest-growing bones of any animal. In fact, deer and elk shed and regrow their antlers every year (1, 2, 3, 4).

This is likely why young deer antler velvet supplements are revered by many traditional medicine practices. For example, they’ve been used in traditional Chinese medicine for thousands of years (2, 3, 5, 6).

How the supplements are made

To make antler velvet supplements, young, uncalcified deer or elk antlers are surgically removed.

The animals are put to sleep using anesthesia before the velvet antlers are cut off near the base. Then, the velvet is removed from the antler bone, dried, ground into a fine powder, and processed into its supplement form.

The powder is sometimes sold in bulk or capsule form. You can also find deer antler extracts and sprays, which are made by combining the powder with an extract solution.

Traditional uses and today’s health claims

Traditionally, deer antler velvet has been used to strengthen bones, improve immunity, and treat ailments including toothaches and tissue damage (2, 7, 8, 9).

Today, a quick online search could easily result in a list of more than 30 conditions that the supplement is purported to treat.

For example, people commonly use it to improve strength, endurance, athletic performance, and repair injured muscles and tissues.

The supplement is also claimed to reduce blood pressure and cholesterol levels, promote youthfulness, improve fertility, and more. Unfortunately, many of these touted benefits are poorly researched.

SUMMARY

Deer antler velvet is a protective, hair-like skin that covers newly grown deer antlers. It has been used in traditional medicine practices for thousands of years. Today, it’s often marketed to athletes for strength, endurance, and healing.

Deer antler velvet contains nutrients that could, in theory, have health benefits.

A sample of velvet antlers from the Formosan sambar deer, which are native to Taiwan, was found to contain multiple enzymes with antioxidant properties. These included superoxide dismutase (SOD), catalase (CAT), and glutathione peroxidase (GPX) (10).

Plus, an older 2013 review found that deer antlers may boast some medicinal properties thanks to their content of amino acids and peptides. Amino acids are the building blocks of proteins, while peptides are chains of connected amino acids (11).

Newer research has also attributed deer antler velvet’s health benefits to its protein content (7, 12, 13).

Multiple recent test-tube studies also support the notion that protein peptides from antler velvet could have anti-inflammatory, immune-regulating, and heart-health-promoting properties (14, 15, 16, 17).

Lastly, deer velvet contains organic molecules called nucleosides, which are the building blocks of DNA. These might be responsible for antler velvet’s touted anti-fatigue effects (18).

SUMMARY

Deer antler velvet is rich in bioactive compounds like antioxidants, proteins, polypeptides, nucleosides, and more. These are believed to be responsible for its medicinal properties.

While deer antler velvet might contain beneficial nutrients and bioactive compounds, little research has investigated specific health benefits in humans.

The possible benefits researchers are currently investigating include:

  • Bone and cartilage growth. Test-tube studies suggest that antler velvet could treat bone disease and cartilage damage. Plus, one animal study found that it increased femoral bone length and bone enzyme levels (19, 20, 21, 22).
  • Anti-fatigue and strengthening properties. Studies have tried giving mice antler velvet supplements. They found that the more nucleosides the supplements contain, the faster mice swam. This indicates improved strength and reduced fatigue (12, 23).
  • Osteoarthritis treatment. Deer antler velvet contains chondroitins, a component of cartilage, which might improve pain levels in people with osteoarthritis. What’s more, other compounds in antler velvet might strengthen bones (24, 25, 26).
  • Anti-cancer properties. Multiple test-tube and mouse studies have observed that antler velvet supplements exhibit anti-tumor and anti-cancer activity (27, 28, 29, 30).
  • Hair growth and skin health. A few mouse, human, and test-tube studies have found that deer antler velvet supplements could stimulate skin and hair cells. Therefore, they could potentially improve hair growth and skin health (31, 32, 33).

Despite these promising findings, not enough high quality human studies have been conducted to support specific uses of deer antler velvet supplements in humans.

Is it good for bodybuilding?

One of the most cited claims about deer antler velvet is that it can boost your strength and endurance.

Unfortunately, these claims are based on one small 2003 study including 38 men.

The study found that those who took deer antler velvet powder for 10 weeks while participating in a concurrent strength program had a greater increase in knee strength and endurance than men who took a placebo (34).

Even the original researchers noted that further testing was necessary to confirm their observations. To date, no other studies have replicated the finding in humans, though a few have found similar effects on endurance in animals (12, 23, 34).

Ultimately, experts agree that there’s not enough sound evidence to support claims that deer antler velvet supplements improve athletic performance or weightlifting capabilities (35).

SUMMARY

Deer antler supplement labels often claim to improve athletic performance and strength, yet almost no research supports these uses. Scientists continue to investigate its use for other purposes, such as treating osteoarthritis and preventing fatigue.

Currently, there are no known adverse side effects of taking deer antler velvet supplements.

However, it’s important to note that the supplements typically contain insulin-like growth factor 1 (IGF-1), which has several known side effects. These include (35, 36):

  • headaches
  • joint pain
  • edema, or swelling
  • low blood sugar levels

Furthermore, keep in mind that IGF-1 is banned by many sports leagues and athletic associations. Thus, if you’re an athlete, using these supplements could be prohibited.

What’s more, these supplements are poorly regulated. Thus, they could be mixed or contaminated with other compounds and substances that cause side effects in some individuals.

For example, some researchers worry that the supplements can be contaminated with harmful pathogens if the antler velvet was harvested from unhealthy animals (37, 38, 39).

Due to the lack of studies on the safety and efficacy of deer antler velvet, use extreme caution with the supplement. This holds particularly true if you’re pregnant, breastfeeding, immunosuppressed, taking birth control, or on hormone replacement therapy.

Lastly, because deer antler velvet is surgically removed from live animals, some people have moral and ethical concerns about its use as a supplement.

SUMMARY

Though it appears that the side effects of deer antler supplements may be minimal, more research on their safety and effects on humans is warranted. Also, keep in mind that deer antler supplements are prohibited by many athletic associations.

At this time, there are no official dosage recommendations for deer antler velvet supplements.

Still, most supplement manufacturers recommend a daily dose for their product — typically 500–1000 mg.

However, it’s best to consult a trusted healthcare provider before you start taking the supplement. They can help determine the right and safe amount for you, if any at all.

SUMMARY

If you decide to take deer antler supplements, review the manufacturer’s suggested dosage and consult your healthcare provider first.

Deer antler velvet supplements have been used for ages to support bone health and repair tissue damages.

Many test-tube and animal studies have investigated their potential medicinal qualities. However, little of that research has been translated into how safe or effective deer antler is for humans.

Therefore, it’s best to proceed with caution. Plus, remember that these supplements are prohibited by some athletic organizations.