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From The March 2000 Issue of Nutrition Science News

Velvet Antler Under the Microscope

by Lisa Anne Marshall

The immature antlers of the male deer and elk, known either as velvet antler or pilose antler, have been prized for their health-promoting properties for more than 2,000 years by the Chinese. The first documented evidence of velvet antler's use as a health tonic was found on a Chinese silk scroll dated at 168 B.C. In Russia, documented use dates to the late 1400s, when antlers were referred to as "horns of gold." Medicinal use of antler became so common that deer farming was introduced to Russia in the 1840s.

Most commercial velvet antler comes from sika deer (Cervus nippon) and members of the red deer-elk genera (C. elaphus). Velvet antler is the soft, growing tissue before the antler becomes calcified and hard. Antler is the only mammalian organ that regenerates, and it does so at a rapid rate—growing up to 2 cm/day in some species. This means the cartilage, bones and support tissues such as nerves and blood vessels must also grow at this pace. Although the exact chemistry of regeneration is still under investigation, it is this feature of velvet that has scientists interested in its medicinal applications.

According to the principles of traditional Chinese medicine (TCM), velvet antler tonifies the Yang and is used for conditions of Yang deficiencies that manifest as systemic exhaustion, depression, cold, lower back pain, a weak pulse and low white blood cell counts. Researchers say velvet antler restores, strengthens and protects normal bodily processes, but isn't itself a curative.

Composition
Despite research dating to the 1930s, the pharmacological effectiveness for many of velvet antler's constituents has yet to be confirmed. Essentially, the whole area of bioavailable active components for this product is still in the beginning stages of study. To determine active constituents, research has been done on velvet antler as a whole and in parts—the tip, upper, mid and base. The four parts differ in their chemical compositions and historically have been used for different treatments.

Since growth occurs at the tip—much like a tree grows from the top, not its base—this area is generally more valuable. In TCM, the tip and middle regions are typically used as pediatric tonics, the upper and middle sections as treatments for degenerative inflammatory conditions such as arthritis, and the base for the elderly and those with conditions such as osteoporosis. On average, whole velvet antler composition is:

 

Protein: 52.5%
Ash (minerals): 34.0%
Moisture1: 1.0%
Lipids: 2.5%

 

Broadly stated, protein and lipids increase from the base to tip and ash decreases. Most of velvet's active ingredients are proteins or lipids. Following is a more specific look at velvet antler's composition.

Protein: Research indicates that a decrease in collagen II, found in velvet, can lead to both osteo- and rheumatoid arthritis,1 but the bioavailability of collagen II from velvet has not been tested.

Free Amino Acids: Velvet contains all eight essential and some 15 nonessential free amino acids. Essential amino acids must be supplied by food or supplements for normal metabolism and growth.

ASH: Velvet contains various minerals, predominantly calcium, phosphorus and sodium, but also magnesium, manganese, selenium and iron.

Lipid Fractions: Free fatty acids, gangliosides, lecithin, phospholipids, cholesterol, steroids and prostaglandins, among others, have been detected in velvet. Scientists are particularly interested in velvet prostaglandins because research shows these unsaturated fatty acids can induce vasodepression, smooth muscle contractions and influence lipid metabolism.

Complex Carbohydrates: Glycosamino-glycans (GAGs), including the most prominent, chondroitin sulfate, and less-prominent glucosamine sulfate, are also present in velvet. GAGs play an important metabolic role in connective tissue and joint health,2 but again, velvet's GAG bioavailability is not determined.

Other Components: The growing antler also contains fibro- and chondroblasts (cells from which connective tissue and cartilage are developed, respectively); chondro- and osteocytes (cartilage and bone cells); growth factors (GF), which include epidermal and nerve GFs, insulinlike GF I and II, and transforming alpha and beta GFs; and cytokines (an immune regulator).

Scientific Substantiation
Due to its wide variety of chemical components, it makes sense that velvet antler has a range of traditional uses—many of which are only now being scientifically evaluated. Velvet displays no evidence of antibacterial, antiviral or antifungal activities. Thus, it cannot "cure" by destroying active pathogens. The vast majority of research is in cells or on animals. Following are some of the more interesting studies.

Immune Strengthening: The use of velvet antler by Koreans during winter months led researchers to believe it could strengthen the immune system. Chinese researcher B.X. Wang showed that injecting pantocrin, a specialized velvet extract, into the peritoneum at a dose of 0.5­2 mg/kg could stimulate the phagocytic function of macrophages in both normal and immune-deficient mice.3 The TCM Materia Medica indicates that velvet antler increases the number of both red and white blood cells.

In New Zealand, an in vitro study conducted by scientists at the government's Game Industry Board (AgResearch) at Invermay found that an aqueous velvet extract stimulated proliferation of human lymphocytes.4

Cholesterol Reducing: High cholesterol levels are a known risk factor for heart disease. Russian researcher M.P. Soshnianina studied the effects of velvet antler alcohol extracts on cholesterol levels in guinea pigs. Treatment with velvet lowered liver cholesterol from 1,610 to 1,311 mg/100 g dry tissue. Spleen and brain cholesterol were also reduced. In contrast, cholesterol was increased in the kidneys' cortex and medulla (1,733 to 1,900 and 1,880 to 2,190 mg/100 g dry tissue, respectively). The researchers theorized that the velvet extract caused the cholesterol to be filtered from the blood, thereby increasing kidney levels but lowering levels elsewhere.5

Blood Pressure Lowering: In two uncontrolled clinical trials, velvet antler demonstrated hypotensive (blood pressure lowering ) effects. Russian researcher N.A. Albov studied 32 patients with high blood pressure caused by obesity or early-onset menopause. All patients were treated with either 4.5 mL/day oral or 2 mL/day injectable alcohol velvet antler extract for 20 or 30 days, respectively. They were then examined by a physician. Twenty-six of the patients—eight getting oral treatment and 18 injections—had measurably lower blood pressure and reported an improvement. Those reporting no improvement had diagnosed high blood pressure for nine to 10 years.6

Albov also studied the effects of the same injectable extract on 13 patients with hypertension caused by heart disorders such as palpitations, murmurs and arrhythmia. The patients were given 20 days of injections and were examined 10 days after the final treatment. Examination revealed 84 percent (11) of the patients had improved.6 The lack of control groups in both studies renders these results interesting but impossible to evaluate scientifically.

Despite this, Albov's work does reinforce another study performed by Russian scientist A.S. Tevi, who found that pantocrin extract counteracted the effect of previously administered adrenaline. He concluded that velvet acted in a manner similar to the neurotransmitter acetylcholine, which causes cardiac inhibition and vasodilation.7

Anti-Aging: Velvet antler has a use in TCM as an anti-aging preparation. Using mice genetically selected to die of natural causes at an early age vs. normal control mice, Chinese researchers found that in selected mice, an alcohol velvet antler extract increased plasma testosterone, decreased oxidative activity in the liver and brain, increased liver protein content and liver superoxide dismutase (SOD) activity, and increased RNA production. Basically, the extract significantly altered the metabolism of the selected but not control mice. The scientists concluded that this was the best evidence of a measurable "restorative function" for velvet antler.8

Performance Enhancing: Investigating velvet antler benefits for sports performance is ongoing, and it is likely that the extract type and dose will be linked to a particular sport. In the late 1960s, pantocrin was observed to increase the endurance of laboratory animals.9 This led Russian researchers in the early 1970s to compare the effects of pantocrin, rantarin (reindeer antler) and placebo on healthy athletes riding an exercise bike. Participants given pantocrin exhibited 740 Nm (Newton meters, a unit of work), while those given rantarin displayed 1,030 Nm and the controls only 150 Nm. No explanations were given for the better performance of rantarin.10

Several studies since have failed to demonstrate statistical significance and show only a positive trend toward increasing athletic strength.

Dosage
It is difficult to give a dosage for velvet antler because little is known relating illness to type of velvet antler preparation and individual requirements.

In Russia, 1.25 to 2.0 mL alcohol velvet extract is taken two times per day 30 minutes before each meal. In Korea a typical dose is 1,200 mg of dried velvet slices each day. In China, a recommended dose is 900 to 1,200 mg/day of velvet powder with 3,000 to 4,500 mg/day of the ground powder boiled in water. Typically, doses greater than 1.2 g/day of either extract or powder appear to be therapeutic, while lower doses are prophylactic.

Russian scientists determined the median lethal dose (LD50) of velvet antler extract as 4.5 mL/kg, equating to a 1,059 mL dose for a 160-pound person. A Russian literature review listed the following contraindications: serious atherosclerosis, heart or kidney disease, or a high stroke risk. The one known side effect is diarrhea.

Most scientists assume it is not a single active ingredient that is responsible for all of velvet’s healing properties. Because the healing mechanisms of velvet are still uncertain, clinical/therapeutic effectiveness is probably the best measure of activity. New Zealand researcher James Suttie, Ph.D., sums it up when he says: "We may find velvet contains only the raw material for a therapeutic activity. But, it is also possible that subtle combinations of active ingredients create synergistic activity that makes velvet antler a healing medicine."

References

1. Joosten LA, et al. Accelerated onset of collagen-induced arthritis by remote inflammation. Clin Exp Immunol 1994;97(2):204-11.

2. Ledbetter WB. Cell matrix response in tendon injury. Clin Sports Med 1992;11(3):533-78.

3. Wang BX. Advances in the research of the chemistry, pharmacology and clinical application of pilose antler. Proceedings of the International Symposium on Deer Products, Changchun, People's Republic of China, 1996:14-32.

4. New Zealand Game Industry Board. Draft Technical Manual, 1998;24-5.

5. Soshnianina MP. Influence of extract of the pantui of Transbuikal wapiti on certain characteristics of lipid protein metabolism in the tissue of guinea pigs in normal conditions. Materialy Vtoroi Nauchrnoi Konferentsii Molodykh Vchenykh 1974;49-52.

6. Albov NA. Information on the use of pantocrine in menopausal conditions. Collection of Scientific Works of the Scientific Research Laboratory for Breeding Deer with Non-Ossified Antlers, Altai Scientific Research Institute of Agriculture, 1969; Pantocrine Part 2:73-85.

7. Tevi AS. Effect of temperature factors on pharmacological activity of extracts from antlers. Collection of Scientific Works of the Scientific Research Laboratory for Breeding Deer with Non-Ossified Antlers, Altai Scientific Research Institute of Agriculture, 1969; Pantocrine Part 2:14-17.

8. Wang BX, et al. Effects of repeated administration of deer antler extract on biochemical changes related to ageing in senescence accelerated mice. Chemical Pharm Bull 1988;36:2587-92.

9. Brekhman JT, et al. The biological activity of the antlers of deer and other deer species. Ivestio Sibirskogo Orderlemia Akalemi Nank SISR, Biological Series No 10(2):112-15

10. Yudin AM, et al. A guide for the preparation and storage of uncalcified male antlers as a medicinal raw material. In: Reindeer Antlers, Academy of Sciences of the USSR. 1974 Vladiostock: Far East Science Center.

11. Archer RH, et al. Properties of New Zealand deer velvet, Part I: Search of the literature, Vol 1; 1983, Massey University and Wrightson NMA Ltd.