Are deer antler spray and other muscle-boosting supplements safe?

Heading into the Super Bowl, Baltimore Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis has been fighting off allegations this week that he ordered deer antler spray -- a banned supplement in the NFL that purportedly boosts testosterone—in order to heal his torn triceps muscle.

Lewis has denied using the substance. “He laughed about it,” Ravens coach John Harbaugh said, referring to Lewis in a Wednesday press conference, according to CBS News. “He told me there’s nothing to it. He’s told us in the past and now that he has never taken any of it.” Lewis also denied the allegations on this video above.

The pricey supplement, called IGF-1 plus, contains deer antler velvet, taken from adolescent deer before their antlers turn to bone. The active ingredient in the velvet extract that’s squirted into the mouth is insulin-like growth factor 1 or IGF-1, that’s similar in structure to the hormone insulin and has muscle- and tissue-building effects in adults.

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Rick Lentini, chief executive officer of Nutronics, which makes IGF-1 plus, told me in an interview that the supplement can enhance athletic performance while also improving a person’s overall health. He said he doesn’t know Lewis but that Mitch Ross, of the fitness company SWATS, is a regular customer. Ross has told reporters that he sold the deer antler spray to Lewis and that the substance shouldn’t be banned.

Lentini agrees and pointed out numerous health benefits that he believes deer antler spray provides: “It modulates your immune system, helps you maintain a healthy heart, helps maintain healthy blood sugar levels,” he said, adding that it also “promotes healthy joints, enhances sex drive, reduces belly fat without muscle loss, and increases strength.”

But endocrinologists say there’s scant research or reliable evidence to support these claims.

Lentini also told me that we all get small amounts of IGF-1 from drinking milk, which this Harvard study suggests is the case. The deer antler supplement—even at its maximum dose of 200,000 nanograms, which costs $189.99 for two fluid ounces—supposedly won’t boost a man’s testosterone levels beyond the normal range of 550 to 1,000 nanograms per deciliter.

That’s why it’s not dangerous, Lentini said, and why it won’t show up on drug tests. “In the 17 years this product has been on the market, no one has ever reported to us that they’ve gotten sick from it,” he said. “The only side effect we hear from men is that their libido is too high, and I wouldn’t consider that a bad side effect.”

Some men, though, also complain that the product’s muscle enhancing benefits aren’t all that dramatic. “We’ve heard that, yes,” Lentini said. “We do get complaints that muscle gains aren’t as big on this product as they would be with steroids, but with those products you’re killing yourself.”

Whether deer antler spray has fewer safety concerns than other muscle-building supplements remains to be seen. “It’s similar to human growth hormone, and there’s very little research on HGH in men,” said Dr. Martin Miner, co-director of the Men’s Health Center at Miriam Hospital in Providence. “What we do know is that HGH needs to be injected to have any effects.”

The body can’t absorb enough of the hormone by mouth since too much gets broken down by the liver during digestion, Miner explained.

Possible side effects of HGH supplementation include nerve, muscle, or joint pain, water retention that leads to swelling, numbness in certain joints, and high cholesterol levels. Whether those side effects occur with deer antler spray remains unknown.

“I just cannot believe that one could consume high enough quantities of IGF-1 from an oral spray that it would increase healing or enhance athletic ability,” Miner said. “I think this product is pretty much a lot to do about nothing.”

Dehydroepiandrosterone or DHEA is the only steroid-like supplement that’s still allowed to be sold over-the-counter. But Miner said that it’s very difficult to consume enough DHEA to boost a man’s testosterone levels. In a randomized clinical trial involving middle-aged men, researchers found that the supplement was no better than a placebo at increasing a man’s lean muscle mass, strength, or testosterone levels.

What’s more, DHEA has been associated with side effects including irregular heartbeat, elevated blood pressure, and insomnia. Men could also experience testicular wasting and breast development due to too much estrogen produced in the body.

Like deer antler spray, DHEA has been banned by the World Anti-Doping Agency and can’t be used by Olympic or many professional athletes.

Oddly, athletes have still been recently barred from games because of DHEA use even though a 2004 review in the American Journal of Sports Medicine concluded that “the marketing of this supplement’s effectiveness far exceeds its science.”

One wonders why athletes continue to use banned performance enhancers when they’re not very effective and stand to ruin their careers. Perhaps they think they’re performing better on them due to the placebo effect.

Miner hopes amateur gym rats get the message as well. “I just don’t think men should be trying any of these things.”

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