An article by Dan Wetzel of Yahoo! Sports caught my attention last week; it deals with a performance-enhancing substance being used by NFL players which is extracted from a concentration of the fuzz from deer antlers. This one was new to me, although I’ve dealt with the uses of powdered deer penis (same animal, different end), extracts from frogs and other creatures, the gall bladder of a bear and even certain types of ground fossils, which are high enough in calcium that it can be absorbed by adding certain other substances to the formula. Oddly enough, in the right doses and with the proper accompanying substances, each of these has substantial benefits for the patient. I’d never looked into deer antler fuzz though, and I was curious. How does this function from both Western and Eastern medical perspectives?
I can tell you that the Eastern medical herbology pharmacopoeia is extensive, including between 2,500 and 3,000 substances. An expert Oriental herbology practitioner will know the effects of each one on the various meridians of the body, the organs and on the five essential categories of phenomena - Water, Wood, Fire, Earth and Metal - as well as its balance in the areas of Yin and Yang. While this way of viewing phenomena may sound sort of primitive or strange to a Westerner, that’s simply a cultural bias. I can say from experience with both cultures that it is every bit as intensive an area of study as Western pharmacology. Every formula has to have herbs that serve basic, direct functions in the formula as well as herbs that balance out the effects of the primaries, permitting side effects to be minimized or eliminated. It’s an extremely complex field and Western research studies of many of the substances in question, including deer antler fuzz, have shown exactly why, in Western terminology, the formulas generally work so well.
Our good friend Dr. Denny Clifford was kind enough to put in a little time and work out why, in Western terminology, this product does what it does. Here’s what he had to say:
OK, so a little research on velvet antler extract reveals that it indeed has high concentrations of insulin-like growth factor -1 (IGF-1) which is one of the hormones responsible for the effect of HGH on muscle growth and repair. It stimulates new muscle fiber growth and adds actin-myosin to existing muscle and prevents programmed cell death (apotosis) in targeted tissues. There are blood tests for it, but the normal range is so broad that testing only picks up individuals with severely reduced levels.
Physicians use the test as an analogue for HGH deficiency in children since it doesn't have as marked a diurnal variation as HGH. Elevated levels can also be followed to assess therapy for acromegaly. Currently, it seems the use as a PED doesn't necessarily raise levels to abnormal in the routine blood test, so only by knowing someone's baseline before use could you detect a rise in level suggesting doping. In short, it is an undetectable way to increase muscle performance and repair. Its risks include increased risk of cancer which is substantial, and short term it can cause profound hypoglycemia which certainly wouldn't be favorable for an athlete. Of course, the actual dose you receive with this product is going to be quite variable, increasing the risk of adverse effects as well as adulterated contaminants and the risk of allergic reactions. However, it is the real deal in terms of creating the effects for which it is designed. Pretty troubling overall, but we both know PEDs are being used in the NFL on a regular basis and the users always seem a step ahead of the regulators.
There is always a price to pay with PEDs and this product has both short- and long-term consequences which are not minor. There are long-term liver issues including the risk of cirrhosis as I've researched the substance further. Just because it's difficult to detect doesn't make it an acceptable supplement for those who have to preserve their bodies as the tools of their trade.
If you look at it from the Eastern viewpoint, it is considered a ‘yang within yin’ substance that has direct effects on the kidney/adrenal meridians and organs as well as the network that controls the functions of the pituitary, pineal and hypothalamus glands, and also the pancreas and the islets of Langerhans, which control insulin production and response in the body. That accounts for the high concentrations of insulin-like growth factor -1 (IGF-1). The Kidney meridian/organ is intertwined with all of these aspects of physiology. There are secondary, but similarly powerful effects on the Liver meridian and organ (*the meanings of these terms is slightly different in Oriental Medicine from Western medicine), which is responsible for creating and maintaining muscle and fascia growth, function and lubrication, and does so in conjunction with the Gall Bladder meridian/organ and a vast network of essential functions in the body that begins shortly after conception called the Extraordinary Vessels, which happened to be my own specialization. This is, in turn, analogous to the creation of new muscle fiber growth and which can add actin-myosin to existing muscle. Additionally, there is a network of digestive functions involved that can increase the level of energy in the body. There are, however, much safer ways to do the same things.
Whether in Western or Eastern terms, there is potentially a price to pay for increasing these functions in the body. Above, I talked about the need to create, in an Oriental herbology formula, a set of balancing herbs or substances. Since preparing this formula in the way they have does not deal with that absolutely essential function in developing a formula, there would be a reaction expected from the way it’s being produced and sold - there will be a backlash for a certain, as yet unknown percentage of the patients.
When Dr. Clifford says, “Its risks include increased risk of cancer which is substantial, and short term it can cause profound hypoglycemia which certainly wouldn't be favorable for an athlete. Of course, the actual dose you receive with this product is going to be quite variable, increasing the risk of adverse effects“, he’s saying in Western terms what I’d say in Eastern terms, which I won’t bore (or confuse) you with any further. The fact is that from an Eastern (or, clearly, a Western) perspective, this is a potentially dangerous product, the regular use of which will provide a short-term effect that may be beneficial to performance (unless the hypoglycemia creates problems in the short run), but at the vastly increased risk of long-term, severe and possibly fatal side effects.
The fact of the matter is that locker rooms still are breeding grounds for the development and use of PEDs, and the people who develop and market them frequently do so with an eye to establishing ways to use the substances without detection. The physiology of the body can make detection difficult - even impossible. However, and this is in my professional opinion only, the potential cost makes the value of the substance minimal. But for the NFL player who has but a four-year career span on average, that’s a risk that many have been and are willing to take.
Yet, there are better ways to accomplish the same thing without danger to the human body - but they require seeing a professional (or a group of them) regularly. A smart professional athlete will have a toolbox of providers - massage, acupuncture, joint manipulation (whatever the system, as long as it’s regulated), herbology, nutrition and neurotransmitter regulation. There are also purely Western approaches that absolutely should be in that toolbox - personal trainers, physical therapy and sports medicine specialists, just to scratch the surface.
Sounds like a lot of additional trouble, doesn’t it? It’s just so much simpler to use a spray. Yet, for the professional athlete, extending their career by just one or two years can mean millions of dollars, improved performance and a far lower level of chronic pain in their post-sport lives. Many NFL athletes are starting to go the route of much improved care of their bodies rather than by chemicals and that should be encouraged. It’s a tradeoff with PEDs - you can go with the substances that might improve your performance, but at the risk of having them kill or disable you. Or, you may accomplish the same thing with a group of practitioners that are used to the needs of the professional athlete and whose treatment have few or zero side effects. The second approach takes more of the athlete’s time and has a greater financial outlay in the short run. The first is quicker, simpler, and vastly more dangerous. Our culture likes quick and simple.
But the price? You can’t spend money if you’re badly ill or dead. To me, that’s the bottom line. How about you?