Humans and the European red deer have had a long relationship—sometimes mutually beneficial, sometimes stormy. For now, it looks as if the 2,000-year saga has a happy ending for both. And humans may get a potent medicine out of the deal.
In New Zealand in the early 1970s, the deer population explosion threatened to become an environmental disaster. Then, inspired by successful deer farming in Scotland, New Zealanders began a conscious effort to domesticate the deer. Now, instead of ravaging native vegetation, the red deer plays a starring role in an agricultural success story.
Of the many products that the deer provide, one of the most exciting—and least traumatic to the deer—is a natural medicine called velvet antler (also called pilose deer antler). For thousands of years, the Chinese and other Asians have used velvet antler in a variety of ways, ranging from restorative tonics to tumor treatments. More recently, research has been conducted on the chemistry, pharmacology, and use of velvet antler extracts in Korea, China, and Russia.
Although widely accepted in traditional Asian medical systems, velvet antler has only recently attracted the attention of the West. More chemical, pharmacological, and clinical studies will be needed to ferret out its true benefits as a dietary supplement. In the meantime, you will find velvet antler products sitting on the shelf next to echinacea and other immune-system stimulants and tonic herbs at your local health-food store.
Is it really an herb?
Animal-derived “herbs” have always been a part of traditional medicine systems, even in the United States. Traditional Chinese Medicine includes more than 5,000 ingredients, including plants, minerals, and animal parts. About 500 are commonly used today and are listed as official drugs in the 1995 Chinese Pharmacopeia.
Velvet antler is one of the most widely used animal items, not only in China but also in other Asian countries, particularly Korea. The Chinese have used velvet antler as a traditional medicine for at least 2,000 years; it is thought to promote virility, replenish vital essence and blood, and strengthen bones and tendons.
Velvet antler is derived from several species of deer, but consists mainly of the young pilose (or hairy) antlers of two major deer species, Cervus nippon, the Japanese or Asian deer (known as hua-lu-rong), and Cervus elaphus, the European red deer (ma-lu-rong).
Velvet antler is the rapid growth phase of deer antler, before it becomes hard and calcified. At this stage, the antler is covered with a velvet-like substance, hence the name. The antler is harvested from the deer halfway through the growth process, after fifty to sixty days. It’s frozen within three hours of harvest until further processing and grading. A velvet “stick,” or piece of antler, is graded according to its circumference, length, appearance, and condition. For the Korean market, the antler is often thinly sliced. The quality is then determined by Korean buyers or practitioners based on color, translucence, and other visual factors.
The popularity of velvet antler is part of what has driven the industry in New Zealand, which has captured 60 percent of the Korean market over Chinese and Russian imports. New Zealand now leads the world in both production of and research on velvet antler. Total production is valued in the tens of millions of dollars annually, according to M. J. Loza of the New Zealand Game Board.
Velvet antler’s health benefits
Three times the number of scientific studies have been conducted for deer antler as for echinacea. New Zealand researchers conducted the first Western-style pharmacological and clinical studies, under the direction of James Suttie, Ph.D., head of the deer research program at AgResearch. The firm is a corporation formed in 1992 by combining New Zealand’s Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries and the Department of Science and Industrial Research.
One study showed that velvet antler extracts increased the proliferation of human white blood cells in laboratory experiments, suggesting possible immune stimulating or immune modulating actions, Suttie says. In other laboratory tests, deer antler demonstrated pronounced anti-inflammatory activity. Clinical researchers are currently exploring velvet antler’s potential for reducing muscle tissue damage and improving recovery time in athletes.
Research conducted in Asia and Russia points at other potential benefits of velvet antler:
• increased red blood cell and hemoglobin counts
• improved uterine muscle tone and increased strength of uterine contractions
• increased blood output from the heart
• symptom improvement in conditions ranging from anemia to benzene poisoning
• improved healing in convalescing patients and in chronic circulatory disorders
• some symptom improvement for impotence caused by atrophy and weakness of the kidneys
Practitioners use velvet antler primarily to promote virility, replenish vital essence and blood, strengthen the bone and tendons, promote draining of abscesses, and to regulate meridians relative to the uterus and conception in women. It’s also prescribed for impotence, involuntary discharge of semen, infertility, lassitude, dizziness, tinnitus, back pains with a cold sensation, plus “cold deficiency” and vaginal discharge in women. It’s generally used in a dose of 1 to 2 g per day.
By Steven Foster
Steven Foster is lead editorial adviser of Herbs for Health and author of several books on herbal medicine, including 101 Medicinal Herbs (Interweave Press, 1998) and The Herbal Drugstore (Rodale, 2000). His articles and photographs appear frequently in our magazine and other publications.
Clifford, D. H., et al. “Can an extract of deer antlers alter cardiovascular dynamics?” American Journal of Chinese Medicine 7(4):345–350.
Hsu, H.Y., et al. Oriental Materia Medica—A Concise Guide. Long Beach, California: Oriental Healing Arts Institute, 1986.
Pan, X., et al. A Coloured Atlas of the Chinese Materia Medica Specified in the Pharmacopoeia of the People’s Republic of China. 1995 ed. Guangdong: Guangdong Science & Technology Press, 1996.