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More than 50 million North Americans suffer from the debilitating pain of osteoarthritis and joint injuries,and many older household pets also experience joint inflammation and lack of mobility due to arthritic conditions. Ironically, most commonly prescribed anti-inflammatory drugs actually contribute to joint degeneration, and also risk a host of other potentially dangerous side effects.

A review of literature related to the use of velvet antler products as an alternative to drugs provides compelling evidence to support the claim that compounds in velvet antler may be significantly more effective and longer-lasting than many conventional prescription and non-prescription drugs for relief of the symptoms of osteoarthritis. The literature also suggests that velvet antler may provide additional benefits such as increased vitality, enhanced cardiovascular health, improved mental health and relief of some conditions associated with aging. Other research indicates that velvet antler may assist in growth and strength training. Furthermore, as a natural dietary supplement, velvet antler does not produce drug-related side effects and is therefore considered by many researchers to be safer for use than most conventional drugs.

The production of elk and deer velvet antler as a dietary supplement or medicinal substance constitutes a major industry in Asia, and the history of velvet antler use in Asian countries dates back more than 2,000 years.

In North America, domesticated North American elk constitute the primary source of velvet antler dietary supplements. Due to the size and overall quality of North American elk antler, velvet antler produced in the United States and Canada is generally considered to be a premium product in countries such as China, Japan and Korea, and a significant export market exists to support this claim.

Collection of North American elk antler is performed without endangering the host animals. Harvesting is a simple procedure performed once per year during the spring "velvet" stage of antler growth. During this period, the antlers are in a soft cartilaginous state, providing peak potency of the compounds associated with the claims made in numerous studies regarding velvet antler’s beneficial effects. 

Pharmacology

Elk antler is composed of a variety of different tissues, including cartilage, and is also rich in collagen, a crucial protein, and glycosaminoglycans. Glycosaminoglycans help form cartilage proteoglycans, which regulate water retention and cell differentiation. They also help proliferate chondrocytes in cartilaginous tissue.

Velvet antler contains nearly 40 key compounds including:

  • Chondroitin sulfate, a carbohydrate that attracts fluid into proteoglycan molecules and protects cartilage from destructive enzymes
  • Glucosamine sulfate, the building block of cartilage and a reported anti-inflammatory easily absorbed by the body
  • Lipids, to build cells and boost energy
  • Prostaglandins, powerful anti-inflammatory agents
  • Monoamine-oxidase inhibitors, which enhance mood
  • Selenium, which reduces infections, and protects blood cells, the heart, liver and lungs
  • Calcium, for bones, teeth, nerves, blood clotting and muscle contraction
  • Collagen, a major structural protein that binds joints together and serves as a main component of articular cartilage
  • Phosphorus, which helps build bones and teeth, and is a key component of metabolic reaction
  • Polysaccharides, which helps regulate blood clotting activity
  • All essential amino acids, the building blocks of protein
  • Potassium, for nerves and muscles
  • Magnesium, to help cells restore and release energy
  • Bone morphogenetic protein, which speeds bone growth
  • Growth factors, which aid in cartilage cell development.  

Clinical Research

Although traditional Chinese medical literature dating back more than 2,000 years extols the benefits of velvet antler as a premium medicinal substance, recent studies provide compelling scientific evidence supporting the use of velvet antler to relieve the symptoms of osteoarthritis. Additional research indicates velvet antler may provide beneficial effects in several other areas including cardiovascular health, mental health and growth and strength enhancement.  (top)

Bone and Joint Health

Osteoarthritis is caused by the loss of cartilage in bone joints. In normal joints, cartilage serves as a buffer between bones. Usually the body replenishes cartilage as it wears away, but when osteoarthritis occurs, cartilage deteriorates faster than the body can replace it. Eventually, the bones begin to rub together, causing pain, swelling and loss of joint mobility.

Most treatments for osteoarthritis attempt to reduce pain and maintain joint function, but these treatments do little to restore joint health. In fact, many prescription and over-the-counter non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs actually prevent the growth of collagen in joints, causing further cartilage degeneration.

These drugs can also produce other serious side effects such as deterioration of the gastrointestinal tract lining, and liver and kidney damage.

Researchers believe that the imbalance between cartilage erosion and regeneration in osteoarthritis suffers is caused by a lack of glycosaminoglycans. Glycosaminoglycans play a vital role in the structural integrity of cartilage.

Several studies indicate that velvet antler can reduce or even eliminate symptoms associated with osteoarthritis. Recent clinical tests suggest oral ingestion of glycosaminoglycan-peptide complex, or components such as chondroitin sulfate and glucosamine sulfate — both found in velvet antler — may help stimulate cartilage repair. Placebo-controlled double-masked studies of both humans and animals on the therapeutic effects of glycosaminoglycan-peptide complex appear to confirm these investigations. Researchers are now studying how these apparent effects occur.

Chondroitin sulfate, the most abundant glycosaminoglycan found in velvet antler, is used in surgery to stabilize tissue. Several studies on humans indicate regular oral ingestion of chondroitin sulfate can significantly reduce the symptoms associated with osteoarthritis. The compound appears to inhibit enzymes that deplete cartilage nutrition. Chondroitin sulfate molecules are long chains of sugars and sulfur that create tiny spaces filled with fluid. These spaces protect and cushion joints.

Randomized studies of glucosamine indicate the compound not only inhibits cartilage degradation but also helps repair damaged cartilage. An eight-week double-blind trial of glucosamine on 40 osteoarthritis sufferers found that the compound had significantly longer-lasting benefits than the commonly prescribed pain killer ibuprofen.. Other studies indicate that the effects appear to continue as long as six to 12 weeks after subjects stop taking glucosamine.

Additional research is now under way at the University of Calgary and the University of Alberta (Edmonton), Canada, to determine the efficacy of antler on rheumatoid arthritis. Previous studies have already suggested that the cartilage compounds found in antler may be effective at relieving rheumatoid arthritis pain.  

Growth and Strength Enhancement

Elk antler grows as much as 50 pounds in less than a few months, making it the fastest-developing animal organism in the world.

This rapid development is caused by antler’s high content of bone morphogenetic proteins, which regulate bone growth, as well as growth factors I and II. These growth factors increase the rate of cell division during antler development, and may contribute to the medicinal effects of velvet antler. In addition, velvet antler contains amino acids that have been proven in studies to increase growth hormone levels in humans.

A study conducted by Suttie and Haines found that animals fed high levels of active antler velvet extract grew significantly faster and as much as 12 percent more than a control group. The animals also experienced increased liver weight and a higher bone calcium content. In addition, the researchers found that antler appeared to decrease calcium excretion. In another study by Takikawa, et al., researchers reported observing new bone formation following experimental whiplash injuries in rabbits.

Perhaps the most well-publicized study of antler’s strength and muscle-enhancing attributes involved a blind trial of New Zealand athletes. Volunteers were divided into two groups, with height, weight and age closely balanced.

The first group received 70 mg of velvet antler extract per day for 10 weeks, while a control group received a placebo. Subjects underwent moderate flex and weight training, and were tested twice during the 10-week period and once following the 10 weeks. The athletes were also scanned with a Dual X-Ray Absorptiometry Scanner (DEXA) before and after the trial to determine any changes in body composition.

The researchers found that muscular endurance doubled among the velvet antler group, tending to support the assertion of previous studies that velvet antler improves muscle activity. At the same time, the athletes taking antler lost more body fat than those in the control group, but did not increase muscle size. The researchers speculate that antler use may boost muscle efficiency without increasing in muscle mass. Results of the DEXA scans also suggested that velvet antler may improve muscle dynamic activity. The New Zealand researchers theorized that the antler extract may improve blood supply to muscles or act as an anti-inflammatory, allowing athletes to recover faster from training sessions.

Athletes from New Zealand and other countries — swimmers and mountaineers to rugby players and golfers — have used velvet antler to increase strength, vitality and endurance. Other athletes and professionals requiring strength and endurance are also using antler as a legal substitute for anabolic steroids. Researchers at the University of Alberta, Canada, tested antler’s ability to increase strength and endurance on cadets from the Edmonton police academy. The researchers found that use of velvet antler significantly increased blood plasma testosterone levels in the men participating in the study.  

Cardiovascular Health

Several studies show a positive correlation between consistent use of velvet antler and cardiovascular health. Human subjects who used antler were able to endure larger work loads and experienced a shorter recovery time between exercises. One study suggested that daily use of chondroitin sulfate A — a key element of velvet antler — can reduce the risk of fatal heart attacks and stroke by more than 400 percent. Many participants with high or low blood pressure also showed changes in blood pressure toward normal.

Other studies reported an increase in heart strength and volume of blood pumped, while cardiac output, heart rate, mean arterial pressure, pulse pressure, central venous pressure and other parameters remained unchanged. Researchers suggest that the polysaccharides in antler may reduce the blood’s tendency to clot, improving circulation, decreasing stroke risk and boosting general cardiovascular health.

Russian and Japanese researchers have concentrated on an alcohol extract of antler called pantocrin or rantarin, discovering that the extract appears to lower blood pressure in both human subjects and laboratory animals.

Additional studies indicate that use of antler significantly cut the cholesterol level in laboratory animals.  

Other Reported Benefits

Velvet antler has long been used in Asia and Russia to treat a variety of ailments and as a general tonic.

A Russian study indicated that the amino acids, polypeptides and other compounds found in antler increased the survival rate of mice with cancerous tumors as much as 40 percent. In addition, a study conducted by the East-West Research Institute (Kyung Hee University, Korea) and the Korean Food and Drug Administration found that mice with tumors lost less weight and suffered lower levels of kidney damage than those treated with the frequently-prescribed anti-cancer drug cis-Platin (CDDP). Velvet antler also appeared to boost the effectiveness of CDDP when used in conjunction with the cancer drug. Those mice given a combination of antler extract and CDDP survived longer and had fewer side effects than mice given CDDP alone.

A study by Kim, et al., also noted that velvet antler appears to increase neutrophil levels in mice, which boost the body’s ability to fight injuries and disease.

A New Zealand study found compelling evidence that extracts of antler velvet stimulated the human immune system, as measured by increased white blood cell production.

Although use of the antler extract pantocrin during World War II by Russian physicians provides anecdotal evidence of velvet antler’s healing powers, a more recent study by Bubenik found that antler helped heal epidermal wounds in rats.

Clinical studies also indicate that velvet antler functions as an antidepressant and mood regulator. A study by Chen, et al., for example, found that velvet antler inhibits monoamine oxidase activity in the liver and brain tissues of aged mice. Monoamine-oxidase inhibitors prevent breakdown of monoamine neurotransmitters such as norepinephrine and serotonin. Antler apparently allows these vital neurotransmitters to be available longer to the brain structure, enhancing mood.

Other studies by both Fisher and Wang indicate that antler may increase testosterone levels and can help prevent some conditions associated with aging. In addition, Russian researchers claim that compounds found in antler can ease the effects of menopause in women, and can be used as to speed recovery of surgical patients.  

History of Velvet Antler

The history of antler as a medicinal substance stretches back thousands of years. Although the most well-documented ancient uses come from China and the Far East, other cultures from Northern Europe and Northern Asia to North American and ancient Rome have also benefited from the use of antler as a tonic and for treatment of a variety of medical conditions, including:

  • Joint pain
  • Kidney and liver problems
  • Stomach ulcers
  • Gout
  • Headaches
  • Eczema
  • Low energy
  • Chills

Even today, antler extract compounds are listed in the pharmacopoeia of the former USSR Health Ministry as "tonic drugs."

Velvet antler has been a staple of Traditional Chinese medicine for more than 2,000 years as a wellness tonic to strengthen bones and tendons, nourish the blood, reduce swelling and to treat impotence.

The use of antler dates to the Han Dynasty 206 BC to 220 AD. for treating impotence, menoxenia, dysfunctional uterine bleeding, dizziness, insomnia, amnesia, wounds, pain and arthritis. Antler is also mentioned in the chief authority on early Chinese pharmacology, the Pen Ts’ao Kang Mu. This 16th century medical classic lists a variety of antler preparations including powders, pills, extracts, tinctures and ointments.Several modern compilations of Chinese medical preparations still contain numerous antler uses.

Prior to recent times, velvet antler was offered in whole stick form. Retailers sold antler by the slice, and consumers made their own medicine at home, often mixing antler with other traditional medicines. Consumers could judge the quality of the antler by the stick’s size, color, smell and general appearance.

Today the antler trade remains strong in Asia, with China producing nearly 100 tons of dried velvet antler annually. Velvet antler is also an important crop in Russia, with significant exports to Japan, Singapore, Hong Kong and Thailand, however, North American elk antler is prized throughout Asia because it is considered by many to be more potent than the more commonly available deer antler.  

Processing Factors

Each part of the elk antler contains different compounds with a variety of properties. However, many velvet antler manufacturers only use the lower calcified portions of the antler, which are considerably cheaper to purchase than the upper sections, but also contain significantly less cartilaginous tissue. Velvet antler processed in whole form appears to provide the widest selection of chemical compounds associated with the benefits claimed in the research cited.

Several studies indicate that heating can reduce or destroy the beneficial properties of velvet antler. Therefore, it is vital to ensure the product is not heated during processing. However, many manufacturers of low-grade velvet antler products burn the velvet portion of the antler off before processing, because it’s less labor-intensive than non-heat-producing methods. Some widely-used grinding methods may also produce heat, reducing the effectiveness of the product.

Because of its dried properties, elk antler is not prone to contaminates such as yeast, molds, chloroforms, E. coli and salmonella. However, standards outlined by the North American Elk Breeders Association, and practiced by premium processors, recommend laboratory testing to ensure sanitation of the product.  

Summary

There is significant credible research evidence to support the claims that use of velvet antler can enhance joint structure and function, and may provide additional benefits including increased vitality, improved cardiovascular health, mood enhancement, and as an effective strength and training aid. However, such benefits appear dependent upon the quality of antler used as well as methods employed during processing of velvet antler products.