Russian President Vladimir Putin made news in July, not for a political scheme or a shirtless horseback ride but for bathing in 150 pounds of blood from stag antlers. This weird move was reminiscent of the controversy surrounding former Baltimore Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis, who in 2013 vehemently denied using deer antler spray to treat a torn tricep after he was accused of doing so. Online, bodybuilders and health nuts alike discuss supplements derived from antler blood and velvet, continuing a human medical tradition that has been going on for thousands of years.
Deer antler, which has the ability to continually regrow, has been used in traditional medicine for over a millennium because there’s an idea that the velvet from antlers and the rich blood beneath it increases human energy, muscle repair, and libido. The science, however, is lacking.
“Overall the conclusion that we came to, based on the studies that we reviewed, was that there really is very little evidence that velvet antler is effective for any conditions for humans,” Massey University psychologist Andrew Gilbey, Ph.D., who co-authored a 2012 paper titled “Health benefits of deer and elk velvet antler supplements,” tells Inverse.
“Claims by manufacturers do not seem to be supported by high-quality evidence.”
While these pills, along with Putin’s habits, are easy to scoff at, some scientists think the therapeutic potential of antlers warrants further investigation.
“Antler research can help us understand why regenerative ability has been lost in mammals and take us further towards a ‘holy grail’ of modern human medicine: the ability to regenerate organs that have been removed through trauma or excision,” scientists wrote in the 2005 Journal of Anatomy paper “Deer antlers: a zoological curiosity or the key to understanding organ regeneration in mammals?”
At the heart of our endless fascination with antlers is the process of antler shedding and growth. Deer are the only mammals who are capable of regenerating lost or damaged body parts — their antlers. Every year, male deer (and some females) cast off and regenerate their antlers, a process that takes about three months.
Antlers grow from cells nestled in knob-like growths called pedicles, structures that connect the antlers to the deer’s head. They begin as cartilage surrounded by nerves and blood, which is in turn surrounded by a layer of skin and fur known as velvet. Over time, the cartilage becomes bone, and when this happens the blood flow stops and the velvet surrounding the antler cracks. Antler growth is incredibly fast — they grow at a rate of about a quarter inch per day — and once the antlers are just dead bone, the deer do whatever they can to peel off the now-unnecessary layer of velvet.
No one knows how Putin sources his blood baths, but when it comes to deer velvet, at least, we know the majority of it comes from New Zealand, which is the largest exporter of deer velvet in the world. There, strict regulations govern velvet removal, which happens under careful veterinary supervision and anesthesia. Removing an antler while it’s still surrounded by velvet means removing a live, vascular, and innervated tissue, so it’s considered a legally controlled surgical procedure.
If you can handle gore, the removal process begins at about four minutes below.
Yet, despite all the effort put into turning deer antlers into supplements, the research, as Gilbey said, doesn’t indicate that humans stand to benefit from them. In their 2012 review of the existing scientific literature on velvet, his team only found seven studies that appeared to be robust, none of which supported the life-changing claims that companies selling velvet antler supplements make.
For example, a 2003 paper in the International Journal of Sport Nutrition and Exercise Metabolism found that when 12 active males were given velvet extract, 13 given velvet powder, and 13 more just given a placebo, there were no differences in any of their strength or aerobic abilities.
“In the literature available from Russian, Korean, and Chinese sources, there is constant reference made to the ‘tonic effects’ of various deer antler preparations for humans,” the scientists wrote. However, they note that these “number of health and human performance effects” appear to be “based largely on anecdotal reports rather than scientific research.”
Another 2003 study in Archives of Sexual Behavior sought to find whether the claim that deer velvet could increase libido and sexual function in men and found resoundingly it does not, concluding that “in normal males there was no advantage in taking deer velvet to enhance sexual function.”
But as Goop and the FDA have shown this year, a lack of scientific evidence is hardly enough to convince the general public that some supplements are useless at best. Bryan Denham, Ph.D., a professor of sports communications at Clemson University who has written widely on doping, tells Inverse that deer antler body hacks are likely to stay.
“I think that people are always looking for some sort of pill or spray that will give them an advantage that will help them move beyond just running or lifting weights alone,” Denham says. “People want that extra edge, and many people think that if it’s sold in a package or in retail outlets, it’s gone through the same level of scrutiny as a regular medication.”
Researchers are currently studying antlers as a means to learn more about how cells can remember past traumatic events, and it’s hoped that by understanding how antler nerves grow and heal so quickly, one day science could be applied to helping people with nerve damage. That’s not quite taking a bath full of deer blood to restore “male vitality,” but it’s pretty good.