Indian Journal Of Traditional Knowledge
Vol. 9(2), April 2010, pp. 245-251
Deer antlers- Traditional use and future perspectives
Pravin S Kawtikwar, Durgacharan A Bhagwat* & Dinesh M Sakarkar
Received 30 October 2007; revised 9 May 2008
Antlers are bony skeletal protuberances of the skull, and consist mainly of the protein collagen and the mineral calcium hydroxyapatite. Antlers occur in most species of the deer family (Cervidae) and are grown and shed annually, typically only by males. Traditional medical reports and clinical observations show that antler is biologically active to cure various diseases. To make antler products acceptable as nutraceuticals and functional foods, chemical and biological properties of velvet antlers have to be clearly determined. Antlers are made of chemical components consisting of sugars, fatty acids, amino acids, and nucleotides as essential molecules, which become macromolecules such as polysaccharides, lipids, proteins and nucleic acids, respectively. For their physicochemical properties, each of these macromolecules is responsible for not only antler growth and development, but also biomedical and nutraceuticals uses of antlers. Therefore, understanding chemical and molecular characteristics of antlers is crucially important to elucidate the clinical and medicinal efficacies of antlers. Hence, the review highlights information about various species of deer, its farming, antler preparation, antler composition, its traditional uses and scientific substantiation to it, dose and its future scope.
Keywords: Deer antler, Velvet antler, Antler composition, Traditional knowledge, Traditional uses, Antler uses
IPC Int. Cl.8: A61K36/00, A61P9/00, A61P9/04, A61P13/00, A61P13/02, A61P15/10
Antlers are bony skeletal protuberances of the skull, and consist mainly of the protein collagen and the mineral calcium hydroxyapatite (Ca5 (PO4)3OH). Antlers occur in most species of the deer family (Cervidae) and are grown and shed annually (Fig.1). Evolutionarily, horn like structures developed in all 4 true ruminant families – Cervidae, Giraffidae, Antilocapridae and Bovidae. Unlike horns, antlers are secondary sexual characteristics, typically occurring only in males, and are functional only during the rutting (mating) season. The reindeer is the only deer species in which the females also sport antlers, but these are much less impressive than those of the males. Two species of Indian deer that do not have antlers are the musk deer and the Indian chevrotain or mouse deer, which belong to families other than the Cervidae. In these antlers-less species, the canines are very well developed and function as secondary sexual characteristics1. Deer antlers have many uses. Removal of antler from live deer has been a traditional practice in some Asian cultures for centuries. In the West however, velvet antler removal is a new form of animal utilization, evolving only since commercial deer farming began in the early 1970’s. Velvet antler is the growing stage of the horns borne on the heads of male members of the deer family. They are called velvet antlers during the phase of rapid growth and development because of the velvet-like covering of skin.
Velvet antler has been one of the most
prized health tonics in traditional oriental medicine for over 2,000 yrs.
Today, in addition to its FDA supported use for arthritis treatment and its'
proven enhancement of athletic performance, velvet antler's bioactivity
probably has undiscovered medical potential for humans with regards to boosting
immunity, preventing illness, and propagating longevity2. The use of
deer antler continued at a modest level until the 12th century, when
it became the subject of modern research methods. Both the Russians and the
Chinese started subjecting deer antler to analysis by scientific methods,
though those methods were relatively crude. About the same time, patent
medicine factories sprung up and helped fill the growing demand for tonics made
with rare ingredients such as deer antler and ginseng. Medicine factories now
use more than
Deer farming has become a huge enterprise
outside the Orient6. The animal meat is used as food, and the
antlers are usually exported to the Orient, though there is a new industry in
making antler-based health products for domestic consumption in
Table 1— Various species of deer
Presence of antler
Moschiola mimenoides (Tragulus meminna): Indian chevrotain or mouse deer
No antlers; tusks in male
Moschus moschiferus, Musk deer
No antlers; tusks in male
Cervus elaphus hanglu, Hhangul, Rusa unicolor (Cervus unicolor), Sambhar. (Fig.1a) Recervus eldii (Cervus eldii): Thamin or Brow antlered deer, Recervus duvaucelii (Cervus duvaucelii), Barasingha. (Fig.1b), Axis axis, Spoted deer. (Fig.1c), Hyelaphus porcinus (Axis porcinus), Hog deer.
Antlers present in male
These animals are very valuable and the welfare of the animal is therefore paramount. The removal of the velvet antler from the animal is carried in compliance with a strict Velveting Code of Practice by either veterinarians, or qualified persons under veterinary supervision, and the effect on the animal is minimized and minimal. It is a relatively quick and painless procedure and the animals are immediately released to graze. However, if the weather is inclement they are kept inside and hand fed to avoid any risk of infection or stress. Quite apart from removal of the antler for its health supplement properties, it has been accepted practice to remove it to avoid animals damaging or injuring each other by fighting; getting caught up in fences and injuring themselves, or perhaps causing their own death. It is also done to avoid risk to those farming and handling them.
Traditionally, deer antler is sliced very thinly or ground to powder7. It is not commonly boiled in decoctions with herbs because the gelatins easily stick to the herb dregs or cooking pot, and so the loss of valuable material is considered too great. Therefore, the herb powder is usually taken separately. To make gelatin, ossified antlers (which are less expensive than velvet) are boiled for several hours to release the gelatin (protein components) from the hard matrix. Then, the antler gelatin can be added to an herbal decoction after all the boiling is done and the dregs have been strained. Or, it can be powdered and consumed directly. After removing the gelatin from the antler, the residual hard antler material is dried and powdered to make lujiaoshuang (degelatinized deer antler), which is mostly used for topical applications (treating boils, eczema, and skin ulcers, serving as an astringent and aid to faster healing). It is also considered of some limited value as a kidney yang tonic if taken at high enough dosage (Fig.4).
Antler is a simple extension of bone, so it
has a calcium phosphate matrix of hydroxyapatite, Ca10(PO4)6(OH)2,
integrated with smaller amounts of calcium carbonate (CaCO3); its composition
is similar to that of human bones8,9. Thus, one of the therapeutic
roles of taking deer antler is as a source of calcium to help prevent or treat
osteoporosis, which is consistent with the traditional bone strengthening
action of deer antler. An analysis of the ossified antler showed that 73% is
hydroxyapatite and related mineral compounds, while 27% is organic materials.
If consumed as a powder (rather than a decoction), a person taking
800 mg of calcium. Hydroxyapatite is considered one of the most efficiently absorbed forms of calcium available.
Deer antler also has a substantial amount
of gelatinous components though from other source materials; glucosamine
sulfate, chondroitin sulfate (which is a polymer of glucosamine), and collagen.
These compounds have been shown to benefit the joints in cases of
osteoarthritis by providing substrate materials useful for regenerating the
body's connective tissues (collagens) found in joints and sinews. In addition,
they may have some antiinflammatory action, useful for arthritis and
tendonitis. These actions of the gelatin portion support the traditional
concept that antler benefits joints and ligaments. In a
Table 2— Composition elements and its description
Collagen II is found in antler. The decrease of this element can lead to both osteo- and rheumatoid arthritis.
Free amino acids
Antler contains all eight essential amino acids that must be supplied by food or supplements for normal metabolism and growth. It also contains some 15 nonessential free amino acids
Antler contains not only predominantly calcium, phosphorus and sodium, but also magnesium, manganese, selenium and iron.
Free fatty acids, gangliosides, lecithin, phospholipids, cholesterol, steroids and prostaglandins and others are found in antler. An important fact is that antler prostaglandins can induce vasodepression, smooth muscle contractions and influence lipid metabolism.
Glycosamino-glycans (GAGs), including the most prominent chondroitin sulfate, and less-prominent glucosamine sulfate are also present in antler. GAGs play an important metabolic role in connective tissue and joint health.
The growing antler also contains fibro- and chondroblasts (cells from which connective tissue and cartilages are developed, respectively); chondro- and osteocytes (cartilage and bone cells); growth factors (GF), which include epidermal and nerve GFs, insulin like GF I and II, and transforming alpha and beta GFs; and cytokines (an immune regulator).
Recently, the traditional use of antler to nourish the bone marrow and blood has been validated by studies in which the active components responsible (monoacetyldiglycerides) were identified. These are small molecules that stimulate the marrow stem cells that produce blood cells (Fig.5). Inhibition of hematopoiesis (blood cell production) occurs with several cancer drugs and with radiation therapy; some disease processes, such as myelodysplastic syndrome (MDS), involve progressive decline in stem cell activity with undetermined causes. If further research confirms the therapeutic importance of the monoacetyldiglycerides, they can be synthesized in large quantity. In the meantime, deer antler is the main therapeutic source for them. Stem cells leading to various blood lines. The basic marrow stem cell differentiates during early fetal development into two types of stem cells, the lymphoid (which produces lymphocytes) and the myeloid (which produces all the other blood cells). Platelets (thrombocytes) are not true blood cells, but are cytoplasmic fragments of the megakaryocytes. T-cells are lymphoid cells that differentiate via action of the thymus gland. All the cell lines except erythrocytes (red blood cells) and megakaryocytes are involved with immune responses. Thus, deer antler, when used to stimulate the stem cells in patients with bone marrow depression, may improve immune responses, as indicated by laboratory animal studies10. Deer antler also has essential fatty acids, making up about 2.5% of the velvet antler (not enough to be clinically active) and insulin-dependent growth factor (for which it is not known whether there is any clinical effect). Other organic compounds have been detected, but in miniscule amounts. The biochemical composition of deer antler includes lipids (omega-6 fatty acid) 2.5%; protein 52%; ash (minerals) 32%; Moisture 1%; Nitrogen (N) 8.4%; Calcium (Ca) 12.1%; Phosphorus (P) 5.8%; Sulphur (S) 0.43%; Magnesium (Mg) 0.25%; Sodium (Na) 0.83%; Potassium (K) 0.42% (Table 2)11, 12.
No one knows exactly when antler velvet was
first used for medicinal purposes in Asia but Traditional Chinese Medicine
(TCM) has used as a medicinal herb for centuries and its use in therapeutic
formulas is second only to ginseng. It is said to fortify the Yang and to
increase the natural flow of chi (vital energy) through the kidneys thereby assisting
to regulate the function of the adrenal cortex and restore a person's natural
vitality. The first documented evidence of the use of
velvet deer antler as a medicine was found on a silk scroll recovered from a
Han tomb in the
Traditional Chinese Medicine, while having curative functions, focuses on promoting wellness as a medical goal in itself. In both Chinese and Korean medicine, velvet antler can be regarded as an effective promoter of health. This may be because the substances that promote rapid growth and regeneration of velvet are responsible for the tonic actions. Western medicine lacks a formal understanding of a tonic, but it is important for a potential user of velvet antler to accept in the context of seeking the benefits of velvet. In keeping with Chinese and Korean use of velvet, these are overall strengthening of the body, healing and improving tissue function. View velvet antler as a powerful restorer and strengthener but not a curative in itself. The mechanisms for this true tonic activity are yet only poorly understood.
Due to its
wide variety of chemical components, it makes sense that antler has a range of
traditional uses many of which are only now being scientifically evaluated.
Antler displays no evidence of antibacterial, antiviral or antifungal
activities. Thus, it cannot cure by destroying active pathogens. The vast
majority of research is in cells or on animals. The use of velvet antler by
Koreans during winter months led researchers to believe it could strengthen the
immune system. Injecting pantocrin, a specialized velvet extract, into the
peritoneum at a dose of 0.52 mg/kg could stimulate the phagocytic function of
macrophages in both normal and immune deficient mice16. High
cholesterol level is a known risk factor for heart disease.
Treatment with velvet lowered liver cholesterol from 1,610-1,311 mg/100 gm dry tissue. Spleen and brain cholesterol were also reduced. In contrast, cholesterol was increased in the kidneys' cortex and medulla (1,733-1,900 and 1,880-2, 190 mg/100 gm dry tissue, respectively). The researchers theorized that the velvet extract caused the cholesterol to be filtered from the blood, thereby increasing kidney levels but lowering levels elsewhere17.
In two uncontrolled clinical trials, velvet
antler demonstrated hypotensive (blood pressure lowering) effects. In an
experiment, 32 patients with high blood pressure caused by obesity or
early-onset menopause were treated with either 4.5 ml/day oral or 2 ml/day
injectable alcohol velvet antler extract for 20 or
30 days, respectively. They were then examined by a physician. Out of 26 patients, eight were getting oral treatment and 18 were getting injections had measurably lowered blood pressure and reported an improvement Those reporting no improvement had diagnosed high blood pressure for 9-10 yrs18. The effects of the same injectable extract on 13 patients with hypertension caused by heart disorders such as palpitations, murmurs and arrhythmia were studied. Pantocrin extract counteracted the effect of previously administered adrenaline. Velvet acted in a manner similar to the neurotransmitter acetylcholine, which causes cardiac inhibition and vasodilation19.
has a use in TCM as an anti-aging preparation. Using mice genetically selected
to die of natural causes at an early age v/s normal controlled mice, Chinese
researchers found that in selected mice, an alcohol velvet antler extract
increased plasma testosterone, decreased oxidative activity in the liver and
brain, increased liver protein content and liver superoxide dismutase (SOD)
activity, and increased RNA production. Basically, the extract significantly altered
the metabolism of the selected but not of controlled mice, concluding the best
evidence of a measurable restorative function for velvet antler20.
Investigating velvet antler benefits for sports performance is ongoing, and it
is likely that the extract type and dose will be linked to a particular sport.
In the late 1960s, pantocrin was observed to increase the endurance of
laboratory animals21. This led researchers to compare the effects of
pantocrin, rantarin (reindeer antler) and placebo on healthy athletes riding an
exercise bike. Participants given pantocrin exhibited 740 Nm (
It is difficult to give a dosage for antler
because little is known about relating illness to type of antler preparation
and individual requirements22. In
900-1,200 mg/day of velvet powder with
3,000-4,500 mg/day of the ground powder boiled in water. Typically, doses greater than 1.2 gm/day of either extract or powder appear to be therapeutic, while lower doses are prophylactic. Russian scientists determined the median lethal dose (LD50) of alcohol velvet antler extract as 4.5 ml/kg, equating to a
1,059 ml dose for
In a new millennium of supplement trends
and designer foods fads, another brand new, next best and must have
nutraceuticals may justly receive some skepticism. Perhaps there is some
validity to a
2,000 yrs old brand new, next best, must have completely natural, prized health tonics of traditional oriental medicine. Seemingly, velvet antler acts as an adaptogen in the body; it adapts to the bodies deficiencies to provide the raw material for the body to attain optimum health: a nontoxic, non-habit forming nutrient. Research so far supports a therapeutic role for velvet antler in a number of conditions. The FDA has supported velvet antler use for arthritis treatment. Numerous experiments have shown that it enhances athlete’s performance and research suggests significant clinical implications to the entire system including the immune system, the cardiovascular system, and the nervous system. However, more scientific understanding is necessary to define that nature of velvet antler's bioactive components and their independent and synergistic effects in animal systems. The research, though considerably complex, is likely to be very rewarding: velvet antler's rejuvenative and tonic actions may benefit athletes, the elderly and disease patients alike. If it is true that time will tell, velvet antler speaks volumes from the past that echo into the future.
Traditional medical reports and clinical observations show that antler is biologically active to cure various diseases. To make antler products acceptable as nutraceuticals and functional foods, chemical and biological properties of velvet antlers have to be clearly determined. Antlers are made of chemical components consisting of sugars, fatty acids, amino acids, and nucleotides as essential molecules. For their physicochemical properties, each of these macromolecules is responsible for not only antler growth and development, but also biomedical and nutraceutical uses of antlers. Therefore, understanding chemical and molecular characteristics of antlers is crucially important to elucidate the clinical and medicinal efficacies of antlers.
Authors are thankful to Mr Arun B. Bhagwat, traditional healer for providing some valuable information about traditional use of deer antlers.
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