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Are Deer-Antler Sprays the Latest Muscle-Boosting Performance Enhancers for Athletes?

Update Date: Jan 31, 2013 12:33 PM EST

Reports of professional football athletes using a somewhat far-fetched steroid-like natural supplement made from the antlers of New Zealand deer have surfaced this week.

Deer-antler spray made headlines this week after Sports Illustrated published an article Tuesday accusing retiring Baltimore Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis for using the substance after tearing his triceps earlier this season. Lewis, however, has denied using the spray. Nonetheless, reports of footballer Lewis and other professional athletes using this unusual deer antler "quick fix" has led to a lot of questions about what the substance actually is and why athletes use it.

Deer-antler velvet is a technically considered a natural supplement, but it contains the hormone IGF-1, or insulin-like growth factor-1, which is similar to the effects of HGH (Human Growth Hormones), a natural growth factor that's believed to help build and heal muscles. IGF-1 is a hormone that the liver produces from HGH, which is produced by the pituitary gland.  IGF-1 is a substance banned in the NFL, and it is still unclear how much IGF-1 is actually in the spray.  What's more, because deer-antler spray is classified as a supplement the Food and Drug Administration does not regulate its use.

S.W.A.T.S or Sports with Alternatives to Steroids, the company that allegedly gave Lewis the spray, calls their deer-antler product a natural substance.

"We have deer that we harvest out of New Zealand," Key said. "Their antlers are the fastest-growing substance on planet Earth . . . because of the high concentration of IGF-1. We've been able to freeze dry that out, extract it, put it in a sublingual spray that you shake for 20 seconds and then spray three [times] under your tongue. . . . This stuff has been around for almost 1,000 years, this is stuff from the Chinese," co-founder of S.W.A.T.S. Christopher Key told Sports Illustrated. 

The controversy is that S.W.A.T.S deer-antler contains IGF-1, a substance banned by the NCAA and every major pro league, SI reports. Its production is triggered by the brain's growth hormone.  It sticks to receptors in muscle cells and signals them to multiply and grow. Doctors have used the IGF-1 hormone to help patients with medical conditions in which they have low growth hormone like dwarfism, but Dr. Spyros Mezitis, an endocrinologist at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York City told CBS that IGF-1 is usually not prescribed for muscle building. Mezitis told CBS that he has known about the deer-antler spray, but he said that it is not as potent as the injection. However, he says that it IGF-1 is abused, it can cause more muscle strength and aggressiveness.

Key, on the other hand, accused the NFL of warning players away from his company's spray because it's a threat to "Big Pharma".

Other experts say that the spray may not even work in humans. Dr. Roberto Salvatori, an expert at Johns Hopkins University, told the Baltimore Sun that there is no evidence that shows that IGF-1 can be successfully delivered in pill or spray form.

"If there were, a lot of people would be happy that they don't need to get shots anymore," Salvatori told the Baltimore Sun.

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