Athletes, Drug Testing, and Deer Antler – The Real Story

The sporting media is up in antlers with reports that allege Ray Lewis used a deer antler spray in his injury comeback.  The questions as to whether deer antler is banned and whether its use could lead to a doping violation are indeed complex.  We felt it was time to peel back the velvet to answer those questions and review the facts on deer antler.

Deer antler has a long history of use in Chinese medicine and is used ‘to decrease fatigue and improve sleep and appetite. In animal tests, deer antler has been shown to increase oxygen uptake in the brain, liver and kidneys, and increase red and white blood cell production.’  Traditionally it is available in the form of antler slices, powders, and extracts.  In its natural form, it is likely a legal dietary ingredient under the 1994 Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act (DSHEA); it has been sold at herbologists and various natural product stores for some time.

Deer antler has gained popularity as a dietary supplement over the last few years.  Some manufacturers, like LuRong Living Essential, grind the actual antler into powder form and encapsulate it in ingestible capsules.  (For the record, our company Banned Substances Control Group has certified LuRong Living Essential to be free of methyltestosterone [see below] and other contaminants.)

Other manufacturers sell the deer antler as a concentrated extract in a spray form.  The sprays, often with names like IGF-1+, are marketed as anti-aging and/or performance-enhancing agents and are offered with different dosages of IGF-1.  The sprays carry claims that the IGF-1 is delivered to the body through liposomal absorption, meaning it would be absorbed through membranes, such as those in the mouth, as opposed to having to enter the body through digestion.

Whether the spray forms are legal under U.S. law is unclear.  If deer antler is chemically altered to standardize the amount of IGF-1 present or to make it absorbable, then the spray form of deer antler is likely illegal under DSHEA.  However, we will let the FDA sort that out; we are here to examine issues related to drugs in sport.

In the realm ofSWATS spray pic sport, the hoopla started with a spray form of deer antler called The Ultimate Spray, marketed by Sports with Alternative to Steroids (SWATS), that was involved in David Vobora’s NFL positive drug test for the steroid methyltestosterone in 2009.  During the course of the civil action following Vobora’s suspension, Vobora had the spray he used tested and it was found to be contaminated with methyltestosterone.  Vobora won a $5.4 million ruling as a result.

As the article notes, we tested the spray at our nonprofit/NGO Anti-Doping Research for The Post Game in 2011 and did not find methyltestosterone.  This highlights an important point: that one batch of a product can be contaminated and another batch clean, something that athletes need to consider.

All this attention prompted MLB and NFL to issue warnings to players regarding the use of deer antler.  Interestingly, the MLB warning did not focus on the IGF-1 issue but rather on the issue of methyltestosterone contamination.  The NFL warning meanwhile concentrated more on the IGF-1 issue and questioned the appropriateness of its players or coaches representing such a product.

Confusion has swirled ever since culminating in Super Bowl fashion with allegations that Ray Lewis used the very same SWATS spray in his triceps recovery.  ESPN ticker reports are now alleging that the Alabama football team may have used the spray as well.

Whether deer antler is banned in sport and whether its use would be considered a doping violation comes down to whether it is ingested or absorbed and whether it has been certified to be free of potential contaminants like methyltestosterone.

Is deer antler a banned substance?

No, deer antler is not listed as a banned substance today in any sport.  It is true that deer antler naturally contains IGF-1, a substance banned in sport.  However, so do animal food products like red meat, eggs or milk and other common dietary supplement ingredients like colostrum.  Many food products contain IGF-1 or other growth factors that are banned in sport yet consuming them does not constitute or lead to doping violations.  The World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) supports this notion but does not exactly provide clarity with their confusing note on colostrum: “Colostrum is not prohibited per se, however it contains certain quantities of IGF-1 and other growth factors which are prohibited and can influence the outcome of anti-doping tests. Therefore WADA does not recommend the ingestion of this product.”

Would using deer antler be considered use of a banned substance in sport?

In our opinion, the answer comes down to the form used.  Scientific publications agree that when IGF-1 is ingested in the form of colostrum it is not absorbed by the body and would ‘not elicit positive results on drug tests.’  Assuming the same is true of the IGF-1 in deer antler or other food products, ingesting the IGF-1 is unlikely to be construed as a violation of drug testing regulations since no banned substance is absorbed by the body.  Therefore, ingestible deer antler products should be acceptable for athletes to use under current rules.  Conversely, using a spray form of deer antler concentrated to contain certain amounts of IGF-1 that is delivered through liposomal absorption would likely constitute a doping violation, because if the product works as claimed the banned substance IGF-1 would be absorbed by the body.

Is IGF-1 detectable in the current sport drug testing system?

As the abstract of a recent publication states: “Currently, there is no test for the detection of IGF-1 introduced worldwide”.  This is not to say that the anti-doping community can not detect it as there are numerous publications that demonstrate the ability to do so.  IGF-1 is used as an important marker in the Sonksen test for human growth hormone that has been slowly gaining traction in the WADA community.  That said, we are not aware of a complete detection method for IGF-1 in use in sport drug testing today that can unequivocally determine if exogenous, or foreign, IGF-1 has entered the body.  So, if the deer antler sprays work as intended and IGF-1 is actually absorbed by the body, that may be a violation of drug testing policies but we do not believe it would result in a positive drug test in the current system.  Unfortunately, IGF-1 in general remains a major challenge for anti-doping authorities and is a huge potential loophole in the current doping control system.

Is there a way for athletes to protect themselves against the potential for methyltestosterone or other contamination to occur in deer antler products?

As with all dietary supplements, we would recommend that athletes only use batches or lots of products that have been certified by a reputable independent testing body to be free of banned substances.  We operate a program called BSCG Certified Drug Free® that offers testing services to manufacturers, teams and athletes to ensure that products are safe and free of banned and dangerous substances.

It is our view that if you are an athlete using a spray form of deer antler be aware that you are likely in violation of drug-testing rules even though the IGF-1 at issue may not be detectable currently.  If you want to use deer antler without violating drug-testing policies, you should be careful to use only an ingestible product that has been tested for potential contaminants like methyltestosterone.

This is a perfect example of the extremely complex issues we all face when considering the connections between dietary supplements and banned substances in sport.  We feel it is the responsibility of the leagues, the players associations, the anti-doping authorities, the FDA, supplement industry representatives, and scientific organizations like ours to come together to address the broader issues in some fashion.  As deer antler does not wander the forests alone, we owe it to the athletes to provide a concrete yes or no as to whether something is prohibited, as their careers and reputations are at stake.  We have the ability and the knowledge; we just need to make the effort.

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