Why are professional athletes using deer antler spray?

Is 'deer antler spray' the new miracle sports enhancer? (Photo credit: Reuters)
In the never-ending quest for bigger muscles and better performance on the playing field, athletes are turning to stranger and stranger sources for their enhancement drugs, and the latest one has to top the list as the strangest (at least for now) — deer antler spray.

The velvet that grows on deer antlers has a very high concentration of what's known as 'insulin-like growth factor' or IGF-1. According to Christopher Key, a representative from SWATS (Sports With Alternatives To Steroids), which sells deer antler spray, IGF-1 is what your liver turns Human Growth Hormone into, and just like HGH, it stimulates muscle growth. However, although deer antler spray has supposedly been used for almost a thousand years (according to Key), it is already banned by the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) and apparently every major professional sports league as well.

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Still, according to a Sports Illustrated article, football players are seeking out SWATS for its products, including deer antler spray, 'negatively-charged water' and 'performance chips' (the latter two being sold as products that will prevent the numerous cellphone signals in sports stadiums from negatively affecting the athlete's performance). They aren't the only ones, either. Just today, Fijian golfer Vijay Singh withdrew from the Phoenix Open after admitting that he used deer antler spray.

The effectiveness of these products is questionable, though. A video included in the SI article shows the 'performance chips' being tested in an NYU laboratory, with fairly predictable results. 'Negatively-charged water' sounds a bit dubious as well, as does Key's statement of: "We don't have to prove that this is real or not. What we're looking for is for [science] to prove that it is not real."

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Athletes are desperate, though. Having a bad season or being injured can cost them a career, so when products like this promise to give them an edge or get them back on their feet sooner, some take the chance.

They're also taking a chance with their health, though, since it's not even certain that IGF-1 works on humans (or what other effects it might have), and it can't be too healthy for the deer they get the substance from either. Although deer do shed their antlers each year, the velvet hardens after just two months, so waiting until they shed them would yield nothing. The antlers are 'harvested' (read: 'sawed off') between 45 and 60 days after they begin growing, to get the maximum amount of velvet. Although the animal is kept alive (after all, it doesn't make sense to kill them if you can get more velvet from them next year), the procedure does remain controversial.

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