Is taking deer antler velvet IGF safe?

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I am currently taking IGF (Insulin-like Growth Factor) derived from deer antler velvet as a nutritional supplement. Will the usage of IGF in a healthy person cause hyperthyroid problems or any other health issues?

This is an interesting question – actually two interesting questions: can taking deer antler velvet hurt you, and can taking IGF hurt you?

First, the following disclaimer: Products that are sold as supplements (as opposed to medications) are not regulated by the Food and Drug Administration so they are not tested for safety, efficacy or standardization.  In other words, when you buy a supplement, there is no guarantee that what is in the bottle has been tested to see if it even contains the ingredient in question, let alone whether the ingredient actually does what it claims to.  (That’s not a value judgment, just the facts.)

With the fine print out of the way, here’s what I can tell you:

Deer antler velvet is used for its purported ability to raise testosterone levels to treat decreased libido (low sex drive), infertility, and erectile dysfunction in men.  It is used in combination with other herbs to treat sexual dysfunction and hormonal dysfunction in men and women.  It is used to treat conditions resulting from deficient kidneys.  Some people use it because of its reputed benefit as an aphrodisiac and muscle strength enhancer.  It is also sometimes prescribed to help alleviate withdrawal symptoms in the treatment of morphine addiction.  

All of the studies I found in the medical literature that looked at the use of deer antler velvet were done on rats – NOT humans – so it is impossible to rule out any adverse effects for sure.  I couldn’t find much information about whether or not it causes thyroid problems.

Unfortunately, the potential problems with IGF would seem to negate any of these theoretical benefits.  It has been shown that improper use of hormones such as dehydroepiandrosterone (DHEA), androstenedione, and human growth hormone may increase the risk for development of prostate cancer or promote the growth of existing prostate cancer by raising IGF-1 levels.  Therefore, men who are taking supplements with IGF in it (or those that raise IGF levels) could theoretically be putting themselves at an increased risk for prostate cancer.  Again, it hasn’t been rigorously studied so it’s impossible to know for sure, but if you have any risk factors for prostate cancer, it’s probably best to avoid taking this supplement.  

Side effects of IGF supplementation most commonly occurred in elderly patients and involved kidney problems, which would again nullify some of the purported benefits of deer antler velvet supplementation.

So the best answer I can give you is… I have no idea.  No one really does.  But if you ever have questions about any medications that you are taking, feel free to come in and talk to our pharmacy staff.  And of course, if you have any specific health concerns, you can always make an appointment to see one of our health care providers. 

Jason Goodman PharmD, RPh
Student Health Services
The Ohio State University

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