(NEW YORK) — In the competitive and bruising world of pro football, it seems nothing is too far-fetched for battered players in search of a fast cure, or an edge, even one made from the antlers of New Zealand deer.
Deer antler spray is technically categorized as a natural supplement. The little-known spray was pushed into the spotlight this week by a Sports Illustrated article, which reported that retiring Baltimore Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis used the substance after tearing his triceps earlier this season. Lewis has categorically denied using the spray.
But in a world where hormones and steroids often play a role in professional sports, the question remains if deer antler spray will join the ever-growing list of banned substances.
The main controversy stems from the fact that the spray contains IGF-1, or insulin growth factor, a substance banned in the NFL. Since the spray is classified as a supplement, the FDA does not regulate it, and it remains unclear how much IGF-1 is contained in the spray.
Although IGF-1 is a natural occurring substance in the body, it can still be harnessed to promote growth. According to Alex Diamond, assistant professor of orthopedic surgery and rehabilitation at Vanderbilt University Medical Center, IGF-1 acts similar to human growth hormone (HGH).
“It definitely has the potential to increase healing and recovery, just like HGH,” said Diamond. “Whether the deer antler concentration has the amount necessary to actually make a change, I have no idea.”
There have been few studies on the substance’s effect on people and athletes in particular. In 2003 the International Journal of Sport Nutrition and Exercise Metabolism published a study that followed 38 male subjects through a three-week period of strength training. Nearly two-thirds of the subjects took the deer antler supplement either in powder or extract form. While there was a slight increase in knee strength and endurance for those who took the powder form, the study did not find that, overall, there were significant benefits to taking the supplement and that further research was needed.
Mitch Ross, the subject of the Sports Illustrated article and co-owner of S.W.A.T., or Sports With Alternatives to Substances, where Lewis allegedly bought the spray, believes his product helps players naturally and should not be banned.
“If I were to [add] on my website, 20-ounce grass-fed beefsteaks, it would say [the steaks have] IGF-1,” Ross told ABC News. “There’s no difference between IGF spray and beefsteak.”
One serious concern is that IGF-1 can be harmful to those taking it recreationally, even though it can be difficult to detect on drug tests.
“The end product is the same as HGH and so are the side effects. It has the potential to cause cardiomyopathy and liver disease,” Diamond explained. “Because it’s a naturally-occurring substance, it’s hard to detect. There are some new tests that are more sensitive, but they really need to be done within 72 hours of an athlete taking the substance. I’m not sure how the NFL does their testing. Depending on how much he took and when he was tested, there’s no guarantee he would test positive. The tests aren’t perfect.”
Copyright 2013 ABC News Radio