Last week’s baseball broo-ha-ha was all about gambling. This week, it’s Bambi. Wait, what? You heard me. Major League Baseball recently issued a warning to ballplayers who may be using Deer Antler Spray as an alternative to steroids for its muscle-building benefits. The cause for concern? Like all supplements that are unregulated by the FDA, it is possible that certain sources may be contaminated.
What we are wondering is: Since the substance, which contains hormone IGF-1, is banned in MLB, why tiptoe around the issue? Advise athletes not to take it! instead of saying: “It’s kinda sorta dangerous, and yeah, you’ll get suspended if you’re caught.” -Source: not an actual quote.
Never before heard of this craze, or of these chemicals? Read on to find out more about how and why they work, as well as the associated risks and benefits. You will be leading the geeky bar discussions in no time, and no college chemistry or biology prerequisites necessary.
What is it? Where does it come from?
Insulin-like growth factor 1 (IGF-1) is a hormone that is naturally produced by the liver in greatest quantities during puberty. The hormone has a similar molecular structure to insulin, and because of this, IGF-1 can also bind to insulin receptor sites (more on that later). IGF-1 is extracted and isolated from chemicals found in immature deer antlers, which are covered in a soft fuzz. Thus, the supplement is often called “Deer Antler Velvet.”
What does it do?
When growth hormone (GH) is released by the pituitary gland into the bloodstream, GH triggers the liver to produce IGF-1. IGF-1 acts as the chemical mediator, or middle-man, for the effects associated with GH, such as stimulating growth in all tissue types in the body, including skeletal muscle, bone, skin, etc. Taking an IGF-1 supplement, such as Deer Antler Spray, facilitates this action without the need of GH, which decreases in production and availability in the body as a person ages.
How is it used? What are the benefits?
Legally, IGF-1 is available by a prescription in the United States. The drug name is Increlex, and it is marketed by the pharmaceutical company Tercica. Increlex is an injection for growth hormone therapy used for children with severe deficiencies of IGF-1.
IGF-1 is also available in unregulated supplements that can be purchased over-the-counter and online. The oral capsule/ sublingual (under-the-tongue) spray supplements have become popular for body-building due to its attributed anabolic effects (increasing muscle mass).
Is it illegal? Is it banned?
IGF-1 supplements are available as over-the-counter drugs for purchase in the United States. However, that does not necessarily mean professional athletes are free to use the hormone, should they choose to; it is banned by both MLB and the Olympic World Anti-Doping Agency. Although the presence of the hormone is undetectable in urine testing, MLB cautioned players that using contaminated IGF-1 can result in positive tests for the steroid methyltestosterone (another banned substance that increases testosterone production).
What are the risks?
As mentioned, IGF-1 is termed “insulin-like” because it has a similar structure to the hormone insulin, which enables it to bind to insulin receptor sites. What does this mean? IGF-1 can mimic the effects of insulin, such as hypoglycemia (low blood sugar), and in extreme cases, IGF-1 can cause diabetic coma.
Other risks, which may be fatal, include: tachycardia (heart palpitations), nerve pain, or paralysis. Of course, there are always additional risks when abusing a drug- that is, using the drug for a purpose other than its medically intended use. Namely, there is not enough conclusive data on the use of IGF-1 as a muscle-building supplement for athletes to fully understand all the risks and benefits. Similarly, athletes who abuse substances tend to get information from teammates in the clubhouse instead of scientists or medical professionals, so they may be misinformed about the drugs. Also, as evidenced recently, unregulated substances can be contaminated with other chemicals. Furthermore, there are the risks associated with the route of administration, such as sharing needles for injections, which can put abusers at risk for diseases like HIV and hepatitis.
Are the benefits of doping worth the risks? Do you see performance enhancement as a question of “cheating?” Or, like Jose Canseco, do you think athletes should be able to have freedom to make informed choices about what they do to their bodies? That opinion is yours to form. Now that you are an expert on pharmacodynamics (oops, forgot to teach you that word), go forth and share your newfound enthusiasm for science with the world! Or, at least, with a sports bar near you.
SOURCES: University of New South Wales, Tercica, USA Today, Sports Illustrated, Juiced by Jose Canseco, & Wikipedia.
To my college professor, Dr. Benedetta Sampoli Benitez, who taught it all to me first.