The zen-chic Tea Garden, a West Hollywood herbal emporium with a sister store in Santa Monica, Calif., might have been created by a meditative Martha Stewart. It is an oasis of warm light, open spaces and wood tones. Herbs, of course, are king there, their boxes and dark bottles arranged in an almost sanctified order, giving the store off Beverly Boulevard the air of a mystical and elegant apothecary.
It was in the Tea Garden that I discovered deer antler velvet. Coveted, revered and used in Asia for more than 2,000 years, it remains the second most important ingredient in Asian medicine after ginseng. Its active ingredient, pantocrine, can be "of considerable help both to those who are potent but sexually exhausted, and to those who are impotent and wish they could be sexually exhausted," according to pharmacologist Stephen Fulder.
I'm exhausted, but it's not from too much sex. The approach of 40, hardcore parenthood, multiple workloads, urban living and long-term serial monogamy have done little to improve my overall energy level, let alone make me feel particularly sexual (or remotely sexually exhausted). In this no-zone of post-boomer weariness I am not alone. Deer velvet interests me and a growing number of strained, health-conscious, alternative-minded consumers. But its reputation as an aphrodisiac, which wrongly puts it in the same queerly zoological and folkloric pen as rhino horn, only touches on its vast therapeutic value.
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A 2,000-year-old scroll discovered in a tomb in Hunan Province, China, listed over 50 different diseases that could be treated with deer velvet. The 16th century "Materia Medica," which was and remains the standard text of Chinese herbalists, lists deer velvet as one of the most highly prized natural medicinal substances. It's used today by Asian, Russian and a growing body of Western medical practitioners to treat degenerative diseases, strengthen muscles and bones, promote strength and stamina, stimulate the immune system, ward off common colds and flus, increase the production and circulation of blood and promote cell growth and the healing of ulcers and wounds.
According to Thomas Brown of Gold Mountain Trading Company, velvet is known to "increase the natural flow of chi (vital energy) through the kidney, thus helping to regulate the function of the adrenal cortex and restore a person's natural vitality." It has also long been used to restore sexual vitality and balance.
All this could be thrown into the reservoir of folklore and hyperbole were it not for the accumulating body of clinical evidence from ongoing scientific research. One of the first people to apply traditional research techniques to the analysis of deer velvet was Dr. Brekhman, a Russian research pharmacologist and physiologist. Brekhman, who coined the term "adaptogen," originated a new science of ecological pharmacology by investigating the complex formulas found in the ancient Chinese pharmacopoeia. In the 1960s he was the first clinical researcher to substantiate Chinese claims associated with ginseng, and in so doing introduced the twisted, anthropoid root to the Western world. His work was used in programs for Russian cosmonauts to combat difficulties associated with space flight and later by the Russian Olympic team. It included preliminary studies into the efficacy of deer velvet.
In New Zealand, where Asian doctors, traders and deer farmers have been historically united in an unusual marriage of interests, breakthroughs in research have taken off.
These breakthroughs are being spearheaded by Dr. Jimmie Suttie, a noted expert in antler physiology. He says: "We believe that the
healing function of deer velvet could be important for future human
benefits. Given that deer antler velvet is the only mammalian organ that
regenerates, this healing function may not be surprising."
Male deer grow and shed their antlers every year. This tremendous feat, which has no equal in the animal kingdom, is equivalent to humans growing, say, a mini exoskeleton through the tops of our heads every year. In full maturity, a stag's antlers can double its height, rising above the animal in great crenelations and calcified branches like the complex rigging of a mainsail. Used to fight for dominance and secure a female harem, antlers are so lethal that once entangled in battle, stags are sometimes unable to disengage and die of starvation trapped in the bony crowns of their enemy.
The swift growth rate of antlers -- sometimes over an inch per day -- has had intense scientific scrutiny. Growing antlers consist of warm, spongy cartilage covered in soft fur -- hence the word "velvet." The copious blood flow into this velvet, which is specific to the development of deer antlers and is present during the final forceful burst of calcification, is rich in nutrients, amino acids, protein collagen and a panoply of essential minerals including calcium, magnesium, zinc and iron. It also contains small amounts of male and female hormones, natural steroids and a recently discovered "Insulin-like Growth Factor-1" or IGF-1. It is this velvet, at its peak nutritional and medicinal value, that is harvested for use by health practitioners.
A note on animal welfare during the harvest: People in the deer-velvet industry emphasize that antler removal does not harm deer and is common practice due to the danger antlers present. It is done in accordance with a code of practice supported by New Zealand's Animal Welfare Advisory Committee and performed in consultation with veterinarians, animal behavior specialists and other animal welfare organizations. Shortly after antler removal, deer are released to their herds and display natural behavior in their prairies. The antlers grow back the following year. Monica Emerich of the New Zealand Game Industry describes their New Zealand habitat as expansive prairies where deer graze on rye grass, clover and herbs. "New Zealand," she adds, "set up the world's first free-range deer farms in 1970 with no artificial feed additives, hormones or growth promoters used."
Dr. Suttie has been heading the deer-velvet research team in New Zealand for more than 10 years. It was Suttie who discovered IGF-1 and whose studies have confirmed the growth-promoting, anti-inflammatory and immuno-potentiating properties of velvet. Suttie's collaborators in Korea have also substantiated claims that velvet boosts stamina, reduces the negative effects of stress and may operate to enhance the activity of anti-cancer drugs (AIDs and velvet are also being studied). The Chinese have developed treatments for fracture repair, hepatitis and peptic-ulcer treatment with velvet, and will soon focus their attention on osteoporosis. In his understated manner, Suttie says, "I explain to people that velvet has three functions: normalizing body functions, maintaining normal functions, and at higher doses, boosting performance. Our work concerns the safety, efficacy and active ingredients in deer velvet as it impacts on human health and well-being. Velvet has outstanding market potential in these areas."
Given velvet's vast curative potential, Suttie is dismayed by any reference to its aphrodisiac properties, but additional research in Russia has revealed low levels of sex hormones in deer velvet, including testosterone and a Lutinizing hormone (LH) that help regulate the activity and vitality of the sex organs. Implications are not gender-specific; findings suggest that velvet might be a safer, less invasive, nontoxic alternative to hormonal replacement therapy (HRT). In Russia pantocrine is officially recommended for problems associated with menopause and menstruation. According to Alison Davidson, whose informative book "Velvet Antler: Nature's Superior Tonic" is perhaps the most comprehensive overview on the subject, "Women taking velvet have reported diminished symptoms of pre-menstrual syndrome, even to the point where periods pass by almost unnoticed. They have also reported increased sexual interest and a sense of being in touch with deeper reserves of vital energy."
It is these "deeper reserves of vital energy" as they relate to increased sexual energy that have reinforced the aphrodisiac reputation of deer velvet, and clearly fueled growing interest in the West. Gold Mountain's Brown qualifies the common usage of the word "aphrodisiac" as a sexual stimulant as somewhat incorrect. "'Aphrodisiac' means an agent that builds up the vital energy," he says. "In herbology, 'aphrodisiac' can imply a libido increase, but it really is more properly defined as an agent that promotes the sexual function of men and women, including the reproductive function. There is nothing wrong with this, as it is the basis of life, and natural medicines have been treating sexual dysfunction for millennia. 'Aphrodisiac' is not a bad word; it is a technical term."
When pressed on the aphrodisiac issue, Suttie replied, "Whether the aphrodisiac effect is folklore, as a scientist, I cannot say as I have not measured it and know of no studies which have," which leads one to wonder if research has yet to turn its clinical eye in this direction, and if it's only a matter of time before it does. Be that as it may, it is impossible to ignore deer velvet's 2,000-year-old legacy as a sexual tonic, and the millions who use, or have used it, for this purpose. Davidson's book cites Dr. Shi Zhi Chou, a specialist in men's sexual problems, whose book "The Most Effective Prescriptions for Impotence" includes approximately 300 formulas; antler velvet is listed in almost every one of them. Chinese medical history abounds with cases where sexual imbalance was successfully treated with deer velvet. In Russia, velvet has now replaced ginseng as a common treatment for sex problems.
Says Brown, whose Velvagra product is marketed as a male tonic, "Velvet not only increases sexual desire and capacity, but reduces tension, anxiety and stress, all of which affect sexual performance. It lowers cholesterol levels and normalizes blood pressure, physical causes which can lead to erectile dysfunction."
The connection between anxiety, stress and erectile dysfunction is echoed by many others, including Dr. Rougier, a French doctor and scientific consultant who developed an herbal product for male sexuality called Tigra. Acording to an international study conducted by Rougier and his associates, approximately eight out of 10 men occasionally experience loss of desire or sexual "failure." Of this 80 percent, 60 to 75 percent are not linked to illness, but rather to a general state of diminished health and well-being. His study also showed that most men are embarrassed to talk about sexual problems -- a fact that often exacerbates the problem.
Tigra, which does not include deer velvet but features a number of herbs traditionally associated with libido increase, has 1.5 million users in Europe and was recently launched in America at K-Mart retail stores. When I spoke with Rougier's press contact in New York to find out why Tigra was being distributed in K-Marts and not in health food stores, I was offered this qualified personal opinion: "Most guys don't go to health food stores. But they do go to K-Mart, where they can buy this type of product along with other things without asking for, or talking about, well, you know ..." In other words, most men would rather buy a sexual vitality product that is nonchalantly thrown in a shopping basket with the Budweiser, the lawn furniture and the electronics equipment. They might not have clinical erectile dysfunction, but they sure wouldn't mind a boost. Viagra has opened the doors to this vast playing field. "Ah yes," says Rougier, "Viagra has been very, very good for us."
The market is crowded with other sex tonics, including smart drinks and health cocktails with herbal ingredients that have a somewhat folksy past. (An anecdote in this regard: Epimedium, a common herb used as a sexual stimulant, was allegedly first discovered by a Chinese goat herder who noticed that his male goats immediately sought out female mates after eating leaves from a particular bush. The goat herder tried the leaves himself and basically ended up doing the same thing, presumably not with female goats. The literal translation of the word "epimedium" is "horny goat weed." )
Health Freedom Resources in Florida markets two gender-specific herbal sex tonics packaged in the kitschy exploding volcano motif that has become, along with rainbows and dramatic chakras, the New Age hallmark of direct-marketed health supplements. Their male tonic is described as a "high octane fuel" (Rougier uses an elaborate three-part metaphor involving motors, ignitions and superchargers to describe his product); its developer, Dr. Schulze, elaborates: "Over the years I have had many men in my clinic who were scheduled for prostate surgery and were thrilled when they could call their doctor and tell them to shove the drill up another person's penis."
There is more than erectile dysfunction or prostate surgery in question here. As people seek natural ways to enhance physical training and endurance, sexual and athletic performance have become perfect bedfellows. "Growth hormone products are trendy right now," says Brown. "It appears that the growth hormone complex in velvet is superior to the recombinant [genetically engineered] single GH products on the market, which have side effects ... Velvet is a natural dietary supplement, unlike andro [the steroid androstenedione]. It is said that too much andro will shrink the testicles as the body ceases to supply natural testosterone. There is absolutely no danger of this with velvet, even in large doses."
Doctor Maoshing Ni, a 38th-generation doctor of Chinese medicine and the founder of the Tao of Wellness Center and the Yo San University of Traditional Chinese Medicine in Santa Monica, has seen an "explosion of interest and demand" for natural performance enhancement products with deer antler velvet and herbs. "The same medical doctors who rejected this five years ago are now embracing it," he says. "In fact, our patient population increase consists mostly of MDs." According to Ni and other sources, herbs and deer velvet combinations have long been used by the Chinese and Russian Olympic teams. "They give them an edge without creating a steroid imbalance," says Ni. America is now on their heels with a plethora of herbal sports enhancements products. (Even the Tea Garden sells a "Sports Herbal System" that promises "extra boost," "maximum potency," "deep replenishment" and "peak vitality + peak adaptability.")
These are not to be confused with vitamin and mineral supplements. "Big difference," explains Dr. Ni. "Like the difference between Mother Nature and man-made. Herbs are really like vegetables, except they are much more intense in properties and nutritive values, whereas vitamins are isolates, molecules compounded together into a pill. The human body is biologically programmed to assimilate best with 'whole' food as opposed to 'isolates.'"
Ni attributes the explosive interest in natural performance enhancements to a number of things: deep-seated grass-roots discontent with the current traditional medical establishment; an aging boomer population open to alternative healing; and scary side effects associated with Viagra. There is also the steady East-meets-West current sweeping ancient Asian practices across the Pacific Rim to California, where they take root and flourish before taking flight, like so many spores, to other distant lands. One of the more prominent examples of this is the fleet of medical graduates who've studied Asian medicine at traditional universities, and the graduates from universities of Chinese medicine that have cropped up all over America in the last five years. Now working in the field, these health practitioners are more likely to view the body systemically rather than symptomatically. (Chinese medicine views the body as a system that is treated as a whole, rather than as an ensemble of component parts whose symptoms are treated separately. Historically, Chinese doctors were only paid when their patients were well.)
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My own experience with deer antler velvet was promising but inconclusive. I brought some deer velvet elixir back to France after a three-month absence from my husband. It is hard to know if it was the deer velvet, or the absence, that made both our hearts grow fonder. I was aware, however, of a steady swell of increased energy that would have been squelched by jet lag under normal circumstances. My husband, on the other hand, walked around every morning looking down at his erection and asking, "Is this deer velvet, or am I just happy to see you?" For its many reputed happy benefits we are anxiously awaiting our next bottle of deer velvet.
My other friends, all of them similar tail-end boomers with kids, heavy workloads and long-term spousal units, had more conclusive results. One of them is a serious skeptic of "alternative" products who has become a deer-velvet devotee. "I feel juicier!" she exclaimed as she swerved through traffic on our way to the Tea Garden. "I feel an overall sensual charge everywhere, down to the tips of my armhair!"
Another girlfriend described her feelings differently. "I have felt more sexual and I really notice it," she said. "Not in a 'Get the fire hoses out!' kind of way, but in a subtle, 'Oh! Hmmm, uh huh ...' kind of way."
We humans have brought entire species to the brink of extinction in our quest for products that give us that "Oh! Hmmm, uh huh ..." kind of feeling. The natural and animal kingdom, in all its abundant and flamboyant manifestations, has always provided raw material for us. (Lest we forget, the sexy, sultry smell of musk comes from the musk pod, a preputial gland found in a pouch in the abdomen of a male musk deer.) As modern science continues its trek through the wilderness of ancient medicine, deer velvet may one day end up a common household item. "Before long it will probably be as thoroughly studied and written about as ginseng, echinacea and St. John's Wort," says Davidson. "Science is catching up, albeit painstakingly, with Chinese medicine, which does not need to isolate properties in order to know its precise effect on the body. I guess a 5,000-year-old discipline has had plenty of time to understand these things intimately."
Unlike the traditional Chinese, traditional Western doctors are more likely to associate deer antler velvet with a stag's head perched in taxidermic rigor mortis on the wall of a hunting lodge than to any potentially beneficial medical application. My local generalist, who'd never heard of the substance, looked at me with a slight smirk when I spoke of it. "Deer antler velvet will only be accepted by the medical community after it's gone through years of rigorous testing," he said, "including double-blind tests like all other traditional pharmaceutical products on the market."
But as our conversation progressed, he began to wax poetic about the prolific generosity of Mother Nature. "Well over half the pharmaceutical products we use came from nature before being synthetically reproduced -- from plants, fruits, animals. Medical researchers, particularly those involved in cancer research, continue to look everywhere for natural sources with curative properties: in Amazonian forests, in Pacific coral reefs. Some of these substances are bizarre. A highly effective antibiotic was recently created using properties found on toad skin. And penicillin, after all, was first discovered on bread mold. So deer antler velvet -- well, who knows?"