elks fighting

Spotlight on Herbs: Elk Antler



During my early acupuncture career, I had a patient who came weekly for knee pain. What she really needed was knee replacement surgery, and we both knew it. But her son was doing a semester in Switzerland and if she got the surgery immediately, he would be home before she recovered. Acupuncture pain management was strictly to facilitate her desire for a Swiss adventure.

She was one of my favorite patients- she always showed up for her appointments on time, mostly followed my lifestyle recommendations, and asked good questions. One visit she wanted to know about elk antler. A co-worker had told her all about how great it was for arthritis pain, especially in the knees, and even found a Canadian website selling encapsulated antler, advertised as safe for use by humans and sled dogs alike.

I told her what I knew from a traditional Chinese medicine perspective; yes, it can be quite helpful for arthritis, but when I warned her about contraindications and what to watch out for, I couldn’t have imagined that the biggest problem she would have with deer antler would be clearing customs at JFK airport.

After her return flight from Zurich, one of the sniffer dogs went crazy over her suitcase. When the customs officer searched her bag, he found the bottle of antler. Opening it, a pungent odor hit his nose and her exclaimed, “Ugh! No wonder the dog went nuts. This smells like dog food! What is it?”

She patiently explained that it was encapsulated, ground elk antler, traditionally used for arthritis pain. The smell is because it is basically crude protein, very similar to dog food.

The agent scrunched up his face and said, “I don’t know if I should let you bring this in.”

She looked him straight in the eyes and said, “It also has a traditional use for impotence and erectile dysfunction. You can keep it if you need it.”

Unphased, the agent looked at her and replied, “So that’s what you use it for?” She was surprised when the agent returned the bottle.


Antler Essentials

  • Scientific Name
    ”Cervus nippon”

    Common Name (Western)
    ”Deer Antler, Green Antler, Antler Velvet“

    Chinese Name (Pin Yin)
    Lu Rong, Lu Jiao, Lu Jiao Jiao

    Any cervid. The farther north the better

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  • In the tradition herbal texts, the usual translation for “lu” is “deer.” But medicinally, any member of the cervid family will do. And the further north the animal lived, the more potent. There is no indication that the antlers from deer, elk, reindeer or moose can’t be used interchangeably. There are three forms of antler used in Traditional Chinese Medicine: antler with velvet, shed antler, and gelatine made from shed antler. Each one has a different primary herbal function.

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    Antler with the velvet: Fortify the fundamental essence – this is fancy speak for treat impotence and erectile dysfunction, particularly the kind that sometimes accompanies old age. Antler that is still covered with velvet probably works best for this because of all the male growth hormones it contains, albeit male deer growth hormones.

    The antlers with velvet are removed by a veterinarian using pain medication, and then the area is cauterized. Removing the antlers actually makes the young bucks less aggressive, limits their fighting, and reduces the number of injuries in the herd.


    Shed Antler:

    Strengthen sinews and bones – conditions characterized by old, weak and just plain worn out joints and bones. This is where the idea that antler is good for arthritis comes from. Shed antler works best for this. It’s also used to help speed the recovery of damaged bones and connective tissue. Think unfortunate ski accident.

    The Shed Antler is discarded by the deer after the rut when they no longer need them, this is a natural process with no human intervention.

    Gelatin made from the shed antler:

    Heal chronic, non-healing sores – Gelatin is often used as a binding agent for topical preparations.

    When collection and processing of the shed antler happens, some of the shed antler are ground up and boiled to make gelatin.

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  • Antler is considered strong medicine in the world of traditional Chinese herbs, especially antler with velvet. The key to safe use is to start with small doses and increase gradually as needed. Signs that the dose is too high can include dizziness, tremors and red eyes. Also be on the watch for increased bruising and bleeding. There is a modern caution about combining antler with any diabetes medications intended to lower blood glucose. A modern concern about the use of antler with velvet has resulted from the spread of chronic wasting disease (CWD) in wild cervid herds. While there have been no reported cases of CWD infection in people, some scientific experiments have suggested that transmission can occur in other primates when fed elk and deer meat, or otherwise exposed to blood or brain material. To be safe, sourcing antler with velvet from farmed, captive populations under the supervision of a veterinarian is preferable to wild harvested antler with velvet. CWD is not a concern for shed antler as it no longer contains any blood.

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Use in Herbalogic Back in Action and Back in Action XT

If you guessed that shed elk antler is used in the Herbalogic Back in Action formulas, have a cookie! The traditional formulation that we follow was created to help Shaolin monks recover from training and battle injuries, or more often from floor-scrubbing and fence-painting overwork. Wax on. Wax off. 

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