The repeated reports of the last few years that Russian President Vladimir Putin bathes in blood extracted from deer antlers always inspires lots of gawking from the media, especially the tabloids. As the story goes, Putin acquired his penchant for immersing himself in the blood of the mutilated antlers from at least five living mural deer — literal bloodlust — due to its purported health benefits.
Again, this is the stuff of clickbait-y headlines across the globe. The New York Post headline the other day: “Inside Putin’s Cancer Checkups and Deer Antler Blood Baths.” And a similar headline from the Daily Mail in 2017: “Vladimir Putin ‘Bathes in Blood Extracted from Severed Deer Antlers’ Believed to Boost Health, According to Extraordinary Claim in Russian Media.”
What these stories typically ignore is that beliefs regarding the miraculous health benefits from consuming deer antlers through various means have existed for centuries in Asia and Europe, and spread to the U.S. as early as the 1800s. In February 1875, for example, the San Francisco Chronicle told the tale of Ah Moy, a Chinese American who was convicted of burglary for stealing deer antlers directly from a Chinese doctor’s shop. “The horns were valuable on account of the fact that they were to be used as medicine, being a panacea for all evils,” reported the Chronicle.
A few decades later, in April 1925, the front page of the Pittsburgh Press filled readers in on the contents of Upton Close’s new book In the Land of the Laughing Buddha: “As medicine, the Chinese use antlers ground up into pills. Antlers that the deer shed are not valuable, for they are worn. To make really good pills for medicine, you must have young antlers with the ‘velvet’ still on them. These are ground to powder, made into nice little pills, and the Chinese swallow them, believing that they will cure whatever the doctor says they will cure.”
The Deer Antler Economy Comes of Age
By the time the 1950s rolled around, other countries were satisfying demands within China for medicinal deer antlers. A 1956 report from New Zealand described how its deer hunters were earning huge profits by sending deer carcasses to Hong Kong, which were then smuggled into the Communist-controlled areas of mainland China. It was estimated at the time that 40 percent of Kiwi hunters were sending their share of the organs remaining from the 50,000 deer killed in their country each year to China.
Meanwhile, in April 1951, Frances Burns reported for the Boston Globe about how Dr. Joseph Aub and his team from Harvard had been specifically studying the mercurial growth of deer antlers in the hope that their findings would guide them in their efforts to control the rapid cell division and growth rates of cancerous tumors.
In the 1970s, the market truly began opening up for the exporting of Chinese medicines around the world, and deer antler supplements were among the remedies that were in the greatest demand at whatever ports the medicines reached, though American authorities weren’t prepared to verify their supposed healing powers. “The FDA couldn’t care less if Americans ingest ground antlers, not to mention dried seahorses, rhinoceros horns and lizard parts (all typical ingredients in Chinese patent medicines) so long as these products aren’t actually harmful, but [it] does care about the claims made for these ingredients,” the Dow Jones-Ottaway News explained. “Because many of the Chinese ‘remedies’ imported into this country do make a variety of cure-all claims, the FDA has confiscated several tons of the mixtures.”
One of the places where the mixtures weren’t being confiscated, however, was in the USSR. In December 1977, the Associated Press profiled Jung T. Wang, the owner of U-Jin Enterprises Inc. In that same calendar year, U-Jin had processed 12,000 pounds of Alaskan reindeer antlers, along with 20,000 pounds of elk and red deer antlers from New Zealand. From there, the antlers were cured in walk-in ovens, and shipped to the Soviet Union in pill form, where they were sold as a heart stimulant, a promoter of digestion, a muscle relaxant and a constipation remedy.
Deer Antlers Legitimized
To some extent, much of the novelty surrounding deer antlers and their alleged medicinal properties subsided until the 1990s. That’s when medical research — much of it performed by Russian scientists — began to support several of the claims that had been made about ground deer antlers for centuries.
In an article that appeared in the Coshocton Tribune from December 1997, Rosa Davis summarized the research conducted on deer antlers’ purported benefits during that most recent decade. “Two Russian scientists, Dr. Yudin and Dr. Dobrakov, have done much of the research into the properties of velvet extracts,” she wrote. “They discovered that pantrocrin [ground-up deer antlers sold in pill form] improved the performance of average athletes. Another Russian scientist, Dr. Taneyeva, said the mental capacity of young men improved following pantocrin administration prior to a mathematical test.”
Subsequent research by Russians seemingly identified pantocrin as a source of relief from arthritic pain, and a developer of muscles. Not to mention, a similar supplement generated from elk antlers seemingly boosted bone and muscle growth in puppies.
As such, it was only a matter of time before athletes throughout the world began their own experimentation with deer antlers. The most headline-grabbing of these incidents occurred in 2013, when NFL star Ray Lewis was alleged to have looked into acquiring a deer antler extract spray. By then, deer antler extract was demonstrated to contain insulin-like growth factor-1 (IGF-1), which was on the NFL’s list of banned supplements. The belief was that Lewis was attempting to tap into the IGF-1 contained within the deer antler extract in order to help repair a tricep tear (an accusation he denied). The same reporting indicated that NFL fullback Heath Evans also had concrete ties to the deer antler supplement (an accusation he openly admitted to).
By this time, there was enough data in support of deer antler extract and IGF-1 providing advantages in physical performance that the World Anti-Doping Agency banned it outright. At the same time, though, it was speculated that IGF-1 may directly contribute to the growth and development of various cancers. It does make sense that a hormone that prompts improbable cellular growth wouldn’t limit itself to only non-cancerous cells.
So, ironically, even if the deer antler blood that Putin bathes in proves to be effective at relieving his pain or remediating his other ailments, it could also be exacerbating the very cancers Putin may be attempting to treat through its use.