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IGF-1: Why MLB Players Should Be Worried

Split screen showing deer antler before and after it sheds it's velvet.

I know what you’re thinking. What is IGF-1?

Insulin-like growth factor (IGF-1) is a hormone that all humans produce.  It is made when the pituitary gland produces growth hormone (GH). The GH is then delivered to the liver where it is transformed into IGF-1.

IGF-1 also naturally occurs in products we ingest almost daily, like milk, meat, and whey protein.  The hormone can also be found in deer antler spray, a supplement that derives from deer antler velvet which is also naturally rich in IGF-1.

From the moment we are born, IGF-1 is essential to our health and growth. In fact, after a baby is born, the mother will secrete colostrum, which is rich in IGF-1. As we age, and given the way food is now produced, our IGF-1 levels decrease. Therefore, many believe it is beneficial for humans to ingest IGF-1, be it in the form of a deer antler spray or otherwise.

There are many benefits to IGF-1. The hormone can extend your lifespan, it improves learning and memory, it even protects against heart disease, and more.

Why, then, does deer antler spray get a bad rap?

Deer antler spray was thrust into the spotlight back in 2013 when SI published a report outing Ray Lewis and Vijay Singh as customers of Mitch Ross. Ross was the owner of S.W.A.T.S., the now defunct company that manufactured a deer antler spray called “The Ultimate Spray.”

The media went haywire with the story, treating “The Ultimate Spray” as a performance enhancer akin to anabolic steroids. This negative attention led Ray Lewis to deny using the deer antler spray when speaking to reporters prior to Super Bowl XLVII (below).

Soon after, “The Ultimate Spray” reappeared when Vijay Singh was suspended by the PGA Tour. Apparently, the PGA Tour imposed its sanctions on Singh without first consulting with the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA), as reported by the NYT. It seems, at the time the PGA Tour thought deer antler spray was considered a banned substance by WADA because it contained IGF-1 .

Vijay Singh appealed the suspension and won!

In response, on May 8, 2013, Vijay Singh sued the PGA Tour for the way they handled his near suspension.  He has a strong case considering that the PGA Tour only consulted with WADA after the punishment was levied.

Five years later, the case has yet to go to trial and has not been settled.

Expert disclosure demystifies deer antler spray.

Vijay Singh sued the PGA Tour.
(Charles Rex Arbogast / Associated Press)

After conducting more research on Singh’s case, WTTS obtained a copy of an Expert Disclosure in which “The Ultimate Spray” was thoroughly analyzedDr. Korenman, a well-respected endocrinologist at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), was the author of the disclosure.

To make his determinations, Dr. Korenman used the following materials:

(1)The UCLA Olympic Analytical Laboratory Report on the S.W.A.T.S. Ultimate Spray; (2) the Sports Medicine Research and Testing Laboratory (“SMRTL”) Report on the S.W.A.T.S. Ultimate Spray; (3) the deposition testimony of Dr. Olivier Rabin and Dr. Thomas Hospel; (4) the PGA Tour Anti-Doping Manual; (5) the WADA Anti-Doping Code Prohibited List; (6) the results of Dr. Michele Hutchison’ s testing of the S.W.A.T.S. Ultimate Spray; and (vii) a bottle of the S.W.A.T.S. Ultimate Spray.

A couple of things stand out in Dr. Korenman’s disclosure:

  • There are greater amounts of IGF-1 in “meat, milk, and other foods” than in “The Ultimate Spray.”
  • The IGF-1 found in deer antler velvet is “consistent with what one would expect to find in food products.”

WTTS reached out to Dr. Korenman for further comment. Unfortunately, Dr. Korenman will not provide a comment until after a trial is completed.

Deposition clarifies WADA’s position.

As previously stated, to form his opinions, Dr. Korenman relied on several items. One of those items being a transcript of a videotaped deposition of WADA’s science director, Dr. Oliver Rabin, which WTTS obtained a copy of.

In Dr. Rabin’s deposition a couple of things stand out:

  1. When asked if WADA took the position prior to August 8, 2013 that the use of deer antler spray was not prohibited, Dr. Rabin responds, “We did.”
  2. Then, when asked when the first time was that WADA took this position, Dr. Rabin referred to a “statement publicly released by WADA at the very beginning of February 2013.”

In the statement, which can be found here, WADA states that “Deer Antler Velvet Spray may contain IGF-1,” then WADA urges “athletes be extremely vigilant… because it could lead to a positive test.”

So, we can deduce two things from Dr. Kroenman’s disclosure and Dr. Rabin’s deposition. One, the IGF-1 found in “The Ultimate Spray” is natural occurring and not synthetic. Two, WADA does not consider deer antler spray to be a banned supplement. However, IGF-1 (natural and synthetic) remains on the prohibited list because it can trigger a positive drug test.

This just doesn’t make sense.

So, we reached out to Mitch Ross, the owner of the company that manufactured “The Ultimate Spray,” to better understand this.

Ross was just as confused as I was.

“It’s impossible to ban IGF-1,” Ross said, “the only way you can ban it is if you cut the pituitary gland out of people’s heads, because the pituitary gland produces growth hormone which the liver then converts to IGF-1.”

When told that MLB does in fact ban all forms of IGF-1, Ross laughed. He then said, “you can’t eat steak, you can’t eat liver, you can’t drink whole milk.” He continued, “you can’t go to sleep at night, because the first two hours of sleep is when growth hormone is produced”.

Mr. Ross was asked if MLBPA’s claim (below) that “The Ultimate Spray” contained Methyltestosterone was true.

MLBPA Stop Using Deer Antler Spray

“That’s impossible,” Ross said. He then chalked it up to athletes spiking clean supplements with steroids to get away with a failing drug test.

We’ve seen cases like this before. The main one being the Melky Cabrera case, which was reported by the Daily News. Here’s an excerpt that says it all.

In a bizarre attempt to avoid a 50-game drug suspension, San Francisco Giants star Melky Cabrera created a fictitious website and a nonexistent product designed to prove he inadvertently took the banned substance that caused a positive test under Major League Baseball’s drug program.

Mitch Ross is right.

There’s no way “The Ultimate Spray” or any other untainted deer antler spray would test positive for methyltestosterone. In fact, WTTS previously released a report conducted by an independent laboratory company called Aegis Sciences Corporation (Aegis). The reports show that Ross’s deer antler spray, which was distributed by Nutronics Labs, is free of any steroid contaminants.

Prior to MLBPA releasing that letter, according to a complaint obtained by WTTS, former MLB player Carlos Peña was cleared to use “The Ultimate Spray” by the MLBPA.

When asked, Ross couldn’t provide proof of MLBPA’s approval of “The Ultimate Spray.” However, this is what he say: “Carlos had the conversations with them and revealed it to me through text message.”

Unfortunately, Ross no longer had copies of the exchange with Peña. Ross added, “Carlos sent it they tested it, and it was fine. They said he can use it.”

WTTS reached out to Carlos Peña for further comment. He has not yet responded

WTTS also reached out to MLBPA for comment. We asked them to clarify whether ALL forms of IGF-1 – natural and synthetic – are banned. They too did not respond.

So, where does that leave us?

Since MLBPA did not respond to our request for comment, WTTS decided instead to contact WADA.

We contacted WADA because according to MLB’s Drug Policy (pg. 6), MLB uses a WADA approved lab known as Laboratoire de Controle du Dopage in Montreal, Quebec, Canada.

Bud Selig confirms this in his comments to the House Oversight Committee in 2005:

 We asked:

  1. Are all forms of IGF-1 (natural and synthetic) banned?
  2. Are athletes not allowed to consume ANY products that contain IGF-1?
  3. Is deer antler spray banned by WADA?
  4. Is whey protein banned by WADA?

WADA’s response:

IGF-1 can be found in many natural products including food products. Generally, these are not problematic but we can’t definitively say which products are safe as we do not know the levels they contain or, more importantly, whether these products may be boosted.

We like the players remain in the dark.


Mitch Ross made a good point when we spoke in regards to this piece. He said, “You can’t ban testosterone either… you’d have to cut off a man’s testicles.”

Sounds funny, but once again Ross is right.

It is precisely why MLB lists specifically all the synthetic versions of testosterone players are not allowed to take.

Why then not clarify the types of IGF-1 players are not allowed to take?

You can’t ban IGF-1 altogether. You’d have a bunch of emaciated zombies stepping up to the batters box. Hitters wouldn’t be able to hit the ball out of the infield, let alone out of the ballpark.

The answer is: ban ALL synthetic forms of IGF-1. If it is made in a lab, it’s banned.

Simple, right?

I guess not.

Having grown up in Washington Heights, a small Dominican neighborhood just one mile away from Yankee Stadium, Manny is a life-long Yankees fan. He began pursuing his passion for writing about baseball in March 2018 when he co-founded a small baseball media company called Welcome to THE SHOW. Manny is also a contributor at Call to the Pen. Follow Manny on twitter @MannyGo3.

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