IGF-1 (insulin growth factor-1) is a growth hormone that is produced in the human body and interacts with human growth hormone (HGH). It is naturally occurring, but it has been synthesized for use in medical cases where a person has a reduced amount of IGF-1. This condition, known as Laron dwarfism, is extremely rare.
The synthetic version of IGF-1, known as Increlex, is also used by anti-aging advocates, though the research on the substance for this use is mixed and not considered an on-label usage.
In sports and doping, IGF-1 started to see usage after HGH's popularity peaked. With the World Anti-Doping Agency and others working hard to test for HGH, which led to the introduction of a blood test in 2008, IGF-1 purported to give all the benefits without the detection.
There is still no test of any kind for IGF-1, though there have been hints of development activity. Like HGH, IGF-1 is expensive, easy to trace and requires careful handling. Along with dubious results, its usage has dwindled among doping advocates.
It's important to note that IGF-1 is related to a substance that is widely used and abused for anabolic purposes: insulin. The same drug that is used to make life possible for millions of diabetics is also a powerful anabolic agent.
It is cheap, easily accessible and, as with IGF-1, there is no test for the drug being used today. Because insulin is present in the body naturally, it would be very difficult to differentiate between natural and synthesized insulin.
The deer-antler spray being sold by S.W.A.T.S. (Sports with Alternatives to Steroids), and Lewis allegedly used a product harvested from the antlers of New Zealand deer. Studies have shown that the IGF-1 produced in the fast-growing antlers of deer is not able to be effectively used by the human body.
In addition, IGF-1 is very unstable, requiring careful handling and refrigeration, something that a product from S.W.A.T.S. does not have. Further, studies also indicate that taking IGF-1, human or otherwise, is not effective. IGF-1 supplementation normally requires injection.
The S.W.A.T.S. site was down Wednesday, but in addition to the deer-antler spray, the company sold other dubious products.
It had deionized water, hologram stickers that were discussed in the SI article and, most disturbingly, a "concussion cap." Marketed specifically to the parents of children in youth sports, this cap was purported to prevent concussions by soaking it in a special solution.
The deer-antler spray sold by S.W.A.T.S. was not manufactured by it. It's normal for a company to contract out the manufacture of this kind of supplement, so there are plenty of other sources still available. Worryingly, this type of procedure can lead to contamination, where other substances can be added, knowingly or unknowingly.
The SI article details how the deer-antler spray from S.W.A.T.S. had a form of anabolic steroid added to it, resulting in a positive test for an NFL player. A lawsuit resulted in a multimillion-dollar judgment against the owners of S.W.A.T.S. They stayed in business by using a new shell company.
The question remains why any athlete, let alone one with the reputation and resources of a Ray Lewis, would use a substance with such a dubious pedigree.
"Science doesn't move fast enough to supply the voracious demand," said David Epstein, the author of the article at SI and an expert on doping in sports.
"Most athletes don't have the background to evaluate these kinds of claims. Plus, by looking for the edge that competitors don't have, they necessarily end up on the fringes, as opposed to in the mainstream with products that have evidence behind them. The more competitive the athlete, the more likely they are to try things that no one knows much about."
Lewis is alleged to have taken a substance of dubious efficacy from an even more dubious source. It's enough to remind us that maybe P.T. Barnum was right.
All quotes in this article were obtained by the author unless otherwise noted.
Will Carroll has been writing about sports injuries for 12 years. His work has appeared at SI.com, ESPN.com and Football Outsiders. He wrote "The Juice: The Real Story of Baseball's Drug Problems" in 2005.