Placentophagy is increasing in popularity, but does it offer health benefits?
The practice of eating placenta, or "placentophagy," is common in the animal kingdom.
It is believed that most non-human mammals with a placenta consume their "afterbirth" — as the placenta is otherwise known — as a way of eradicating the scent of their newborn and protecting them against predators.
Other literature suggests that animals eat their placenta as a way of regaining nutrients that might have been lost during delivery, and to encourage mother-child bonding.
It is the latter hypotheses that have made placentophagy attractive to human mothers, and with celebrities such as Kim Kardashian and January Jones advocating the practice, it is more popular than ever.
While many new mothers hail the health benefits of eating the afterbirth, critics say that the practice could be more harmful than helpful. We take a look at the evidence for both sides of the argument.
The purpose of the placenta
The placenta is an organ that forms on the wall of the uterus during pregnancy, and it is connected to the fetus by the umbilical cord.
The placenta is crucial for a healthy pregnancy.
The placenta acts as a transport system: the organ delivers oxygen and nutrients from the mother's blood to the developing child, as well as removes waste products from the baby's blood.
Furthermore, the placenta protects the baby against the mother's immune system and also produces hormones that help to maintain a healthy pregnancy.
All of these processes are crucial for the baby's growth and development.
When a mother gives birth, the placenta is also delivered. If delivering vaginally, the placenta will normally follow the baby within 5 minutes, though it can take up to half an hour. If it is through a cesarean delivery, the placenta will be removed during surgery.
So what happens to the placenta after birth? While most hospitals and birthing centers will automatically treat placentas as medical waste, mothers can request to keep them.
In some cultures, families bury the placenta to honor this momentous organ and celebrate their baby's life. But in recent years, more and more new mothers are opting for a somewhat controversial practice: placentophagy.
Placenta-in-a-pill or placenta patties?
Placentophagy is simply the practice of consuming the placenta after birth. It is believed that the practice derives from ancient Chinese medicine, wherein the organ would be used to help treat medical conditions such as infertility and liver problems.
Encapsulation is the most common method of placentophagy.
The most popular method of placenta consumption — highly favored by the aforementioned celebrities — is encapsulation, in which the placenta is dehydrated, ground, and put into a capsule. There are many midwives or doulas who can provide this service.
The placenta can make up to 200 pills. Shortly after birth, mothers may take their placenta pills as a daily supplement.
For mothers with a stronger stomach, eating the placenta raw — in a smoothie, for example — or cooking and preparing it for a meal may be preferable. The Doula Services Network provide some interesting placenta recipes, including placenta lasagna and placenta spaghetti.
And for those of you who want to know what placenta tastes like, here's a description from one man who prepared and ate his wife's placenta:
"The cooked placenta [...] was actually pretty good. As I seasoned it on the chopping board, the bright, almost glowing red chunk of placenta was more attractive than many cuts of offal I've dealt with, and looked quite appetizing."
"The meat was rich," he added, "with a beef-like quality. It was tender, kind of like roast brisket and not dissimilar to Texas BBQ."
Preparation practices aside, there is really only one question that expectant mothers want answered: is eating placenta beneficial?
The potential benefits of placentophagy
Unfortunately, the answer to this question is not a simple "yes" or "no."
There is little scientific evidence proving that placentophagy offers health benefits. But research has shown that the afterbirth contains a variety of nutrients — such as fiber, protein, and potassium — as well as hormones including estradiol and testosterone.
What is more, there is an abundance of mothers across the globe who claim that placentophagy helped to improve their postnatal health, and many advocates believe that these personal experiences defeat science.
So, what are the said health benefits of eating placenta?
Improved milk production
For many new mothers who wish to breast-feed, one major worry is whether or not they will be able to produce enough milk to cater for their baby's needs. Could placentophagy help?
Writing on her blog Mama Natural, Genevieve Howland reveals how consuming her placenta in the form of pills significantly increased her milk supply.
Placentophagy advocates claim that the practice increases breast milk supply.
"Within 24 hours, I noticed my milk production increase substantially," she writes. "[E]ating your own placenta is known to increase milk supply. And that was certainly the case with me."
Explaining that placentophagy is "known" to increase milk supply could be perceived as an overstatement, since one of the most commonly cited studies to suggest that this might be the case is more than 60 years old.
However, there are many mothers commenting on parenting forums who say that placentophagy had a positive effect on their milk production.
Improved mood and increased energy
In a blog on Babble — which is an online magazine for moms — Elizabeth Stark tells of how consuming placenta pills significantly improved her postpartum experience.
"To my surprise, I didn't experience mood swings and I had more energy while taking the pills," she writes. "Though I don't have a double-blind, peer-reviewed study to back up my claim, I feel confident that placenta-eating made those first few postpartum weeks easier."
Speaking to online magazine Parents about her experience after consuming placenta pills, mother-of-two Alice Ross says, "I felt that they gave me more energy and just made me feel a little bit more grounded. If I was feeling low and tired and crying, I'd take a tablet and, honestly, feel better."
In one study published in 2013, researchers conducted a survey of 189 women who had engaged in placentophagy, many of whom had had previous experiences of postnatal mood disorders.
Approximately 40 percent of the women in the study reported an improvement in postnatal mood after placenta consumption, and almost all of the women said that they would engage in placentophagy with their next child.
Advocates of placentophagy claim that the practice can help to manage after-birth pain. One study in rats found that female rodents that ate their placenta had a higher pain threshold than rats that did not eat their placenta.
However, there is no scientific evidence to suggest that placenta consumption offers pain relief in humans.
Is placentophagy risky?
While there seems to be plenty of anecdotal evidence for the benefits of placentophagy, research tells a different story.
A 2015 review conducted by investigators from the Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine in Chicago, IL, concluded that there is insufficient evidence to suggest that eating the placenta provides health benefits for new mothers.
The conclusion came from an in-depth analysis of existing animal and human studies that assessed the health effects of placentophagy.
What is more, a case report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) published earlier this year indicates that placenta consumption could even be harmful — not only for the mother, but for the baby, too.
The CDC report how a mother who ate placenta pills became infected with group B Streptococcus and passed it to her child.
The report revealed that a mother who consumed placenta pills contracted group B Streptococcus (GBS), and that this was passed to her child.
The CDC suggest that during encapsulation, the placenta was not heated at the temperature required to destroy the GBS bacterium.
"No standards exist for processing placenta for consumption," say the report authors. "[...] In this case, heating for sufficient time at a temperature adequate to decrease GBS bacterial counts might not have been reached. Consumption of contaminated placenta capsules might have elevated maternal GBS intestinal and skin colonization, facilitating transfer to the infant."
"The placenta encapsulation process does not per se eradicate infectious pathogens; thus, placenta capsule ingestion should be avoided," they add.
But in response to this report, Placenta Benefits — a website that advocates placentophagy — write that the CDC should not recommend against consuming placenta pills based on one case.
"We need to keep in mind the report is from a SINGLE case study — it is not any sort of precedent. If we don't allow a single case study to prove the efficacy of placentophagy, then we can't allow a single case study to cast disparity on the entire practice either," they argue.
Eating placenta 'borders on cannibalism'
Due to the lack of scientific evidence that placentophagy is beneficial for humans, many critics believe that the practice should not be recommended for new mothers.
"Medically speaking, the placenta is a waste product," says Dr. Alex Farr, of the Medical University of Vienna in Austria, who recently co-authored a review of human placentophagy.
"Most mammals eat the placenta after birth, but we can only guess why they do so. After the placenta is genetically part of the newborn, eating the placenta borders on cannibalism."
Dr. Farr and his review team also note that expectant mothers with an interest in placentophagy should be warned of the potential risks that the practice poses.
"In addition," they add, "clinicians should inquire regarding a history of placenta ingestion in cases of postpartum maternal or neonatal infections such as group B Streptococcus sepsis."
Treading on 'unknown territory'
However, speaking in 2015, Dr. Clark said that the decision to engage in placentophagy should ultimately be down to the mother.
"But what I recommend [to] my patients who are thinking about placentophagy," she explains, "is that the reality is we don't have any evidence to support the claim of the advocates, nor do we have any evidence to inform the risks. And so my concern for them would be this is unknown territory."
The general consensus is that, at present, there is simply not enough evidence to say whether or not placentophagy is good or bad for postnatal health. But given the anecdotal evidence, many women believe that more new mothers should give it a try.
"[...] when it comes to getting a good old-fashioned mood lift," she says, "I'm happy to vouch for placenta consumption any old day, and I'd do it again if given the opportunity."
"Even if it just had a placebo effect on me," she adds, "it totally helped me adjust to life as a mother of two in the weeks after having my baby. I found it kind of amazing to use something my own body had made, rather than throwing it out with the trash."
"The jury is still out on whether or not placenta has true health benefits, but there's no denying that our bodies can do some incredible things."
What are your thoughts on placentophagy? Have you tried it? If so, how did it affect you? Feel free to add your comments to this article.