Eating your placenta – is it healthy or just weird?

Eating your placenta – is it healthy or just weird?

Laura Curtis of Placentawise in Lindon, Utah, prepares a placenta for a client that will be turned into capsules as a supplement for new mothers. Human placentophagia, saving your placenta after birth and eating it, is a practice with no anthropological precedent, promoted by mothers swearing by its health benefits despite a scarcity of research. Photograph: Francisco Kjolseth/AP

According to one cookbook on the subject, you can mix your raw placenta with yoghurt and fruit in a blender and make a smoothie. Or add it to ground beef in a lasagna recipe. Or make chocolate truffles out of it. Dice it, slice it, sauté it with onions, dehydrate it and grind it up – it seems there’s no wrong way to eat placenta.

The practice of placentophagy – the formal name for eating the placenta for health benefits – has been having a moment. What was once an extremely fringe movement has been given a boost by celebrity endorsements from January Jones to the Kardashians. Articles describing personal experiences have popped up everywhere from XOJane to the New York Times. Advocates cite its ability to boost milk production, fight postpartum depression, reduce pain and increase energy in new mothers.
Businesses offering to dry and encapsulate the placenta for those who are too squeamish to eat it with a side of vegetables have sprung up all over the US, generally charging around $250 for the service. Since the encapsulation process is typically done in the home of the new mother, and is for her own consumption, there is no FDA regulation or other oversight of the practice. There are also no uniform laws around releasing a placenta from the hospital with most states allowing hospitals to set their own individual rules.

Eating a human organ might trigger a gag reflex in some, but advocates point to the near ubiquitousness of the practice among mammals. While the exact reasons animals eat their own placentas is not known, scientists speculate one major reason may be to avoid having a bloody enticement to predators next to the new mother and baby. Unlike the modern practice of eating a placenta in dehydrated pill form over a length of time or cooking it for later consumption, animals eat their placentas raw and immediately after giving birth.

Animals may have been doing it before it was cool, but for humans the practice is relatively recent. Daniel Benyshek, associate professor of anthropology at the University of Nevada Las Vegas is one of a few researchers who is studying the practice. He says the first published references to the practice of maternal placentophagy are tied to the home birth and natural birth movement in the US during the 60s. “It is really only in the last ten years that it has become a well-known – if rare – practice,” he says.

The recent popularity of placentophagy may be due in part to greater awareness of it from the media. It may also be finding converts because alternative treatments are becoming more popular as people seek out healthier lifestyles, says Crystal Clark, associate professor in psychiatry and behavioral sciences at the Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine. A number of doulas and midwives advocate the practice, which may be another factor driving its popularity. Clark, a psychiatrist, also points out that there remains a stigma around mental health, and with an estimated one out of every seven women experiencing postpartum depression, an alternative to traditional mental health treatments can be appealing.

Because of its relative newness, placentophagy is only now coming to the attention of scientists. Clark and colleagues published a literature review of the practice in the Archives of Women’s Mental Health in June 2015. They found that research into the practice has so far been very sparse, with no placebo-controlled studies in humans to show if consuming a placenta really does have the benefits claimed. Benyshek and his team just completed a pilot study with a placebo that they hope to publish later this year.
With research still in its infancy, it is hard to get an estimate of how many women actually consume their own placentas for the purported benefits. Anecdotally, Clark has heard that the practice is well established in certain areas of the US like San Francisco and Denver. While it is hard to pinpoint the typical demographic, from his survey research, Benyshek has found that most are “women in their late twenties, Caucasian, with at least some college education and with a middle to upper-middle class family income”. However, he cautions that his research may not be representative of all women who practice placentophagy. The practice may be more common amongst mothers who chose a homebirth, says Benyshek, though mothers giving birth in hospitals also practice it.

In addition to a lack of studies on the effect of consuming the placenta, there is not a lot of research into what the placenta contains and in what amounts, says Clark. What is know is that the placenta contains hormones such as progesterone and estrogen as well as nutrients like iron, which can be beneficial in recovery from giving birth. But the doses of these hormones and nutrients – and the extent to which they are degraded by cooking or dehydrating the placenta – are not known. The placenta also functions to filter anything potentially harmful from reaching the fetus, so it may contain certain metals like mercury, but the amounts of these are also not known.
One thing that is known, cautions Clark, is that abnormal placenta should be examined before anyone decides what to do with them. Patients who chose a home birth should make sure their doulas or midwives can spot any issues with the placenta. Any placenta that would have been flagged for analysis by a pathologist in a hospital birth should be kept intact so it can be examined. Abnormal placentas need to be examined because abnormalities may be important for the clinical care of the mother or newborn after birth. “For example, abnormalities may be indicative of an intrauterine infection, maternal illness or poor fetal outcome,” explains Clark.

While everyone can do as they please with their own organs, one worry that doctors have is that women who are suffering from postpartum depression will turn to the practice instead of seeking help from a medical professional. According to Benyshek, no one “should be relying solely on purported benefits of placentophagy in lieu of well established medical practices and therapies to treat common postpartum health problems”.

When patients ask Clark for her professional recommendation, she tells them she can’t help them decide whether or not to try it without more research into the practice. But she does not discourage them against eating their placenta either. A patient has the right to decide what to do with their own placenta, says Clark. For now, however, the verdict on the practice is still out.

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