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Placentophagy: A Pop-Culture Phenomenon or an Evidence Based Practice?

© Robin Gray-Reed, RN, IBCLC
mindfulmidwife.com

“Do women really eat their placentas?” I am asked this question in every Lamaze class I teach. This question is often accompanied by a raised eyebrow and a giggle. Many times, at least one mother will sheepishly avert her eyes and mention that she’s thinking about doing it because she’s heard of the amazing benefits that can be achieved by consuming her placenta. Our class discussion commences with differing opinions, theories, vague and distorted facts and many grunts of “ugh, gross!” It then becomes my job as the childbirth educator to sort this out and offer my students evidence based information with regards to placentophagy.

There’s been quite a bit in the news this last week or so about placenta eating.  Recently, Kim Kardashian, on her show, “Keeping up with the Kardashians,” queried her doctor about consuming her placenta after birth. She wanted to know if he thought that by consuming it, it would help keep her looking younger – a veritable fountain of youth. Don’t you think it makes you look younger?” Kim asks her doctor during the episode. “Some people believe in that,” her doctor replies. “There are cookbooks on placentas.”

In 2012, Mad Men star, January Jones let it be known that she consumed her encapsulated placenta after her baby was born, per her doula’s suggestion.  ”Jones’s secret to staying high energy through the grueling shooting schedule? ‘I have a great doula who makes sure I’m eating well, with vitamins and teas, and with placenta capsulation.’ “

Hollywood seems to have picked up on the trend. Locally, in Pittsburgh, were I practice, there are at least three placenta encapsulation specialists and a few others who dabble in it. Talking to one recently, she mentioned that she was busy enough that she needed to bring in a partner to help her. It would appear that the trend is indeed on the rise.

Let’s take an in-depth look into the modern practice of placentophagy and the evidence behind it.

 How can placenta be consumed?

  • Eaten raw
  • Cooked in a stew or stir fry, or other recipes
  • Made into a tincture
  • Dehydrated and put into smoothies
  • Dehydrated and encapsulated in pill form

Most modern mothers will choose to encapsulate their placenta. Taking it in a pill form seems to be most palatable for many women interested in consuming their placenta. The placenta is washed, steamed (sometime with other ingredients such as jalapeño, ginger and lemon), sliced, dehydrated, pulverized and encapsulated. Within 24-48 hours after birth, the mother has her placenta back in pill form and will ingest a certain number of pills each day.

Why would a woman want to take placenta capsules?

There are many claims made about the benefits of consuming placenta. The list below is from Placenta Benefits.info

The baby’s placenta, contained in capsule form, is believed to:

  • contain the mother’s own natural hormones
  • be perfectly made for that mother
  • balance the mother’s system
  • replenish depleted iron
  • give the mother more energy
  • lessen bleeding postnatally
  • been shown to increase milk production
  • help the mother to have a happier postpartum period
  • hasten return of uterus to pre-pregnancy state
  • be helpful during menopause

This is a rather amazing list. It would appear that consuming placenta postpartum is a bit of a magic bullet. This, in and of itself, makes me wary of the claims. There are a number of oft cited studies to back these claims up. However, my research turns up only studies in animals, anthropological studies and a recent survey of mothers who consume placenta.

© Bjorna Hoen Photography
bjornahoen.com

Animal studies are good preliminary research and may provide indication for further study in humans. In and of themselves, they provide insufficient information to recommend placentophagy in human mothers.

Anthropological studies are a fascinating peek into human evolution, history and practice. They may provide clues as to why humans, as a rule, do not consume placenta. Or for those limited cultures that did/do consume it, the rationale behind doing so may be revealed. However, as with animal studies, anthropology alone does not give us cause to say that we should or should not be participating in placentophagy.

There is ongoing research out of Buffalo, NY by Mark Kristal, as well as from the University of Nevada, Las Vegas by Daniel Benyshek and Sharon Young on placentophagy. I look forward to their further contributions and hope their work provides impetus for additional hard science.

To date, there is not one double-blind placebo controlled study on human placentophagy.

Although advocates claim that these nutrients and hormones assumed to be present in both the prepared and unprepared forms of placenta are responsible for many benefits to postpartum mothers, exceedingly little research has been conducted to assess these claims and no systematic analysis has been performed to evaluate the experiences of women who engage in this behavior. (Selander et al. 2013)

 A note on Selander, et al: Jodi Selander is the owner of Placenta Benefits LTD. Her financial conflict of interest is noted in the survey.

What we have is anecdotal evidence from mothers who have consumed placenta (Selander 2013). Care providers who witness the effects of placentophagy in the mothers have been noted as well. There are a number of studies in animals, both with regards to behavioral and, chemical and nutritional benefits.  There are a number of anthropological studies, as well as a recent survey (Selander 2013).

What we truly lack is a double-blind, placebo controlled human study of the affects of placentophagy.

“While women in our sample reported various effects which were attributed to placentophagy, the basis of those subjective experiences and the mechanisms by which those reported effects occur are currently unknown. Future research focusing on the analysis of placental tissue is needed in order to identify and quantify any potentially harmful or beneficial substances contained in human placenta… ultimately, a more comprehensive understanding of maternal physiological responses to placentophagy and its effects on maternal mood must await studies employing a placebo-controlled double blind clinical trial research design.” (Selander 2013)

 This leaves us with a few unanswered questions. 

  1. Is the benefit we see in the human mother after consuming placenta because she has consumed it, or is this placebo effect?
  2. Are their benefits or risks to consuming amniotic fluid after birth?
  3. If there is no biological imperative for human mothers to consume placenta, is there a reason for that? Is this a reason suggesting harm from eating placenta, a social norm, or something larger with regards to our need for bonding with our community of women during and after birth?

“This need for greater sociality during delivery then, in combination with the consequent pressure to conform to cultural norms, led to a strengthening of socials bonds and a reduction in the likelihood of placentophagia.” (Kristal 2012)

Coming full circle; how do we approach the topic of placentophagy in our Lamaze classes? Keep it simple. As of today, consuming placenta is not an evidence-based practice. Therefore, we cannot directly recommend it to our students.

However, to support our students’ autonomny, I believe a mother should be able to take her placenta home and do with it as she will. If your students wish to engage in this practice, I’d encourage them to speak to their care providers prenatally, to ensure safe handling of the placenta and to set appropriate expectations at birth.

References:

Kristal, M. B. (1980). Placentophagia: A biobehavioral enigma (or< i> De gustibus non disputandum est</i>). Neuroscience & Biobehavioral Reviews,4(2), 141-150.

Kristal, M. B., DiPirro, J. M., & Thompson, A. C. (2012). Placentophagia in humans and nonhuman mammals: Causes and consequences. Ecology of Food and Nutrition51(3), 177-197.

Selander, J. (2013), Placenta Benefits, placentabenefits.info. Retrieved June 09, 2013, from http://placentabenefits.info/index.asp.

Selander, J., Cantor, A., Young, S. M., & Benyshek, D. C. (2013). Human Maternal Placentophagy: A Survey of Self-Reported Motivations and Experiences Associated with Placenta Consumption. Ecology of food and nutrition52(2), 93-115.

Soykova-Pachnerova E, et. al. (1954)  “Placenta as Lactagagen” Gynaecologia 138(6):617-627

Young, S. M., Benyshek, D. C., & Lienard, P. (2012). The conspicuous absence of placenta consumption in human postpartum females: The fire hypothesis. Ecology of Food and Nutrition51(3), 198-217.

 

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  1. June 11th, 2013 at 09:35 | #1

    Thanks for posting this. I was hoping to hear there was a good study to cite, but it sounds like that research is just starting. In my classes, we end up on this topic after discussing delivery of the placenta. I tell them what their practitioner will do with the placenta and they they may be invited on a “tour” of their placenta, which I encourage them to take if they are not of the queasy variety. I explain that it’s an amazing organ and the only time that the body grows an organ. I explain that it’s been keeping their baby alive since around week 12 and that I, as a birth worker, find them fascinating and amazing, and can appreciate if they end up with a different relationship with their placenta.
    We talk a little and then I usually say something like, “And then it will either be disposed of by the hospital, or you can take it home. If you want to take it home, you just need to put that in your birth plan and let your practitioner know so they don’t dispose of it.” This leads to someone saying either, “Why would you take it home?” (to which I ask the class, “Does anyone know why you might keep the placenta?”) or “I was thinking of keeping mine. Can you talk a little about that?” and we go into a conversation about the different choices of things you can do with your placenta – from art (placenta print), to ritual (plant a tree over it), to consuming it. I also mention the wonderful heart-shaped placenta chocolates that David in Seattle makes to broaden their minds about what consumption can look like. :)
    Right now, I let them know that the research isn’t there around the practice of consuming it, but the anecdotal evidence seems to suggest that the women who have consumed their placentas have felt benefits and that could just be from consuming something iron-rich or there could be more to it, but the research is just beginning. As the article said so well, it’s a balance between respecting those interested in the practice and those repelled by the practice, without the research (yet) to inform us further. I’m looking forward to seeing some good research around this come out. Thanks for raising the topic, Science and Sensibility! :)

  2. avatar
    mothercat
    June 11th, 2013 at 14:34 | #2

    One hormone that is manufactured by the placenta and thus theoretically would be in the raw and processed forms of placenta is Human Placental Lactogen (HPL). This hormone is responsible for preventing the breasts from beginning the process of “milk coming in”, the switch to lactogensis.

    Frequently women have claimed that their milk came in earlier and in greater abundance when consuming their placenta. They would also be consuming HPL which would slow lactogenesis (milk coming in). This contradiction is enough to convince me that there are no substantial benefits to consuming placentas, and no active hormones present in the processed placenta.

  3. June 11th, 2013 at 22:33 | #3

    So appreciate this topic. Placentophagy (thanks for the word!) is very popular where I live in northern CA. I have looked for the research, not found it, witnessed mom’s experiences with it and now your article helped me to summarize my thoughts on it. Thank you.

  4. June 12th, 2013 at 04:08 | #4

    What a well balanced article, thank you.
    The need for a rigorous trial goes without saying but given that there is very little money to be made in this commercially I imagine this will sadly be a long time coming. At the same time pharmaceutical companies are almost weekly discovering the various benefits in placenta and cord cells and the membranes so I hope we don’t reach a situation whereby obstacles are placed in the way of mothers wanting to keep their placentas. Placentas still find their way into the hands of companies who use them for research/cosmetics in return for a “donation” to the hospital.
    Mothers planning self help methods to gain an immediate personal benefit post birth are in many cases merely trying to balance the excessively interventionist births they face.
    I am an encapsulator and do wish I had hard evidence to hand and agree with the writer that we should not be making absolute claims as to the benefits of placentophagy until the evidence comes in.

  5. avatar
    It Takes a Village
    June 12th, 2013 at 07:39 | #5

    Though it’s from the 1950′s, I think this is an important study to consider, since we have so little placenta research: http://placentamom.weebly.com/uploads/2/4/8/3/2483180/placenta_lactagogon.pdf Interesting aspects of the study include the researchers’ use of a non-placenta meat control and drying both placenta and beef-control in a way similar to some modern encapsulators.

    I think it’s also worth noting that in the recent survey of women who tried encapsulation, 98% reported that they’d do it again based on positive results. In the name of informed consent and women’s autonomy, I think this offers a potential benefit to women, though lacking the gold standard of research, and that as care providers and childbirth educators we should aim not to discourage the practice any more than we encourage it, considering the social taboo that already prevents many women from trying it.

    Full disclosure: In addition to being an apprentice midwife of 2+ years and doula, I am a placenta encapsulator, and the placebo and/or physiologically-based benefits of encapsulation appear incredibly stronger than I’ve experienced with most remedies or other supplemental supports, especially those intended for the postpartum period (n=50+). I have had husbands tell me that the placenta capsules saved their marriage, I have had women report the ability to nurse where there was previously insufficiency, and most often I hear about increased mood and energy. I have had women try to add placenta capsules more than a week postpartum for decreased milk supply without success, and therefore respect the mammalian pathway of optimizing some raw placenta immediately postpartum, or at least taking the bulk of the placenta (encapsulated or otherwise) sooner postpartum than later.

    Throughout time we have lacked randomized, controlled research on many traditional childbirth practices, but rather than using the lack of evidence to discredit a practice, I personally respect the ability of a woman to gather information, such as by asking other women who tried their placentas, and respect her ability to make that decision.

    Of course, I also hope for higher quality research on placentas in the future! Thanks for this post.

  6. June 12th, 2013 at 08:21 | #6

    Fascinating! I’d love to see more research on this specifically. I think we have a lot to learn about the placenta and a long way to go before we can make any strong claims. @mothercat

  7. June 12th, 2013 at 08:28 | #7

    @It Takes a Village Both othe study from the 1950′s and the recent survey you mention are referred to in my article.

    Soykova-Pachnerova E, et. al. (1954) is an animal study, not a human trial, and therefore a 1:1 comparison can not be made.

    The survey, Selander, J., Cantor, A., Young, S. M., & Benyshek, D. C. (2013), is quoted in the article. Just because a mother is satisfied with the results of consuming her placenta and would do it again, does not tell us that consuming placenta has benefits. This is a survey of opinions and cannot verify placebo effect vs. real effect. So we can’t use the survey to support placenta encapsulation. We can, however, use it as a launching point for additional hard science research, which is what we need.

    I want to believe that placentaphagy does what it claims to do. But at this point, there is no evidence for its benefits or the risks of consuming it (risks have not been studied at all, to my knowledge). Until such point, I can tell my students that it’s entirely their choice (as with everything), but I can’t recommend it.

  8. June 13th, 2013 at 08:35 | #8

    Hi Deena – I’m glad that you tackled this topic, as I have lots of women asking me about it in counseling sessions. As an LPC, I really need to remain positively engaged in assisting people to formulate their own pathway, and also to present options and the evidence behind those options. There is positive and negative associated with almost any decision. I’ve been wanting to try to gather my thoughts about this particular topic and you certainly helped! thanks for the thorough information! take care, Kathy

  9. avatar
    Mary
    June 18th, 2013 at 15:21 | #9

    I wish I would have known about this when I was having my girls.

  10. avatar
    missysahib
    October 23rd, 2013 at 06:06 | #10

    @Anna THANK YOU for the very first balanced, reasonable, truly holistic comment I have yet read on this topic. I would be thrilled to take a class from someone like you. As I research this topic (I’m currently 31 weeks pregnant), I am shocked and awed at all the reactionary, completely nonsensical things that people believe and have to say on this topic. I think you have boiled it down to what matters most. There is anecdotal, sort of tribal/communal evidence that there may be health benefits to eating the placenta. While that kind of evidence may be useless to some, I think history has shown us that it is also dangerous to rule out “women’s intuition” when it comes to something like this. However, it is also important to note that because there aren’t any true double-blind, evidence-based, peer-reviewed studies on this topic (shocking!), that it is best to take one’s placenta . . er um . . . with a grain of salt. And yes, consult your physician . . but don’t entirely rule out your own intuition. I don’t know if I will go this route or not. I suppose it can’t hurt to have the placenta put into capsule form to have on-hand to see if it does help with postpartum or milk production, should I run into a problem. But at least now I know as much as there is to know about it – and can make a somewhat educated decision. Thanks for the article – and for this first insightful, reasonable comment. So refreshing.

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