Placentophagy: A Pop-Culture Phenomenon or an Evidence Based Practice?
“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.
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.
- Is the benefit we see in the human mother after consuming placenta because she has consumed it, or is this placebo effect?
- Are their benefits or risks to consuming amniotic fluid after birth?
- 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.
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 Nutrition, 51(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 nutrition, 52(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 Nutrition, 51(3), 198-217.