Placentophagy is the practice of consuming placenta after childbirth. Steaming the placenta, drying it, then grinding and preparing into capsules appears to be the current favorite method of placentophagy. Consuming raw or cooked placenta is also advocated by those who extoll the benefits of this increasing but still rare practice.
The placenta is a fascinating organ that serves to support the normal growth and development of the fetus. It provides the mechanism for the exchange of nutrients, oxygen and waste products between a pregnant woman and her baby. The placenta also serves as a filter to protect the fetus from infection and some harmful substances, and is an important source of hormones.
Placentophagy is not a new idea and has been used in traditional Chinese medicine for 1400 years. There is mention of the practice in the 1900s in Europe but has never been widespread in western cultures. Because it seems to be on the uptick in the North America, Europe and Australia, particularly with educated, married, middle class white women, it is important to review what is known and not known about consuming placenta for health reasons.
Unfortunately, there are few if any double blind, placebo controlled trials that rigorously investigate the risks and benefits of the practice but here are the claims made of the benefits for mothers who consume their placentas:
- decreased stress and improved mood, less postpartum depression
- improved energy
- improved milk supply and lactation
- pain relief
In my experience, the most common reason for a woman to consider placenta encapsulation is her concern for experiencing postpartum depression. This is most often a result of her having experienced this after a prior pregnancy and birth or because she struggles with depression even prior to becoming pregnant. Most of the scant evidence available demonstrates no benefits in any of the above areas, but individuals who have consumed their placentas disagree. As we know, anecdotal experience and opinions are not the same as scientific evidence and facts.
Some of the potential or theoretic risks of consuming placenta include the following:
- transmission of infection or disease
- consumption of toxins filtered by the placenta such as heavy metals
- suppression of prolactin leading to decreased milk supply
- increased risk of blood clots
No one knows what the processing of placenta into capsules does to the bioactive substances known to exist in the placenta. It has not been studied. Most of the claims of it’s benefits rely on those substances being preserved in high enough levels and in active forms to support health.
Placental encapsulation provides a business opportunity for doulas and lay midwives to augment their incomes. It is not known how many women encapsulate their placentas, but interest in the topic suggests that it is becoming more popular. Google searches for “placenta encapsulation” have increased 100 fold since 2009.
Until further scientific evidence supporting the practice of placenta encapsulation is available, women will do better to rely on well studied and safe practices to minimize or treat postpartum depression, poor milk supply or lactation difficulties and other concerns in the postpartum period.