Does Eating Your Placenta Have Any Health Benefits?

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Midwife Claudia Booker, 65, prepares a placenta for encapsulation in her Washington, D.C. home on July 25, 2014. Some new mothers are consuming their placentas for reasons they believe will be beneficial to their health. Sarah L. Voisin/The Washington Post/Getty

When a baby enters the world, typically it’s followed not long after by the placenta, also known as the afterbirth. For the duration of a pregnancy, the organ, which weighs between 1 and 2 pounds, is attached to the uterine wall and connected to the fetus by the umbilical cord. Through a mother’s blood supply, the placenta provides nutrients to the growing fetus and works as a sort of filter for waste elimination and gas exchanges, helping to fight off foreign pathogens that may cause infection.

But after the birth of a child, this large gray mass is no longer needed. The consensus among people in the medical field is that at this point the placenta—derived from the Latin word for “cake”—is simply medical waste. However, some women would beg to differ. In recent years, many new moms have turned to placentophagy: the practice of consuming their own placenta to boost health after childbirth. These women believe it helps them recover from post-labor pain, stimulates breast milk production, increases energy and keeps postpartum depression at bay.

Inspired by celebrity moms like Kourtney Kardashian and Google searches, the afterbirth is now viewed by many as a prized commodity; women are eating it raw, as cooked organ meat, blended in a fruit smoothie and dried out and encapsulated into pills.

But a new paper reviewing 10 previously published studies suggests that there isn’t any substantial research to support the idea that placentophagy is actually beneficial—or even safe. Analysis of human placenta has found the tissue can contain toxins such as mercury, lead and bacteria. The paper, published Thursday in the Archives of Women's Mental Health, suggests that the few studies that do exist on placentophagy are poorly designed and not reliable.

One study supporting the mental health benefits of placentophagy was based on Internet surveys of 189 women who had a history of self-diagnosed mood disorders. That study was conducted by a founder of a placenta encapsulation service organization (http://www.Placentabenefits.info) and did not include a control group. Another study reviewed by the authors looked at the impact of eating placenta on milk production. Though a majority of women in the study reported that ingesting placenta helped improve lactation, the study did not meet current scientific standards and didn’t include a control group.

However, rodent studies reviewed by the authors indicated that there might be some benefits to placentophagy in the animal kingdom. Most mammals practice placentophagy; scientists believe this is so as not leave any evidence of the birth, thereby keeping their new babies a secret from potential predators. Others say placentophagy helps animal bond with their babies.  

It may also be physiological: A professor of psychology and neuroscience at the University of Buffalo, New York, studied female rats and found their placenta and amniotic fluid contains endogenous opioid substances in the body such as endorphins, which reduced pain. But pain relief from placental consumption has not been studied in humans.

Most mothers base their decision purely on anecdotal evidence. When Alyson Tina was due with her second child, she was looking for a way to keep her moods in check.

I really felt that it helped take the edge off,” she says of her decision to consume her own afterbirth, which she took in pill form to make the concept “a little more palatable.”

“I was feeling overwhelmed, coming home with a toddler and newborn. It kind of helped me not feel emotionally raw.”

Tina, a high school math teacher, says her positive personal experience with placentophagy compelled her to become certified at placenta encapsulation. To do so, she was required to obtain training on handling bloodborne pathogens from the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration, as well as a food handler certification from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. She works with Northeast Doulas, a practice serving mothers in Greenwich, Connecticut; Westchester County in New York; and New York City.

Encapsulating placenta is a two-day process. First, Tina will visit the family’s home where they have likely stored the placenta in the freezer or refrigerator. (She says the afterbirth must be prepared while it’s still fresh and can’t sit unencapsulated for more than three days.) Tina will cook the organ with a steamer, then slice it and let it dry out overnight. The next day, Tina uses a food grinder to break down the dried placenta into a fine powder and then puts it into water-soluble capsules. One placenta produces approximately 100 to 115 capsules, though larger size organs may result in as many as 200 pills.

“It's totally possible that [the positive effects are] a placebo, but I kind of feel like it doesn't matter if I can help a woman get through a time that is difficult,” she says. “We’ve had clients experience increased breast milk production. They feel that they might physically heal faster.”

Ellen Glek, another new mom who ate her afterbirth in smoothie, pill and tincture form, says she was expecting a placebo effect after so many women, including her midwife, sung the praises of “placenta medicine.” But that wasn’t the only deciding factor when she packed a cutting board, knife, blender, as well as frozen raspberries, bananas and almond milk before heading to the birth center in labor. An hour after the birth, she indulged in an energy drink that included a 2-inch slab of her placenta.

“The real reason that I ate it was to prove that I am part of that new tribe of women who don't fear their bodies,” she says. “They embrace natural processes and are healthier for it.”