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Does consuming your own placenta after childbirth deliver the benefits some celebrities claim?

April 30, 2014

Are you aware of the latest trend in childbirth? Several Hollywood celebrities have claimed recently that consuming their own placenta after the birth of their child was wildly beneficial to their health. Just how was it beneficial to their health? The claimed benefits include: improved iron levels, hormone levels, lactation, sleep, energy, reduced postpartum bleeding, and a reduction in the “postpartum blues,” a self-limiting form of depression. This practice has been observed in other mammals and human cultures, giving those who advocate this trend a reason to believe in such benefits.

What exactly is placentophagy?

First, let’s discuss the role of the placenta. The placenta is an organ made from the cells of the embryo, which supplies the fetus with all of the necessary elements to grow and develop. It is essentially the fetus’s source of nutrition, respiration, protection, and most function for 280 days during pregnancy, as well as during labor and delivery.

I would guess that very few Western women who have nourishment readily available would eat a fresh placenta. Consequently, those who do engage in placentophagy (or practice of consuming the placenta) will most likely use a placental encapsulation service. This process requires that the placenta be frozen, then desiccated to the point that it can be processed into a form that can be loaded into a consumable capsule. If a placental encapsulation representative can process the placenta fast enough, the freezing portion can theoretically be skipped.

Is it worth it?

There are a lot of unknowns associated with placentophagy. First, since the placenta is being taken from the home, how does the client know that the capsules she receives back represent her own placenta? Secondly, how does she know it is even placenta? Thirdly, there are no safety trials associated with this practice.

Let’s take a further look into the claimed benefits of those who engage in placentophagy.

Placenta is categorized as a dietary supplement. A dietary supplement is a product taken by mouth that contains a "dietary ingredient" intended to supplement the diet. The "dietary ingredients" in these products may include: vitamins, minerals, herbs or other botanicals, amino acids, and substances such as enzymes, organ tissues, glandulars, and metabolites. Why does this matter? Because dietary supplements no longer need approval from the FDA before they are marketed, following the Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act that passed in 1994.

It can be expensive. Since insurance will not likely cover this experimental practice, the woman is paying out of pocket for a product that has not been tested for safety (for her or her baby if she is breast feeding), and may have no benefit whatsoever, despite the recent claims.

Women with preeclampsia could be at risk. Many researchers believe that the placenta is the underlying cause of preeclampsia, a condition characterized by high blood pressure and high level of proteins in the urine during pregnancy. This can be a life-threatening condition that is generally cured by delivery of the placenta. So, would the client want to eat a placenta if she had preeclampsia? I would say, no.

There is no basic or clinical science from human studies to support the claimed benefits. The only benefit that could be supported is that the placenta is a possible source of iron, which is a mineral that would not be destroyed by the freezing and desiccation required to complete the encapsulation process. However, iron can be easily supplemented with over-the-counter iron pills. Hormones on the other hand, are very labile, meaning they are easily altered and would be destroyed in the process.

Placentophagy does not increase lactation. The claim that consuming one’s placenta after childbirth increases lactation is entirely false, given that the placental hormones specifically inhibit normal lactation. This is why most mothers don’t make milk until after deliver of the baby and placenta.

Placentophagy does not decrease postpartum blood loss. Oxytocin, the hormone responsible for uterine contractions, is an easily altered hormone and would be destroyed during the process of encapsulation. In addition, this hormone is made in the posterior pituitary gland, which is located in the brain, not the placenta.

The observation that other creatures consume their placenta does not mean that this practice is meant for humans. First, the nutritional value is similar to liver, given that the placenta is made of blood and protein. Second, many mammals do not eat red meat, the primary source of iron, and use the placenta to supplement for this nutrient. Third, laboring animals probably do not eat on schedule and may simply be hungry. Fourth, eating the placenta may remove a smell that predators would use to locate defenseless newborns. Fifth, if they delivered and live in a permanent home (den), it may be a simple hygiene tactic, since the placenta will become a rich source of bacterial growth at room temperatures rather quickly.

In my professional opinion, there is probably very little risk in this practice if you know and trust the encapsulation firm. However, there is also very little benefit, and is probably not worth the expense and hype surrounding this trend among new mothers.