Placentophagy: The eating of a placenta, especially by a mother after giving birth
The first time I learned that eating my placenta after giving birth was an option was while preparing my birth plan with my doula. She informed me of a relatively new process that would grind and encapsulate the placenta into pill form and emphasized the many benefits it could provide postpartum.
Five years later, when I was pregnant for the second time, the practice had grown in popularity. There was a broader scope of services available, and some friends and acquaintances had experiences of their own to share. I never took the leap into placenta encapsulation, but I admit it was intriguing and the testimonies from women who had placenta pills of their own were hard to ignore.
Although still largely uncommon, there is a small but growing population of women in North America, Europe, and Australia who are opting to consume their placenta. Why are we seeing a growing number of postpartum women consuming their placenta and is it something we should be doing at all?
Here is what we know.
What is the placenta?
The placenta is a new organ that forms in the uterus during pregnancy. It connects the mother and fetus, attached to the mother through her uterine wall and to the baby through the umbilical cord. The placenta is essential to the healthy development of the fetus.
The placenta has many important roles, including:
- Supplying oxygen and critical nutrients from mother to baby
- Eliminating waste material from the baby’s blood
- Producing hormones and proteins
- Acting as the lungs, liver, and kidneys for, and protector of the baby
- Preventing the mother’s immune system from rejecting the fetus
The placenta separates from the uterine wall during labor and delivery. After delivering the baby, the new mother must actively deliver the placenta to minimize the risk of maternal bleeding or infection. The newly delivered placenta is examined to ensure that no parts of it remain inside the woman’s body.
History of Placentophagy
Placentophagy advocates point to the use of the placenta in traditional Chinese medicine. The placenta is an ingredient used in a variety of remedies for different ailments throughout the history of Chinese medicine. However, in all its recorded uses, is not traditionally used for new mothers and postpartum benefits, making this argument a bit misguided.
It isn’t until the 1970s and 1980s that we start to see a record of placentophagy specifically in the postpartum experience within the U.S.
Who eats their placenta?
Studies show that, throughout history, most mammals eat their placenta after birth, except for marine mammals and humans—until recently. Theories suggest these mammals eat their placentas to keep their space clean and free of scents to avoid attracting predators, to satisfy the mother’s hunger after birth, or to replenish nutrients.
Since its emergence in the ’70s and ’80s, the practice has grown in popularity amongst:
- The natural birth community
- Women seeking natural alternatives to treat “baby blues” and postpartum depression
- Celebrity endorsements (Katherine Heigl, Kourtney Kardashian, January Jones, Gabby Hoffman, Alicia Silverstone, and Mayim Bialik, to name a few)
How do you eat your placenta?
The most common methods of placenta consumption include
- Steamed: Steaming the raw placenta, often eating it within food or beverages. A quick internet search produces a variety of recipes with placenta as an ingredient.
- Encapsulated: The most popular choice. This process steams, dehydrates, and grinds the placenta into a fine powder. The powder is encapsulated into a pill, and then often taken 2–3 times per day. The number of tablets you receive varies by each placenta, but can range anywhere between 100-200 pills.
What do healthcare providers think?
Medical providers remain mostly undecided on where they stand with placentophagy. There is currently not enough scientific evidence to support this choice. Compared to the more than 40,000 publications on breastfeeding, there are only approximately 27 publications on placentophagy that exist. The studies that exist do not successfully prove the benefits or are inconclusive, leaving many question marks.
Healthcare providers should continue to seek awareness and information on this practice to help their patients make more informed decisions.
Perceived benefits and risks
Much of the information we have on the benefits of eating the placenta comes mainly from anecdotes of the small population of women who have explored this option.
Women who ingest their placenta have noted:
- Decreased baby blues
- Lower risk of postpartum depression
- Increased energy
- Boosts in milk supply
- Quicker body “bounce back”
- Increased iron supply
The risks largely come from the processing methods for consumption and the lack of regulations. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) suggest women should avoid eating their placenta. Their biggest concern is around the potential for placenta encapsulation to pass on infections. They point to the lack of standards in temperatures used in preparing the placenta for encapsulation. The lower temperatures may be insufficient in eliminating harmful viruses. Additionally, the FDA does not regulate placenta-derived products or placentophagy.
Curious? Here’s How to find a placenta encapsulation provider
If you are curious to explore placenta encapsulation, there are a number of providers available. The quantity and quality of providers may vary greatly by area. The price tag for placenta encapsulation ranges anywhere from $200–400. The service is not covered by insurance.
When searching for a placenta encapsulation provider, be sure to ask about these three things:
- Do they hold a placenta encapsulation certificate? There are a variety of “certification” programs available. Check to see if your provider is certified and do your research on the certification requirements.
- Are they trained in food safety handling?
- Do they adhere to food safety guidelines?
It’s important to note that there is no formal state or government regulation on the placenta encapsulation certification or processes so always be sure to do your research to ensure the handling of your placenta is as safe as possible.
So, should you eat your placenta?
It’s hard to ignore the many stories around women’s experiences of the great benefits they experience when eating their placenta. However, these experiences are only anecdotal evidence. There is still much research and investigation to do around the potential benefits and risks for postpartum women who choose to eat their placentas. As with any health-related issue, always seek the advice of your doctor or midwife and keep them informed of your decisions.