Nothing on my blog should be used as medical advice. It is only the story of things I choose to learn about.
I’ve delivered placentas. Probably lots more placentas than babies because as a resident, staff doctors liked to deliver the babies, and then turn it over to the lowly resident to finish up. Anyhow, placentas have a distinct smell about them and quite an unusual appearance, color, and texture. To eat them, in my mind, is a disgusting thought. But that’s not what I should base opinion on. Chopping liver is disgusting, too; I won’t deny that to anyone. And I know vegans abhor the way I eat, but choosing foods that keep me feeling well and functioning well is one of my top priorities. So I can appreciate, although maybe not partake in the process, the motivation for women to consider consuming their placentas. Yet as I do with all “food” now, I analyze it for unintended side effects that could be problematic. Let’s explore placentophagy.
Why do some people do it or recommend it?
The thought is that there are hormones and minerals, such as iron, in the placenta that impart beneficial effects to the mother (or whoever else eats it–as historically it has been eaten by others, too). It is often repeated that it:
- Improves milk production.
- Helps the uterus clamp down to its normal size after pregnancy.
- Helps to lessen the amount of bleeding and the duration of bleeding in the post-partum time period.
- Helps diminish mood disturbances post-partum (such as post-partum depression).
- Helps return iron levels to normal more quickly.
- Helps improve pain tolerance.
- Provides increased energy.
Advocates are quick to point out that almost all mammals, including apes and monkeys, eat their placentas, so it must be natural. However, humans usually don’t eat their placentas, and for various speculated reasons, neither do camels, llamas, alpacas, and dolphins. In an anthropological review, I found only one region that was documented to perhaps practice placentophagy by the mother, and that was in Chicano culture (Mexican-American). Eating the placenta, despite what you may read elsewhere, just doesn’t seem to be a routine custom for women, even in primitive cultures, although we can’t know for sure as history is often shrouded in mystery. (1)
However, there is a bit more documentation where the placenta is prepared in various ways (fried, puddings, roasts, teas) and then served to others such as the fathers, family members, the baby itself, or to the sick and ailing. Historical Chinese texts record the use of placenta for remedies, although it doesn’t seem to imply that the placenta was eaten by the post-partum woman herself. There is a report of male and female nurse-midwives in Vietnam eating the placentas of (only) healthy women, although they themselves were or Chinese or Thai origin, not Vietnamese. (2) In addition, many cultures, although they don’t eat the placenta, encourage extra special treatment of the placenta, such as burying it, disposing of it in a lake, or placing it in recommended spot. Improper disposal is believed to bring consequences. (1)
Bottom line: I don’t know about you, but I feel manipulated by those internet sites which imply that placentophagy is something that has been routinely done by post-partum women throughout the ages. That is speculation.
Can you really take your placenta home from the hospital?
No one ever asked me to take their placenta home when I did deliveries in family medicine residency. Usually I’d deliver the placenta into a basin, inspect it, and then hand it off, where it was put in a red biohazard bag at clean-up. If anything had seemed off in my inspection, the placenta would be sent to the pathology department for evaluation. In my reading, it looks like different places will have different regulations about the placenta.
Here is a waiver I found if you are interested: Placenta Benefits Release of Placenta and Waiver of Liability Form.
And here, from the same site, is recommendations on how to obtain your placenta in a friendly fashion: Hospital Release of Placentas. (3)
What is done after the placenta comes out to prepare it for consumption?
It sounds like once your placenta is out, it should be placed in an appropriate clean container and immediately put on ice and gotten into a refrigerator as soon as possible. There are people you can contact to process your placenta for you from this point on or you can do it yourself at home. (I was able to Google and find someone in my state who offered this service, although I never called.) They say the placenta should be processed within three days or frozen for later use. [Freezing doesn't seem to affect the presumed active substances in the placenta, although cooking may. For example, temperatures above 104 degrees F (40 degrees C) destroy placental opioid enhancing factor (POEF).] (4)
Processing and methods of preparation include:
- Eating some raw right away as is or mixing it raw into a smoothie.
- Cooking it into some dish, like a roast or spaghetti ragout.
- Cleaning it, steaming it, slicing it, and then dehydrating it to make into a desiccated powder to fill capsules with. (Often steamed with select herbs like ginger. This way is often referred to as the Traditonal Chinese Method because of its description in historical Chinese texts and use in Chinese medicine.)
- Slicing it raw and then dehydrating it without the steaming process, because steaming may inactivate certain placental substances.
What does the research show?
1. Improved milk production in humans: Back in the 1950s, some Czechoslovakian researchers [Soykova-Pachnerova E, et. al.(1954). Gynaecologia 138(6):617-627] fed lactating mothers either dried beef or dried placenta. Those who ingested placenta seemed to have an increase in their milk production, although this was not quantified: “Of 210 controlled cases only 29 (13.8%) gave negative results; 181 women (86.2%) reacted positively to the treatment, 117 (55.7%) with good and 64 (30.5%) with very good results. It could be shown by similar experiments with a beef preparation that the effective substance in placenta is not protein.”
2. Improved pain control with less perception of pain in rat study: In 2004, DiPirro and Kristal did a study looking at placenta ingestion in rats, and they concluded that placenta ingestion regulates the pain sensation in rats (probably from a substance called placental opioid-enhancing factor–POEF). (5,6) Natural endogenous opioids are not actually increased by placentophagy, but instead the body’s response to natural opioids already made is enhanced, allowing for increased pain tolerance.
3. Improved growth rate of breast-fed infants: In 1918, Hammett published a paper in The Journal of Biological Chemistry looking at breast-fed babies from moms who did and did not ingest dried (desiccated) placenta. He found that breast-fed babies whose moms received desiccated placenta had an increased rate of growth over those who did not. (7)
4. Alteration of prolactin and progesterone levels post-partum in rats: Blank and Friesen, in 1980 Journal of Reproductive Fertility, found that giving rats placenta induced an early rise (day 1) in prolactin and a later (day 6) drop in progesterone compared to the control groups, who received various treatments of estrogen injections or human or bovine placenta. The significance of these changes could only be speculated at. (8)
5. Anecdotal survey of women who practiced placentophagy: Researchers performed a survey of women who practiced placentophagy. Although not providing much in the scientific light, it is interesting none the less. Nearly all of the 189 women were satisfied and would practice placentophagy again. (9)
6. Upcoming research due out in 2015 by UNLV’s Dr. Benyshek and team: “Research professors in UNLV’s Department of Anthropology, Department of Nutrition and the School of Community Health Sciences at the University of Nevada Las Vegas are working on a randomised double-blind placebo trial for placenta encapsulation and have plans to complete the data proportion of their study by late summer 2014, and published results sometime in 2015!”
(See more at: http://www.placentanetwork.com/new-placenta-research-study-randomised-double-blind-placebo-trial-2014/#sthash.djtk1Ezv.dpuf) (10)
7. This is not research, but benefits of placentophagy circulate around substances found in the placenta such as oxytocin, human placenta lactogen, corticotropin releasing hormone, other hormones, and iron. Let’s look at a few:
- Oxytocin is present in the placenta. It is a hormone which helps promote contractions, expulsion of the placenta, uterine contraction/clamping down, and milk ejection–among other roles. Proponents of placentophagy make a conclusion that the oxytocin in the placenta can help with milk supply and ejection and the return of the uterus to its pre-partum size.
- Human placenta lactogen is present in the placenta. It is presumed that this will help with the prolactin regulation in the mother. Prolactin helps in the production of milk (whereas oxytocin is more useful in the “ejection” of the milk).
- Corticotropin releasing hormone (CRH), usually only made in the hypothalamus, is made in the placenta during pregnancy and increases throughout pregnancy to unusually high levels in the last trimester. This hormone stimulates the body to make cortisol, a valuable stress hormone, which is important to prepare the body for the stress of labor and delivery. Because the placenta supplies a richCRH production, it inhibits the hypothalamus from doing its normal job. When the placenta is expelled, it no longer providesCRH and soCRH production, and therefore cortisol production, drops off precipitously after delivery until the hypothalamus resumes its normal production. It is believed that this contributes topost-partum blues and anxiety in women until the body re-adjusts for the loss of the placental production ofCRH. (11) Theoretically,placentophagy could provide a “bridge,” not allowing the stress hormone production to just plummet after the loss of the placenta.
- Iron is rich in the placenta. Aside from simple anemia, there have been some studies to suggest a role of iron supplementation on post-partum fatigue and mood changes. Critics of placentophagy, however, point out that there are other options to increase iron in women besides placenta.
We have looked at reasons why some advocate placenta consumption. Why NOT consume your placenta?
Although nearly all mammals DO eat their placentas, human beings historically–that we can track–DO NOT and HAVE NOT. Why? What is the reason? There is no answer at this time. Is it something that became socially taboo? Is it something that traditional, ancient cultures determined could be detrimental to health? We don’t know. Reading the potential positives starts to make you think maybe you should consume your placenta. Maybe we are missing out on something here. But let’s explore reasons why a woman would NOT want to consume her placenta because I think they are important.
Although the placenta is an organ formed in your body, it is formed from the fertilized egg and has therefore the same chromosomal make-up as your baby. It is your baby’s organ. You are in essence eating an organ of the baby and the cells of your baby, albeit cells that are no longer needed.
Prion formation in the placenta. When you eat placenta, you are eating human tissue. What medically speaking is at issue here? There are bad diseases out there caused by these misfolded proteins called “prions.” Maybe you’ve heard of kuru or Creutzfeldt-Jacob Disease (CJD, pronounced in my med school as kroyts-field-yah-cub)? These are prion disease which are unpreventably lethal to the affected person. They are acquired by ingestion of tissue which carries the prion. In the case of kuru it was the ingestion of human nervous tissue. I know. It is very strange that a protein can act as a an infectious-like agent. But now to the money, increased expression of prion protein was found in placentas from mothers who experienced preeclampsia (a syndrome characterized by high blood pressure during pregnancy). (12) So could eating placenta lead to prion disease? That’s a jump. But one that I personally can’t get out of my head.
Heavy metals cannot be detoxified by the placenta and therefore will be in the placental tissue.
There are some reported side effects. These listed come directly cut from Placenta Network (www.placentanetwork.com):
- Mild headaches (reported 3 times – we believe a lower dose is recommended to solve this problem)
- Stomach cramping or abdominal pain (reported once – possibly the result of bacteria growth due to improper storage of capsules)
- Stomach cramping for those also taking iron supplements (we recommend not taking iron supplements and placenta capsules at the same time)
- Pruritic urticarial papules and plaques of pregnancy (PUPPS) rash returning after 3 days of consuming capsules (reported twice)
- Pelvic girdle pain (PGP) sufferers feel less relief (we believe this is due to the high level of relaxin hormone in the placenta, which is the cause of PGP)
- Unexplained lack of milk production (reported from 4 women over the last 5 years)
- Emotional symptoms, stress, anxiety, depression (reported 5 times)
I hope that I gave you a good overview of what to think about as you learn about placentophagy. Reading only the enthusiastic advocates left me thinking I should swallow my “yuck” factor or else maybe I’d be missing out on this beneficial opportunity. Digging deeper has allowed me to see a few reasons why placentophagy is not for me.
My mind doesn’t like to wrap itself around eating human tissue of my own child. (I am not speaking for you.) Prions frighten me a bit, and I don’t think we know enough about the factors which can cause them to increase in the human placenta. And lastly, I cannot even tell you how badly my hips, groins, and pelvis hurt this pregnancy, and it started at 12 weeks along. I am ready to be done with the hormone called relaxin, which is wreaking this havoc and pain on my body, and it looks like anecdotally relaxin’s effects can be prolonged with placentophagy.
Walk wisely in this world. Warmest wishes.
- Young, Sharon M. and Benyshek, Daniel C. (2010) “In Search of Human Placentophagy: A Cross-Cultural Survey of Human Placenta Consumption, Disposal Practices, and Cultural Beliefs”, Ecology of Food and Nutrition, 49: 6, 467 — 484. (Link to full text)
- WB Ober. Notes on Placentophagy. Bull N Y Acad Med. June 1979; 55(6): 591-599. (Link to full scanned in text)
- Mark B. Kristal, Jean M. DiPirro & Alexis C. Thompson (2012): Placentophagia in Humans and Nonhuman Mammals: Causes and Consequences, Ecology of Food and Nutrition, 51:3, 177-197. (Link to full text)
- DiPirro, J.M.; Kristal, M.B. (2004). Placenta ingestion by rats enhances delta-and kappa-opioid antinociception, but suppresses mu-opioid antinociception. Brain Research, 1014:22-33. (Takes you to a page where you can scroll, find the article and pull up the PDF.)
- MB Kristal. (1991) “Enhancement of Opioid-Mediated Analgesia: A Solution to the Enigma of Placentophagia.” Neurosci Biobehav Rev 15(3) 425.
- Hammett F. (1918) “The Effect of Ingestion of Desiccated (dried) Placenta on Milk Production.” The Journal of biological chemistry. Volume 36: 569-573. (Link to a Free Google ebook)
- Blank MS, Friesen HG. “Effects of placentophagy on serum prolactin and progesterone concentrations in rats after parturition or superovulation.” J Reprod Fertil November 1, 1980 60 273-278. (Link to abstract, but the full text is available.)
- Jodi Selander , Allison Cantor , Sharon M. Young & Daniel C. Benyshek (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. (Link to abstract where you can further link to full text.)
- Ilona S. Yim, PhD; Laura M. Glynn, PhD; Christine Dunkel Schetter, PhD; Calvin J. Hobel, MD; Aleksandra Chicz-DeMet, PhD; Curt A. Sandman, PhD. “Risk of Postpartum Depressive Symptoms With Elevated Corticotropin-Releasing Hormone in Human Pregnancy.” Arch Gen Psychiatry. 2009;66(2):162-169. (Link to full text.)
- Hwang HS, Park SH, Park YW, Kwon HS, Sohn IS. “Expression of cellular prion protein in the placentas of women with normal and preeclamptic pregnancies.” Acta Obstet Gynecol Scand. 2010 Sep;89(9):1155-61. (Link to abstract.)