I know what you are thinking, “You want me to eat what?” Perhaps you have heard one of your hippie mama friends whisper about doulas, home births, and placenta encapsulation benefits.
Now you are slightly curious.
Initially, the thought of ingesting one of my organs sounded a bit disgusting. After going through the postpartum healing process, I too, am now curious if there is any validity to the claimed benefits of placentophagy.
So what exactly is placentophagy and placental encapsulation?
Placentophagy is essentially the act of humans eating their placenta.
While consuming the afterbirth is normal for the majority of mammals, it is not a usual activity among us humans. Recently the concept is gaining momentum, as the perceived benefits resonate with so many mothers who are eager to avoid postpartum complications. Moms are looking for a natural way to do so.
And then you have celebs like the Kardashians endorsing the miracles of placenta encapsulation. It’s hard not to wonder if they know some hidden secret us normal people are missing.
Placentophagy seems appropriate and almost instinctual for animals as they cannot easily go to the fridge and pull out a nice sub after a long labor. Consuming the placenta is a quick way to restore nutrients and to hide the birth remnants from predators.
So that sounds reasonable. But how do humans partake in placentophagy?
One way is through placenta encapsulation, which is the process of dehydrating the placenta, grinding it up into a powder, and then placing it in gelatin capsules to make it more palatable for human consumption.
This is not the only way that woman are eating their placenta. Some people eat it raw in smoothies. Others chop it and cook it in a stew or even freeze dry it.
Is there research to support placenta encapsulation benefits?
When I first started researching this subject I thought, surely placentophagy has been practiced for centuries by postpartum mothers of various cultures and the knowledge of it has simply been lost in the era of modern medicine and SSRIs.
I was astonished when there was little scientific documentation that directly related placentophagy to postpartum benefits. I did however, discover that the placenta has been used throughout history for various other purposes.
The earliest documentation of placentophagy seems to be in Deuteronomy 28:57 where different translations of the text can be traced back to the placenta. This section of the bible states, “And toward her young one that cometh out from between her feet,…for she shall eat them for want of all things secretly…”
Ancient Egyptians revered the placenta and believed it represented a vital material or even a quasi-twin. Because of this, Kings would often bring a representation of the placenta into battle.
The human placenta has been used in Chinese medicine to treat ailments that stemmed from ch’i exhaustion such as anemia, liver ailments, and lack of blood supply to the kidneys.
Many other cultures have preserved the placenta for medicinal use if the child became sick in the first year of life.
So what are the potential placenta encapsulation benefits that have so many naturally-minded moms so excited?
- Increased breast milk supply
- Postpartum analgesia
- Improved healing
- Reduced incidence of postpartum hemorrhage
- Reduction of postpartum depression
- Reports of feeling more energized and less fatigued
Many of these benefits are self reported by moms and do not have the scientific evidence to back it up. This Harvard Medical School based study did show an increased weight gained by breastfed babies when the mothers participated in placentophagy, although it is a very dated study.
Another study tested 28 desiccated placenta samples and found them to retain micronutrients and trace elements. Although these samples did also contain toxic elements such as lead, mercury, and arsenic, they were far below the established toxicity thresholds.
Animal studies have more promising positive data and show that placentophagy enhances endogenous opioid analgesia. Another animal study compared prolactin levels in female rats that were allowed to eat their placenta versus rats that were prevented from consuming. There was an increased level of serum prolactin on the first day postpartum in the rats that were allowed to consume the placenta. If this result is replicated in humans it could mean less waiting time for the milk to come in and minimal weight loss for newborns.
Are there risks associated with Placentophagy?
There are many concerns that mainstream medicine has with placentophagy in human mothers.
There is an overt lack of any formal human-based research regarding the subject. There is also not standard regulations for the processing of the placenta in place to ensure it is pure and free from pathogens.
In one extreme case, a healthy baby had to be admitted to the NICU for a week after her mom consumed a placenta contaminated with GBS bacteria.
There is also concern that a woman would delay treatment for postpartum depression due to waiting around for the placenta pills to “kick in.”
How do you encapsulate your placenta?
There are videos on youtube that show how to DIY placenta encapsulation.
The Association of Placental Preparation Arts is a resource for finding a certified placenta encapsulation specialist who is trained in safe handling and processing of the placenta. This organization addresses the concerns about GBS colonization. Keep in mind that the FDA does not regulate these standards.
You can also check and see if your midwife or doula offers placenta encapsulation services.
What are mothers saying about placenta encapsulation?
So what is a mom to do with all of this information?
I am a firm believer that not every home remedy needs a double-blind peer-reviewed study to validate efficacy. Word of mouth is how much of nature-made medicinal wisdom has been passed down for years.
If you are one who has struggled with milk supply or postpartum depression in the past, it may be a good option to have your placenta encapsulated and on hand so that you have natural options. You may find you don’t even need it.
I guess for those who place substantial weight on evidence-based research versus the testimonies of others, the options are to wait and hope there is more research being conducted. The rest of us will have to rely on our tribe of moms who have first-hand experience with placenta encapsulation benefits.
If you are currently pregnant, it may be helpful to read pregnancy forums with testimonies from others regarding placentophagy benefits.