What’s the deal with placenta consumption?

Photo by Sharon McCutcheon on Unsplash

What do you think when I say, “placenta consumption”?

Maybe you’re grossed out just thinking about touching a placenta. Or maybe, you’re thinking back to that delicious placenta smoothie you once had. Wherever you fall on the placenta-curious spectrum, I’m eager to tell you about placenta consumption: what it is, how it’s done, and what the risks and benefits are.

What is placenta consumption?

It is when someone – typically adults and even more typically the person who just gave birth – digests the placenta (which, by the way, is the only deliberately transitive organ in the human body and is just absolutely freaking incredible). This is a practice that has been done for centuries in many contexts (you can find placenta recipes in Chinese medical books from the 1500s) and has recently started gaining traction in mainstream conversations in the U.S.

How is it done?

There are options. Most mammals simply eat their placenta after giving birth. People who have done this have some very helpful suggestions for how to get over the texture, which is unpleasantly chewy (you can freeze the placenta into cubes and eat those, mix it with seeds, blend it in a smoothie, etc.).

Another, possibly more palatable, option is to consume an encapsulated placenta. Placenta encapsulation is a process by which someone – often someone trained in this work who understands food safety – dehydrates and pulverizes a raw or cooked (usually steamed) placenta. One benefit of this form of consumption over others is that, for those not used to placenta consumption, swallowing a pill may be easier to comprehend than eating a raw or cooked placenta “straight up”.

If you want to read more from people who consumed their placentas about what they tasted like, check out this article.

What are the risks and benefits of placenta consumption?

This hasn’t been studied very well. In fact, if you wanted to read some cringeworthy academic drama, just go through responses to articles on placentophagy. So keep that in mind as you read on.

Here’s what we see in practice.

Photo credit: me. Photo used with permission from placenta’s owner.

Some people report feeling shaky or anxious after consuming placenta, and diseases or pathogens can survive the process of encapsulation and make the consumer ill. But other people have very positive experiences; in one study, the majority of participants (U.S. women who ingested their placenta) said that after doing so, they had improved mood, lower fatigue, and better lactation. The most common downside of placenta ingestion reported on this survey was “unpleasant taste or smell.” There are mixed anecdotes and no research as to whether milk production is positively or negatively affected by placenta consumption.

Here’s why we might think there’d be benefits.

Giving birth involves losing a lot of iron. Maybe eating your placenta gets your iron back faster. But – while there is more iron in a chunk of placenta than there is in a comparable beef placebo –, researchers who compared women taking one of these two things didn’t find a difference in actual iron levels in the person consuming them.

Another possible benefit of placenta encapsulation is that consuming placenta might provide beneficial hormones. So, researchers looked at 28 placentas to try to figure out if there were any beneficial hormones in there. Turns out, not only were there a bunch of hormones; three were present in levels that could hypothetically impact someone consuming the placenta. Those three were estradiol (a type of estrogen that maintains the reproductive system), progesterone (which delays ovulation), and allopregnanolone (a neurosteroid which helps regulate emotions). Further research needs to be done to see how consumption and ingestion of these hormones actually works in practice. (But fascinatingly, estradiol and allopregnanolone are already being studied for their role in alleviating postpartum depression.)

Researchers looking at these placentas also found that they were a “modest source of some trace micronutrients and a minimal source of toxic elements.” For example, the encapsulated placenta pills they studied would provide 24% of a lactating woman’s recommended dietary allowance of iron in a day (“the same as three ounces of chicken liver or three ounces of canned sardines“), and not enough arsenic or lead to be concerning.

But one other factor I want to point out that hasn’t been well studied yet is that the placebo effects can be a wonderful thing. So if there’s even a chance that consuming your placenta is good for you, and you consume your placenta, that may be in and of itself a helpful activity, whatever your iron / hormone / nutrient levels. It can be a very useful strategy for the postpartum time period to have activities that show you that you are investing in yourself – that baby matters, but parents matter too. This is especially true for parents who are at higher risk for postpartum depression. So if placenta consumption is that kind of activity for you, that’s a definite benefit.

And here’s why there’s a lot of concern.

First, I want to highlight that if you’re considering placenta consumption as a way to fight postpartum depression, it should not be your only tool. Other resources, especially mental health professionals, are incredibly important pieces of a complete treatment plan.

One big problem with consuming a placenta is food and fluid safety. A placenta is an organ that should be treated like any other organ, for interaction or for consumption; following safety protocols is important. For example, if you wouldn’t leave a chicken liver in your car for a few hours before eating it, you shouldn’t do that with a placenta. And, if you wouldn’t use particular dishes to hold other bodily fluids (such as vomit or semen), you shouldn’t use them to hold a placenta. People who do placenta preparation or encapsulation should be mindful of protocols for handling human bodily fluids, sanitizing work spaces and tools, and storing food safely.

The placenta can pass blood-borne diseases, which is why there’s general consensus that no one should consume a placenta that was affected by an infection or disease. That can be very dangerous. There are even more concerns to be considered if someone other than the person who birthed the placenta is ingesting the placenta. This includes a baby who is nursing or receiving pumped milk from someone who is ingesting placenta.

These concerns are serious, and though there are ways to prevent them, they may not always work. This is cited as the main reason why the CDC recommends against placenta consumption. Their recommendation is based on a 2016 case of pathogen transmission through placental consumption for a mother who was GBS positive. Generally, people who are pro-placenta-consumption agree that a placenta from someone who is GBS positive should NOT be consumed; but, in this case, the mother’s 37-week screening said that she was GBS negative. So presumably, there was no way for her to know that she (and her placenta) were actually carrying the disease. But, after birth, the disease made her infant very ill. Then, after being discharged from the NICU, the baby became very ill again; this second disease was suspected to be due to GBS-infected encapsulated placenta pills. 

One recent study found no associations between placenta consumptions and negative outcomes for the baby (NICU admission, hospital admission, or death in the first 6 weeks after birth). This study compared over 7,000 women who consumed their own placentas and over 16,000 who did not, but the data were self-reported and may have some systematic bias in not reporting bad outcomes for either group. So these data aren’t very trustworthy for the group that consumed their placenta, and for the group that did not.

So, overall,

there may be benefits to placenta consumption. Risks exist as well, though are less likely to be realized when screening and health/safety protocols are followed. For these reasons, the American Pregnancy Association does not recommend or discourage placenta consumption. Yet because of the risks, other organizations, such as the CDC (as mentioned above), discourage it.

If you have questions about whether the risks or benefits of placenta consumption are greater for you, talk to a medical provider that you trust. And if you choose to consume your placenta, be sure to follow, or hire someone who follows, all recommended food and bodily fluid safety protocols.

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