At many Medical Centers across the U.S., shortly after the average baby is born he or she will be cleaned, swaddle, snuggled into a hat, and lovingly placed into mama’s arms. All while the evidence of labor and delivery; literal blood, sweat, and tears is disposed of. That is until a recent (old) trend has a growing number of women requesting to take home something that would easily turn the stomach of most Westerners; the after birth.
Oh, the placenta! That veiny blob of organ meat that is usually thrown away?
Yes, believe it or not, more and more women are requesting that their placenta is packed up and taken home with them to be eaten or consumed by the mother. There are many ways that one can consume their own placenta. You can eat it raw, sauté it with onions, enjoy it in a smoothie, drink it as a broth, use it in a tincture, or have it encapsulated.
The placenta is a temporary organ that grows and surrounds the fetus in the womb allowing for the exchange of nutrients, blood, and waste.
It does the job of the lungs, liver, kidneys and other organs until the fetal ones are strong enough. It is vital to the fetus’ survival. In fact, if something goes wrong with the placenta, devastating problems can result including miscarriage, stillbirth, and pre-eclampsia. The placenta is delivered from the uterus after birth — hence the nickname. Consuming and preparing the placenta has been documented often in ancient Chinese medicine, but there are reports of it in Vietnamese, Hungarian and Italian cultures as well. Though the practice is centuries old, it is regaining popularity in both mainstream and alternative modern birth communities; especially after celebrities like January Jones and Kim Kardashian raved about their plans to consume their own placentas and the amazing results that followed.
In our country, the practice of consuming one’s placenta isn’t something commonly discussed. But slowly, researchers are discovering that the placenta can not only nourish a growing unborn baby but offers some incredible benefits for mama too.
In 2016, a study was published analyzing 28 placentas that had been encapsulated and donated by participants. It was discovered that the placenta capsules contained a modest amount of iron; about one fourth of the recommended amount for breastfeeding women. The study also concluded that the placenta contains modest amounts of other beneficial minerals.
In another publication that analyzed the same data, tested the placenta capsules for 17 different hormones. Researchers found that 15 out of the 17 hormones were present in all 28 of the placentas. Hormones that could lead to positive physiological effects in postpartum women like, progesterone, estradiol, which is a form of estrogen, cortisol, aldosterone, and testosterone. Overall, this study wasn’t looking to see if these hormones had any effects. They were just looking to see if the hormones were present, and they were.
Researchers at the University of Nevada are conducting a large, randomized placebo controlled trial to discover if placenta consumption has any effect on postpartum depression. The smaller blind study, published in February 2015, randomly assigned women to either taking their own placenta capsules or to take an encapsulated beef placebo.
The women’s iron and hemoglobin levels were measured at 36 weeks of pregnancy, four days after the baby was born, again one week after the baby was born, and between three and four weeks after the baby was born. These women were instructed to take 2 capsules, three times a day, for the first four days of the study. Then 2 capsules, two times a day, for days five through twelve. And then, 2 capsules once per day, until the end of the study.
The study ended between approximately three or four weeks postpartum.
Most of the women had a decline in their hemoglobin levels and were trending down towards anemia immediately after birth and around day four. Then the hemoglobin levels increased around one week, and again between three to four weeks, in both groups.
Whether they were taking the placebo with beef or their placenta capsules, the anemia and iron levels improved regardless. Researchers did analyze the contents of the placenta capsules and found that they did contain higher levels of iron than the beef placebo. The further research of placentophagy (yeah, that’s a thing) can help us to better understand the link between iron deficiency anemia and postpartum depression.
Placenta encapsulation has been used to alleviate anxiety and fatigue and replace lost iron and nutrients in postpartum women, among other benefits by many cultures for centuries. No joke, placentas have been used in Traditional Chinese Medicine since the 1500s, which is longer than modern medicine has been in existence. And, we know animals consume the placentas of their offspring, so why not humans?
Up to 80% of women experience the baby blues within the first week of birth. Women who consume their placenta report fewer emotional issues and a more enjoyable postpartum time. Who wouldn’t want that?!
It’s widely believed that consuming the placenta can:
• Help to balance your hormones
• Replenish depleted iron levels
• Assist the uterus to return to its pre-pregnancy state
• Reduce post-natal bleeding
• Increase milk production (learn more here)
• Make for a happier, more enjoyable post-natal period
• Increase your energy levels
• Can be used anytime for alertness
• Help to balance hormones during menopause (store in freezer as you would any meat product)
It is important to note that no large, well-controlled studies have been done yet to report on the effects of consuming the placenta after birth or to determine the correct dosage. Nor have any studies been concluded that consuming placenta is dangerous. Placenta encapsulation appears to carry no inherent risk if ingested solely by the mother.
See what these mothers had to say:
“Encapsulated and had it put in a tincture. I believe in it…..I was skeptical at first and so was my hubby. With my first born, I was a mess afterward. Crying, mad emotions everywhere. This time around it was a lot fewer hormone waves. And I would take extra if I needed. It worked that’s all I know. I would do it again and I recommend it to anyone I know who is pregnant. As far as the tincture. It’s so you have some for Later on…period time, emotional stress etc. I just put it on my tongue and yes it was really gross. But I am one of those who will take or eat something if it is beneficial ” -Adria
“Yes! Encapsulated mine with my third! It helped so much!!! Seriously couldn’t believe it. With my others, I felt weepy and out of control. This time around I felt great. More energy for sure but also more clear headed. I can’t say no PPD because that can be diagnosed later on….way after the pills are done. But it did help me make it through the rough first two weeks emotionally. I also drank the broth from steaming. It did not have a taste but did smell meaty. Lol. I drank it mixed with raspberry leaf tea.” -Stephanie
“I did. And it would have helped had I had milk issues. I really didn’t have any post baby issues other than being in less pain” -Michelle
“Encapsulate and tincture. Helped tremendously with hormone regulation.” -Kaity
“I encapsulated. About 3 months after giving birth I started to get sad and each day I got progressively worse until about a week later I was crying at the gym while working out! I knew then that my hormones were messed up. It dawned on me to try my pills. By the next day, my energy was back and I was smiling again!! That’s when I knew for sure that consuming your placenta is very beneficial.” -Michelle
My own experience with the 4th trimester was radically different between my two children. With my first son (read my C-section Birth Story), I did not consume the placenta, rather, I chose cord blood collection. 12 weeks later, I was no longer able to breastfeed or pump, and I suffered from full on depression. After my VBAC, I chose to encapsulate the placenta, and though struggled with nursing due to unrelated issues (read Aventures in Breastfeeding), I had way more milk supply.
Is Placenta Encapsulation Safe?
You may be thinking about the CDC recently releasing a case study on a newborn that had a recurrent Group B Streptococcus (GBS) infection and correlated the cause as the mother’s encapsulated placenta. Thus, some health officials issued a warning against placenta encapsulation leaving some women wondering if it is safe?
Here is the thing, group B Streptococcus bacteria live on our skin and thrive in mucous membranes… like the vagina. Approximately 25% of pregnant mothers test positive for this. Expectant mothers need to understand that a positive GBS test result shows that, at that time there is an abundance of GBS bacteria in the vagina. But also, colonization doesn’t mean you have an active GBS infection. GBS is transient meaning that you might have a negative test result at 37 weeks, then be positive for GBS during labor – and vice versa. If colonization occurs during birth, newborns can be at risk for an infection. However, most babies who are exposed to GBS don’t become infected.
So, about this CDC case study. In 2016, health authorities in Oregon were notified of a case of late onset GBS in a newborn occurring just five days after treatment for early onset GBS. At 37 weeks, the mother had been tested for GBS with negative results. But soon after birth, the newborn showed signs of infection and a test revealed a positive for GBS, even though the mother did not show signs of colonization.
Upon the second hospitalization for the newborn, it was discovered that the mother began to consume her placenta via capsules on the third day following the birth. The capsules were tested and were found to contain the same strain of GBS bacteria that had infected the baby. However, tests of the mother’s breast milk showed no signs of GBS, and so it was ruled out as a potential source of infection.
The authors of the case study concluded by stating:
“The placenta encapsulation process does not, per se, eradicate infectious pathogens; thus, placenta capsule ingestion should be avoided”.
It’s important to know that this is not the official stance of the CDC.
While there are no regulatory standards in place for placenta encapsulation, training organizations who certify placenta encapsulation are rigorous in providing the highest safety protocols in their courses. Be sure to ask important questions such as:
• Where will the encapsulation process take place?
• What disinfection procedures are used?
• What food safety protocols are followed?
• Do they use the Raw or TCM method?
Dr. Sophia Johnson from Jena University in Germany is also undertaking research as to the benefits of placenta encapsulation. Her preliminary data released in April 2017 “has found no unsafe organisms in properly prepared placental tissue.” The research team found that dehydration reduced microbial counts while steaming and dehydration resulting in even greater germ reduction.
What’s the bottom line?
The National Institute of Child Health and Human Development calls the placenta “the least understood human organ and arguably one of the more important, not only for the health of a woman and her fetus during pregnancy but also for the lifelong health of both.”
Though no evidence of the benefits of placentaphagy has been published, what the research does conclude is that low iron can result in feeling exhausted and is a major risk factor for postpartum depression. Could the placenta be nature’s anti-depressant? More research is warranted and some studies are on the way. However, my experience, as well as everyone else’s, is more than enough for me to be convinced that our fellow mammals are right to follow their instincts.
Even if you’re not convinced, I sure am.
If you are looking for recommendations on who to trust with your placenta encapsulation, feel free to ask me at your next office visit.
CDC case study: https://www.cdc.gov/mmwr/volumes/66/wr/mm6625a4.htm
Dr. Johnson 2017: https://www.cdc.gov/mmwr/volumes/66/wr/mm6625a4.htm