Overview

Consumption of the placenta by a mother after birth has been taboo, but it has been gaining popularity in recent years. The thought of eating your placenta might gross you out at first, but once you hear about some of the fantastic benefits women claim it has, you might be willing to consider it. This is not another pregnancy podcast solely focused on all of the wonderful things placenta encapsulation does. This episode dives into this practice’s possible benefits and risks, examines the scientific evidence available to back up the claims, and addresses your options for consuming your placenta from raw placenta smoothies to placenta encapsulation. After listening to this episode, you will understand what placenta encapsulation is and have all of the pros, cons, evidence, and options so you can decide whether you want to encapsulate your placenta.

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The thought of eating your placenta might gross you out at first, but once you hear about some of the fantastic benefits women claim it has, you might be willing to consider it. This is not an article solely focused on all of the wonderful things placenta encapsulation does. This is an examination of all the pros, cons, evidence, studies, and all of your options. After reading this article, you will understand what placenta encapsulation is and have all of the information you could need to decide if you want to consider this. 

The Placenta

Let’s start with a basic understanding of the placenta. After a fertilized egg implants in your uterus, part of those cells develops into the placenta. In mammals, placentas go back to around 150 million to 200 million years ago. This flat oval-shaped organ becomes your baby’s life support system. One side attaches to your uterine wall; the other side has an umbilical cord that connects to your baby.  

At birth, a typical placenta is about 8.6 inches (22 cm) in diameter and .78-1 inch (2-2.5) cm thick and weighs about one pound (.45 kg).  Oxygen and nutrients transfer from you to your baby. Carbon dioxide and other waste products transfer from your baby through the placenta and to your blood supply. 

Beginning around week 20 of your pregnancy, antibodies pass through the placenta to help protect your baby in utero. The antibodies will help protect your baby during the first few months of life and build their immune system. 

Your placenta also plays a significant role in secreting hormones that are vital for your baby. This includes hCG, commonly known as the pregnancy hormone, estrogen, progesterone, oxytocin, and prolactin. These hormones are essential for your baby’s development and everything in your body during your pregnancy and birth and prepare you for breastfeeding. Lastly, your placenta acts as a blood reservoir for your baby and continues to transfer blood even after birth. This is the reason many parents choose to delay cord clamping. Your placenta is an amazing organ; your baby’s life depends on it.   

After your baby is born, your body no longer needs your placenta, and the organ will detach from your uterine wall and come out the same way your baby did. There is a complete episode on the third stage and your options for interventions and management.

Should your placenta be discarded once your baby is born, or could it assist you in adapting and thriving in the postpartum period?

The History of Human Placentophagy and Traditions

Human placentophagy is the technical term for eating your placenta. This can be either raw or altered by cooking, drying, or steeping in liquid. Humans are among a small group of mammals that do not consume their placenta after birth. Also included in this group are marine mammals and camels. Otherwise, the vast majority of mammals do eat the placenta after birth.

Although placentophagy is not widely practiced, many cultures do have traditions surrounding the treatment of the placenta after birth.

In Cambodia, traditional healers call the placenta “the globe of the origin of the soul,” and they believe it must be buried in the right location and orientation to protect the baby. The burial place may be covered with a spiky plant to keep evil spirits and dogs from interfering because they believe interference with it could have long-term effects on the mother’s mental health.

The Maori of New Zealand calls the placenta Whenua, which also means land. For the Maori, the land nourishes the people, as the placenta also nourishes. The Maori traditionally bury the placenta and the umbilical cord on tribal land. They believe that returning the placenta to Mother Earth after birth establishes a sacred link between the land and the child. These are just a few examples, but other cultures treat the placenta differently than just discarding it as waste. It is a sacred thing, and it is honored after birth. 

There is some evidence of cultures consuming the placenta. The human placenta has been used for ages in traditional Chinese medicine. It is worth noting that the person consuming it was not usually the mother it came from. There are not a lot of historical references to humans eating placenta. Some accounts can be attributed to times of famine when survival may have depended on it. Other accounts took place in a cannibalistic society which could have influenced the practice.

It wasn’t as if humans had always eaten their placenta, then one day, we stopped when we became civilized. While there is documentation of placentophagy dating back quite a way, this practice started gaining traction in the 70s and is becoming increasingly popular today.

Benefits and Risks

The list of potential benefits of placentophagy is impressive. It includes replenishing depleted iron, increasing energy, lessening the amount of postnatal bleeding, increasing milk production, balancing out hormones, and helping your uterus return to its pre-pregnancy state. These benefits all sound amazing.

A concern often raised when talking about the potential risks of placenta encapsulation is based on the fact that this is an organ that has acted as a filter to absorb and protect your developing baby from toxins and pollutants.

The Growing Popularity of Placenta Consumption

 There are a lot of varying degrees of placenta consumption, from smoothies to encapsulating it in pills. You may think this is something for hippie moms, but the number of A-list celebrities choosing to consume their placentas grows every year. When you have women like January Jones and Kim Kardashian publicly talking about how placenta encapsulation is a fantastic thing that helped them thrive after their baby was born, people start to listen.

In a review of medical records of over 23,000 mothers that gave birth in community birth settings, like a birth center or at home, nearly one-third (30.8%) consumed their placenta. The most common reason (73.1%) for engaging in placentophagy was to prevent postpartum depression. Placentophagy was not associated with any adverse neonatal outcomes.

Placebo Effect

One recurring theme is the possibility that consuming the placenta has positive effects due to the placebo effect. Someone would encapsulate their placenta because they perceive multiple postpartum health benefits. These are benefits drawn from the media, friends, family, doulas, midwives, and even doctors. They expect a positive result is likely to skew results positively. Many people would argue that even if their experience of a better postpartum period results from the placebo effect, who cares? They are right. As long as a result is positive and has no negative consequences, it doesn’t matter.

Mothers’ Experiences

One resource, often cited as evidence of the benefits of placenta encapsulation, was a survey done by UNLV researchers who surveyed 189 women who ate their placenta, most of them in capsules. Overall, 96% of the women said they had a “positive” or “very positive” experience consuming their placenta. 98% said they would do it again. About 57% of women in the study reported no adverse effects from ingesting placenta. The most commonly reported negative experience revolved around the pill’s taste and the “ick” factor of consuming the placenta. As reported by the participants in the survey, the top positive effects were improved mood, increased energy, and improved lactation. The top adverse side effects were unpleasant burping, headaches, and an unappealing taste or smell.

The Evidence

If you want to dig into the science side of this debate, there is a great article that was written after a computerized search of all of the major scientific journals from 1950 to 2014 for anything published in the scientific or medical community of placentophagy and summarized the findings of a total of 49 articles. This is a pretty lengthy read, but there were some solid points worth mentioning. The results noted that the health benefits and risks of placentophagy require further investigation. As to risks, the placenta is not sterile, and one function of the placenta is to protect the fetus from harmful exposure to substances. Consequently, elements including selenium, cadmium, mercury, lead, and bacteria have been identified in post-term placental tissues. There have been some studies on animals, such as rats, consuming placenta immediately after birth, but overall, the results are inconclusive from a scientific standpoint. This article breaks down and explains the results from any study that exists. From a scientific perspective, the bottom line is that more research is needed to determine whether benefits can be replicated in other populations with sound research methodology. 

Iron

A randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled pilot study looked at iron levels for women who consumed placenta vs. placebo of a beef placenta. This was a pilot study with only 23 participants. The researchers summarize that encapsulated placenta supplementation neither significantly improves nor impairs postpartum maternal iron status for women consuming the RDA of dietary iron during pregnancy and lactation.

Iron is an essential nutrient during pregnancy and while breastfeeding. A high-quality prenatal vitamin should include iron from a bioavailable source to cover your iron needs regardless of whether or not you decide to encapsulate your placenta. 

Micronutrients and Toxins

One study examined 28 placentas and tested them to determine what minerals and nutrients they contained. The researchers tested for 14 trace minerals and elements. The amounts were small when looking at essential elements like zinc, iron, and selenium and didn’t come anywhere near the RDA. In looking at some potentially harmful substances like arsenic, lead, and mercury, they found all of these to be below established toxicity thresholds.

Balancing Out Hormones

One of the most significant reported benefits of placenta encapsulation is balancing out hormones. Theoretically should help with the baby blues and postpartum depression. Your hormone levels drop drastically following birth. If you have made it through your first trimester, you know firsthand how hormones can make your moods swing all over the place, and it is entirely out of your control. Combine this with sleep deprivation, the physical stress after having a baby, your body healing, breastfeeding challenges, and the stress of taking care of a newborn, and you have the perfect storm to be bummed out after birth. The postpartum period is quite an adjustment as you navigate being a new parent. Your body is healing if it is possible that consuming your placenta in some way could help that it is worth looking into. 

One group of researchers looked at whether encapsulated placenta contains hormones and if those hormones are in amounts significant enough to affect you. 15 of the 17 hormones they tested for were present in all 28 samples. Keep in mind that this was tested on the encapsulated placenta, so they looked at whether these hormones were present after going through all of the treatments to dehydrate and process a placenta. The conclusion was that because many factors affect hormone bioavailability and bioactivity, such as delivery method and interaction between hormones, it is difficult to say conclusively whether the values reported here could elicit physiological effects in women taking placenta capsules. Despite this limitation, while concentrations of many of the selected hormones are relatively low, mean concentrations of estradiol, progesterone, and allopregnanolone could potentially reach physiological effect thresholds, given the maximum 3300 mg/day intake guidelines of some encapsulation providers. 

A pilot study randomized 27 participants to receive supplements either containing their placenta or a placebo and measured salivary hormone concentrations. The group who received the placenta supplements did have higher measured hormone concentrations. However, these were insufficient to result in significant hormonal differences between the two groups. The researchers also note whether modest hormonal changes due to placenta supplementation are associated with therapeutic postpartum effects await further investigation.

Infection

There was a medical case that caught the attention of the CDC and made headlines when the CDC cautioned against placenta encapsulation. The case was a baby who was treated for Group B Strep. After 11 days on antibiotics, the baby tested negative and was sent home. Five days later, the baby was admitted to another hospital after contracting GBS again after the placenta, infected with GBS, was encapsulated and eaten by the mother.    

The CDC’s official opinion is that consuming contaminated placenta capsules might have elevated maternal GBS intestinal and skin colonization, facilitating transfer to the infant. The CDC states that the placenta encapsulation process does not per se eradicate infectious pathogens; thus, placenta capsule ingestion should be avoided. In cases of maternal GBS colonization, chorioamnionitis, or early-onset neonatal GBS infection, ingestion of capsules containing contaminated placenta could heighten maternal colonization, thereby increasing an infant’s risk for late-onset neonatal GBS infection. Clinicians should inquire about a history of placenta ingestion in cases of late-onset GBS infection and educate mothers interested in placenta encapsulation about the potential risks.

Safety Standards and Regulatory Agencies

No governmental or regulatory agency oversees placenta preparation. The Association of Placenta Preparation Arts is an organization that certifies preparers of the encapsulated placenta and has specific standards that must be met. The APPA responded to the CDC statements and noted that a maternal or fetal infection at birth would be a contraindication for placenta consumption. They concluded that the placenta should not have been prepared or consumed in the case reviewed by the CDC. The association also discusses the importance of safe handling and preparation. Some providers adhere to Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) regulations for the safety and handling of placental tissue.

Additional Research and Articles

If you are interested in reading additional research on placenta encapsulation, this article covers a lot of the research on the risks and benefits. You can also read this article on the research on placenta consumption in humans and animals.

Summarizing the Research

While we have seen more evidence and studies done in the past few years, there is no perfect large-scale, placebo-controlled study to give us black and white benefits or risks of consuming your placenta. Without a study showing a large group of women who ate their placenta, compared to a group given a placebo, the only evidence we have is from smaller studies and anecdotal information. Many women consume their placenta and rave about the benefits of it. This anecdotal information has value. There is a lot of a grey area as to whether there is evidence to back up all of the claims made for eating your placenta. On the other hand, no solid large-scale study tells us that it isn’t safe or that it should be advised against either.

A review in the American Journal of Obstetrics and Gynecology found no scientific evidence of any clinical benefit of placentophagy among humans, and no placental nutrients and hormones are retained in sufficient amounts after placenta encapsulation be potentially helpful to the mother postpartum. They state that because placentophagy is potentially harmful with no documented benefit, counseling women should be directive: physicians should discourage this practice.

The practice of placentophagy is much more common and accepted in the midwife community and in-home and birth center births. While this practice is growing, we still need more data to have a clear picture of the risks and benefits.

Can You Have Your Placenta?

It would be easy to assume you can do whatever you want with your placenta, but that may not be the case. You need to check with your state and the hospital or birth center you are planning to have your birth to make sure that you can remove your placenta. Assuming it is legal where you live, this shouldn’t be an issue at most birth centers. It is becoming more common for hospitals to allow you to take your placenta home or have someone else take it to prepare it. Some hospitals label the placenta as medical waste and deem it hazardous to release it to a patient to take home. This may be partly for liability reasons. If you want your placenta after birth, check the policies of your care provider, talk to your doctor or midwife and make sure it is an option.  

Options for Consuming Placenta

There are many different ways that you can consume your placenta. You can eat it raw or cook it. You can dehydrate it and put it into capsules or make it a tincture.

Raw or Cooked

Your first option is to consume it raw. The most common way of eating your placenta raw is to put it in a smoothie. If you plan to eat it raw, it should be consumed within three days and stored in the fridge.  You can also freeze it for up to six months. To make a smoothie, you would add any amount of the placenta that you would like, from about an inch sliced cube to a cup of it to any smoothie. This works with fruit, vegetables, nut butter, milk, juice, and anything you usually put in a smoothie. A Google search for “placenta smoothie recipes” yields about 152,000 results.

Another option is to cook your placenta. You can find recipes online to use placenta in anything from lasagna to pizza and sandwiches. Some people prefer the raw method of cooking or drying the placenta because they believe nutrients are lost during the steaming or cooking process. I couldn’t find any evidence showing one was better than another, and they have both have pros and cons.

Encapsulated

If all of this sounds off-putting to you, there is another option, which is much easier for many women to stomach: placenta encapsulation. This is the most common and perhaps the most socially acceptable method used. 

Once your placenta is out, it should be refrigerated until it is treated and processed to be encapsulated.  Typically, the person taking care of the encapsulation for you will pick up your placenta, and the first step in the process is to drain and clean it. The next step will vary depending on the method used to encapsulate your placenta. According to the traditional Chinese medicine method, it is steamed with herbs. Traditionally this includes lemongrass, ginger, and spicy green pepper. The other option is the raw method, which skips cooking it with herbs. If you are into raw foods and eat a raw food diet, this option may be more aligned with your lifestyle. The following steps are the same regardless of the method being used, and the next is slicing the placenta very thinly and putting it in a dehydrator. Once the placenta is dehydrated, it is ground up and put into gel capsules. There are some different types of gel capsules, so if it is important to you to have vegetarian or vegan capsules, or if you want to know your options on this, be sure to ask about it.

This entire process takes between 1-3 days, and once the capsules are done, they are delivered to you, and you can start taking them right away. You will want to store them in a cool, dry place and probably be taking a few capsules a couple of times a day. Depending on your total supply, you should have pills for about a month, and you would want to take these within 6-12 months max. There is no standard on dosage, so talk with your care provider and the person who will be encapsulating your placenta to figure out what will be best for you. 

Providers and Cost

It is possible to do this yourself, and you can find information and instructions online on how to prepare your placenta. If you consider doing this yourself, keep in mind that you will probably have your hands full, especially in the first few days. Most moms who choose to have their placenta encapsulated will outsource it to a doula or midwife specializing in the process.  Prices will range depending on the person providing this service and their experience level. You can expect to pay around $300 for someone to encapsulate your placenta.

Tincture

The last option available to you is to have a tincture made from your placenta. This is a good option to stretch out the time you can use it. A small portion of your placenta is added to over 100 proof alcohol and ferments for six weeks. Some women do this and save it to take later as a mood stabilizer during their menstrual cycle to help with PMS or even later in life when they are going through menopause. If you may want to consider this, please talk to your encapsulation specialist about it. Some mothers choose to get both encapsulated placenta and a tincture.

Accreditation and Certification

There is no nationally accredited certification program for placenta preparation. Several organizations offer a training program and a certification. This includes the Association for Placenta Preparation, PlacentaBenefits.info, and the International Placenta and Postpartum Association. If you are looking into multiple providers of this service, it may be worth asking if they have any certification and how many clients they have served. You want to ensure you are working with someone who has strict safety standards in place.

Talking to Your Doctor or Midwife

As with anything, it is always a good idea to discuss your options with your doctor or midwife. If placenta encapsulation is not supported, it could still be worth hearing their opinion and advice. In general, this practice is more commonly supported by midwives. If your care provider is supportive of placenta encapsulation, they may recommend someone to prepare it for you. If you plan to take your placenta home or have someone pick it up, please ensure your care provider is aware of this, so it is not discarded after your birth.

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