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Placentophagy: Eating Your Placenta

8月 2021
Frances Verter, PhD & Liat Ben Senior, MBA MSc

 

The placenta is an amazing organ that not only provides all the nutrients the baby needs to survive, but also disposes of waste products, protects against infections, and produces hormones to sustain the pregnancy.

Many cultures have traditions to honor the placenta for its important role during pregnancy, typically by burying it and performing a ceremony. Recently the practice of eating the placenta has become popular, partly inspired by celebrity influencers such as Chrissy Teigen, Kim Kardashian, and others1,2.

Placentophagy CowWhat is placentophagy?

Eating your placenta is called placentophagy, and it is considered a survival instinct for over 4000 species of mammals. One reason why animals eat their placenta is that it gives them nourishment, especially at a time when they need to feed their young and can’t leave them to look for food. Another explanation is that it keeps the birthing den clean to avoid attracting predators.

Because humans live in social groups, birthing mothers do not have to eat their placenta in order to defend themselves against predators or forage for food. In fact, researchers who study ancient societies have found a “conspicuous absence” of placentophagy in their cultural records3. Stories which claim placentophagy was a common ancient custom are simply not true. Another popular rumor is that placentophagy is practiced in Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), but experts in TCM have refuted that claim4,5.

Placentophagy Elephant. Image Credit: James NampasoPlacentophagy advocates claim that the placenta contains nutrients that can prevent postpartum depression, reduce postpartum bleeding, boost energy levels, improve milk supply, and provide essential vitamins. The actress January Jones credited eating her own placenta, along with a healthy diet and vitamins, to helping her get back to work on the 2012 hit series, "Mad Men", within a matter of weeks1. The model Chrissy Teigen felt that eating her placenta after the birth of her second child in 2018 helped her to ward off a bout of post-partum depression. It is important to note that currently, there are no scientific studies to confirm or refute these claims. Medical professionals say that it is "irresponsible and dangerous" to tout encapsulated placenta pills as a cure for post-partum depression1.

 

How do people prepare the placenta for consumption?

placentophagy MonkeyThe placenta can be consumed raw, cooked, as a smoothie, or encapsulated in pill form. The most common placenta preparation is placenta encapsulation, a process in which the placenta is steamed, dehydrated, ground to a powder, and then sealed in vitamin-size capsules. The cost to have a company encapsulate your placenta runs between $125 and $425 these days6.

The nutritional value of encapsulated placenta pills is dubious because only a few nutrients remain at the end of the process. Cooked placenta offers protein, but the heat of cooking breaks down the hormones that are claimed to help the mother during the postpartum period. The only way to really absorb all the nutrients in the placenta is to eat it raw, which many moms find gross.

 

Medical Risks of placentophagy 

Placentophagy Tacos. Image Credit: GettyPlacentophagy might be harmful to you and your baby for several reasons:

  •  1. The placenta starts to decay if it is not refrigerated shortly after birth, so that improper placenta storage and handling can lead to food poisoning. 
  •  2. The placenta filters out waste products and toxins such as lead, mercury, and arsenic. These toxins accumulate in the placenta during pregnancy and more data is needed to know if the levels in the placenta can be harmful.
  •  3. The placenta releases hormones that help to regulate pregnancy.  If those hormones survive the food preparation process and are consumed after pregnancy, they can actually have a negative effect on the mom. For example, the progesterone in the placenta can inhibit the production of breast milk and the estrogen increases the risk of blood clots7.
  •  4. The placenta may be contaminated with infectious bacteria or viruses that are not destroyed by the food preparation. In 2017, the US Centers for Disease Control (CDC) issued a warning about placentophagy after a newborn became very sick with a Group B Strep infection that was passed to the baby as a result of the mother eating encapsulated placenta8.

Eating your placenta might be trendy, but the benefits are unclear and there are some risks associated with the practice. Researchers studying the sociology of today’s placenta products say that "In some ways, placenta consumption is motivated by a desire to perform 'good' mothering"  ....  It reflects "the idea of maternity as a neoliberal project, in which new mothers are responsible for their own individual well-being as well as that of their babies."9

Before deciding whether or not to eat your placenta, get the facts from a credible source and make sure to discuss it with your healthcare provider.

References

  1. Conley M. Mad Mom? January Jones Eats Her Own Placenta. ABC News Published 2012-03-26 
  2. Butan C. Christina Haack, Chrissy Teigen and More Celeb Moms Who Ate Their Placentas. People Magazine Published 2021-05-06
  3. Young SM, Benyshek  DC. In Search of Human Placentophagy: A Cross-Cultural Survey of Human Placenta Consumption, Disposal Practices, and Cultural Beliefs. Ecology of Food and Nutrition 2010; 49(6):467-484.
  4. Wilms S. Placentophagy and Chinese Medicine. Happy Goat Productions Published 2016-05-11 
  5. Blei D. Placenta-Eating Went Mainstream When Many Doctors Stopped Listening. NPR Opinion Published 2019-12-27
  6. Taylor M. (reviewed by Wu J, MD, FACOG) Placenta Encapsulation: Is It Safe To Take Pills Made From Your Own Placenta? What To Expect Published 2020-04-23
  7. Sonoma County Breastfeeding Coalition. How placenta ingestion lowers milk supply. PlacentaRisks.org copyright 2018
  8. Buser GL, Mató S, Zhang AY, Metcalf BJ, Beall B, Thomas AR. Notes from the Field: Late-Onset Infant Group B Streptococcus Infection Associated with Maternal Consumption of Capsules Containing Dehydrated Placenta — Oregon, 2016. CDC Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report 2017-06-30; 66(25):677–678. 
  9. Kroløkke C, Dickinson E, Foss KA. The placenta economy: From trashed to treasured bio-products. European Journal of Women's Studies 2018; 25 (2):138-153.