The main reasons some new mothers throughout the western world are embracing placentophagy (the practice of mammals eating the placenta of their young after giving birth) centre around these: mood stabilisation and improvement which may reduce risk of postpartum depression, and nutrient replenishment after birth which can help with energy levels, recovery, and breast milk production.
Despite these purported benefits, I still struggle with how to explain my decision to eat my own placenta. Even though I instinctively felt it was the right decision for me, I had to do my own research to satisfy my left brain. So let me start off with the reasons why I initially thought I would not eat my placenta.
"The health benefits and risks of placentophagy require further investigation of the retained contents of raw, cooked, and encapsulated placenta and its effects on the postpartum woman" (2).
You know, the one who eats her own afterbirth, after the birth of her child (did you see what I did there?). When I first heard about the practice of placentophagy early on in my pregnancy, my immediate reaction was, "Gross, why the hell would I want to do that?! I'm pretty hippy but I'm not that hippy."
But by the time my son was born, I was happily nibbling on dainty slivers of my fresh placenta after having my midwife cut it up for me as I lay in the hospital bed in which I had just given birth. I will explain why shortly.
#2: This is not something I would recommend to ANY of my patients. At least, not until there is sufficient evidence to support it.
As a health professional I'm required to abide by my professional body's strict codes of practice - which means all nutrition advice I give to individuals and groups must be strictly evidence-based. And I don't mean any old kind of evidence; the anecdotal evidence from my great aunt just won't cut it. Nor do the testimonials of the 189 women in this study, 76% of which reported very positive experiences after eating their placentas (1). The types of evidence I need to back up my professional recommendations are the big guns of level 1 and 2 evidence on the NHMRC Evidence Hierarchy, i.e. randomised clinically controlled trials (RCTs) and the grand-daddy of interventions, systematic reviews of RCTs. Which means I won't be recommending this practice to paying clients any time soon because...
#3: The big guns evidence supporting the benefits of eating your own placenta just aren't there.
There are studies investigating placenta consumption for helping the uterus to contract after birth, resumption of the normal oestrogen cycle, and milk production. All are inconclusive. However, as the aphorism goes, "absence of evidence is not evidence of absence." As outlined in this review of 10 studies by Coyle et al:
Having once been a veterinarian I'm naturally interested in the behaviour of non-human mammals, primates, and more specifically, the relevance of behaviours that are natural and functional to these animals - and perhaps were once instinctual to us. Behaviours that we have lost in our modern "cultured" haze.
With the exception of marine mammals and some domestic animals, nearly all non-human primates and mammal mothers are known to eat the placenta of their young after giving birth. Mark Kristal, a behavioural neuroscientist who has studied the phenomenon of placentophagy for the last two decades, reports that ingestion of the placenta by nonhuman mammalian mothers has a number of benefits: increasing bonding between mother and infant, providing pain relief in the mother, facilitating the onset of care-taking behaviour, and suppressing postpartum pseudopregnancy (3).
Kristal postulates that, "(Human) childbirth is fraught with additional problems for which there are no practical nonhuman animal models: postpartum depression, failure to bond, hostility toward infants. Ingested afterbirth may contain components that ameliorate these problems, but the issue has not been tested empirically" (3).
And what about traditional human cultures? Some researchers and health professionals believe that placentophagy is indeed practised in some traditional cultures, and even recommend that modern health conscious women take up the practice (4,5). However, a 2010 study by Young and Benyshek did not find any evidence of human maternal placentophagy as a traditional cultural practice among a sample of 179 societies around the globe (6).
However, placenta consumption by humans other than the mother is practiced. Human placenta has been an ingredient in some Traditional Chinese Medicines to treat wasting diseases, infertility, impotence and other conditions (although my Chinese mother was grossed out when I asked her if anyone on her side of the family had ever practised such a thing, emphatically proclaiming, "only cats do that!"). It has also been recorded among a handful of other cultures for various medicinal purposes.
The short answer: I was curious.
The long answer: see below.
When I was pregnant, I craved red meat and organs. As a long time vegetarian, then vegan, and a onetime raw-foodist (don't ask) who now eats the occasional piece of grass-fed or organic meat or liver, eating my own placenta just doesn't seem that far fetched - and creates a much lower environmental footprint than consuming animal foods. As an advocate for intuitive eating I believe my body craves certain foods for a reason - even if that reason can't always be validated by modern empirical evidence.
Google "placenta encapsulation" and it will quickly become obvious that the demand for placenta-preparation services is exploding. There is a huge increase in the numbers of people becoming trained in providing those services, which would not be happening unless there was an accompanying growing market for it.
I was surprised at the number of providers just in my area! I'm sure this can be at least partially explained by some celebrity/celebrities deciding to eat their placenta/s, but let's quickly look at the other reasons women might want to start chowing down on afterbirth.
Because the placenta transfers LOTS of things (including essential nutrients and hormones) from mother to baby, placentophagy advocates suggest that the placenta would offer the same benefits to the mother post-childbirth. A great deal of anecdotal evidence suggests that benefits include treatment of postpartum symptoms such as:
- revitalisation of energy levels
- supplementation of physical reserves
- correcting emotional imbalances and mood swings (hence the purported link to postpartum depression)
- increased lactation
- decreased postpartum bleeding
- aids involution of the uterus
The claim that grabbed my attention was reduced risk of postpartum depression (PPD). Given that I experienced perinatal depression during my second trimester (which I largely believe was situational - my life was ridiculously stressful at that time as described in this blog), I was hyper-vigilant of PPD and admittedly, this was the primary reason I opened my mind to eating my placenta.
So how could placentophagy reduce risk of postpartum depression?
Given there are no RCTs or systematic reviews to answer this, I had to look to other forms of evidence, namely anecdotal and evidence from other types of literature. I finally found one good reason why eating your placenta may help improve mood and reduce PPD risk. It came down to one tiny mineral.
But before I get there, I want to explain my logic and how I came to that conclusion.
Birth is a full on event for any woman's body, regardless of whether a woman has a short or long labour, a natural or assisted delivery, and minimal or tonnes of complications. My son's birth certainly was. A substantial amount of blood - and therefore iron and other minerals - are lost, and a woman's hormones shift radically and suddenly. This impact is augmented by events that occur after birth, including diminished and broken sleep patterns, the stress of having to learn how to care for a newborn, isolation from friends, and the overwhelming realisation that your life is forever changed.
Eating your placenta is said to be a natural way to replenish diminished nutrients and hormones, although placenta encapsulation providers are quick to say that it is in no way a cure or preventative treatment for postpartum depression. PPD is a serious condition that must be monitored by a professional.
I found that there are two main reasons given by mothers, some health professionals, and placenta service providers for eating your placenta:
After giving birth, a woman's hormones undergo the most enormous shift she'll ever experience. Progesterone levels, which can reach up to 50 times normal levels in pregnancy, come crashing back down to earth after birth and along with similar shifts in other hormones of pregnancy, this can make a woman feel "out of sorts" to say the least. This hormonal shift is believed to contribute to the baby blues around day 3 postpartum, where most women are feeling tearful, irritable, and generally depressed.
The placenta contains a number of hormones including Gonadotrophin (precursor to oestrogen, progesterone and testosterone), Prolactin (promotes lactation), Oxytocin (for pain relief and baby bonding, which could in theory blunt one symptom of PPD - detachment from your infant), Thyroid Stimulating Hormone, Cortisone and Prostaglandins which in the body exert anti-inflammatory actions. More than one placenta encapsulation specialist I discovered online stipulated that ingesting these hormones via the placenta after giving birth may bring about benefits due to the actions these hormones elicit under normal circumstances (when produced by their respective glands, rather than eaten).
Personally, I couldn't buy this argument as I was unable to find out exactly what quantities of each hormone are typically retained in the placenta, whether this would be effective for every single mother, and whether they would elicit their normal physiological actions after being ingested and absorbed via the gut. So onto reason #2...
#2: Nutrient replacement.
One provider explained on her website that, "Placenta offers mothers a replacement in good quality iron (a deficiency of) which is linked to fatigue, anxiety and depression. It also holds... B group vitamins that help stabilise mood."
One big nutrient she forgot, that actually makes a lot of sense to me, is zinc.
Nutrition is obviously cool and interesting (hence, my chosen career path). Your nutritional status is so important, it actually affects your instinctive desire to mother your baby. The trace element zinc is important to ensure that your mothering behaviour is appropriate. Animal studies have shown that zinc deficient rat mothers neglect and often totally abandon their offspring (4). While humans are far more complex than rats, it does raise concern since zinc deficiency is thought to be the most widespread deficiency in the western world.
Zinc is crucial for every aspect of reproductive health. Here's just some of the amazing things that happen when a mother gets enough of it in her diet:
- Zinc helps prevent cracked nipples
- Adequate zinc status in the mother ensures adequate zinc status for breastfed babies. Zinc-deficient babies are jittery and may cry inconsolably, which stresses mum out. If mum is also zinc-deficient, she may be suffering from baby blues or PPD. A zinc-deficient, depressed mother and a zinc-deficient, endlessly crying baby are caught in a very vicious cycle.
- Mothers with adequate zinc status are able to breastfeed for longer and experience increased energy levels
- Babies with adequate zinc status are unlikely to suffer skin rashes, colic, regurgitation, recurrent infections, and oral thrush.
Basically, get enough zinc, and both mum and baby are healthier and happier.
Guess which organ is the richest source of zinc known? Yep, the placenta, which contains between 350-600mg of elemental zinc, depending on its size (4).
When the placenta is eaten, adequate zinc status is restored, maternal zinc stores are established (super important during breastfeeding), and copper levels, which rise during pregnancy, fall back to normal.
Some people treat the placenta like a piece of liver and make pate, stew, or stir fry with it. I couldn't stomach that, so the next best thing was to dehydrate it and encapsulate it. We got through the dehydration phase but with a newborn on our hands, we decided not to go to the arse ache of encapsulating and instead preserve the dried goods, jerky style. I use a pair of scissors to cut thin pieces into a blender to make a smoothie with banana, greens and berries. I barely notice the placenta and it has no taste.
If eating your placenta still seems too freaky to bear, you can bury yours under a nice fruit tree and do a ceremony in the back yard like a more civilised hippy mother. Then supplement with zinc tablets to restore zinc status to adequate levels.
I feel that eating my placenta in a way that felt right to me (a little in a smoothie every three or so days, gradually increasing the dose over the four weeks postpartum) absolutely helped my energy levels and balanced my moods.
Since giving birth I have felt surprisingly good, with far more energy than I expected after hearing so many women's postpartum stories. And given the broken nights of sleep and 1-2 hourly feeds Archie is currently demanding, I should be a zombie by now! I was doing gentle yoga within days, AcroYoga after a week, and going on hour long hikes less than three weeks after giving birth. My midwife and mum had to remind me that "your body is still healing" and to take it easy. I have to force myself not to go all out, although it is hard.
I had no problems producing copious amounts of breastmilk from the start. And good quality boob dairy at that! Archie gained over a kilogram in less than a month, impressing the pants off my midwife and bringing me some relief as he was born a little on the small side. On the day he was born, hospital staff were pressuring us to keep Archie at the hospital for observation and supplement him with formula if necessary. We were never going to allow that!
Emotionally, I have not experienced any of the symptoms of PPD - and I check up on myself regularly. Sure, I went through the baby blues around day 3 and was very irritable and narky towards my partner (sorry babe!). But overall, it has been nothing compared to the emotional tumult of my second trimester. Not even close.
Within days my uterus had shrunk tremendously and my belly and body pretty much looked like they had prior to falling pregnant. Four weeks on I still haven't weighed myself (I don't own scales), but I feel I have virtually no extra baby weight hanging around - not that I would mind if I did! It's just an unexpected surprise as I thought I'd be heavier for at least a few months.
And how about baby? Archie is a quiet little boy and really quite chilled out. His crying only lasts as long as it takes me to tend to his needs - so far at least! I suspect his zinc status is adequate. But we also partake in co-sleeping and babywearing which, in my opinion, contribute to his relaxed nature. He's going through a growth spurt at the moment and is breastfeeding every 45 minutes to 2 hours! Even though I'm a bit tired, I don't feel like jumping off a cliff :)
I can't prove that eating my placenta helped with any of this. Yes, it's a great source of zinc and that satisfies my left brain. But at an intuitive level I feel it helped for reasons other than the nutritional. When I look at the jar of dried placenta amongst the herbs on our kitchen bench, I can't help but think there's something powerful, extraordinary and magical about it. It's something to be treated with respect, not just thrown away as biological waste. But hey, that's just my opinion.
(1) Selander, J, Cantor, A, Young, SM, & Benyshek, DC (2013): Human Maternal Placentophagy: A Survey of Self-Reported Motivations and Experiences Associated with Placenta Consumption, Ecology of Food and Nutrition, 52:2, 93-115
(2) Coyle, CW, Hulse, KE, Wisner, KL, Driscoll, KE, Clark, CT (2015): Placentophagia: Therapeutic miracle or myth?, Archives of Women's Mental Health, 18:5, 673-680.
(3) Kristal, MB, DiPirro, JM, & Thompson, AC (2012): Placentophagia in Humans and Nonhuman Mammals: Causes and Consequences, Ecology of Food and Nutrition, 51:3, 177-197.
(4) Naish, F, & Roberts, J (2002): The natural way to better breastfeeding, Doubleday, Sydney. pp 68-70.
(5) Romm, AJ (2002): Natural health after birth: the complete guide to postpartum wellness, Healing Arts Press, Rochester, Vermont.
(6) Young, SM, & Benyshek, DC (2010): In search of human placentophagy: A crosscultural survey of human placenta consumption, disposal and beliefs. Ecology of Food and Nutrition 49:6, 467–484.