Reader Beware: This post contains graphic images. I’d advise holding off on the turkey sandwich for now.
Last year, the actress January Jones made headlines for revealing she ate her placenta.
[It] can help women with depression and fatigue…I’d highly suggest it to any pregnant woman.
Although, I was appalled at first, I had to know more. Was this just a new celebrity fad? Was it just her? Why the placenta? Why did she think human placentophagia – eating the placenta – would help her cope with postpartum depression and fatigue? Was there any evidence? So many questions!
1st – Is eating the placenta a new fad? Who else is doing this?
It’s not a new practice; rather it’s been a part of Traditional Chinese Medicine for over 1400 years. Many mammals also eat their placenta. Although unverified, placentophagia reportedly was also a fad in the 1960-1970’s.
Currently, it isn’t just Jones, but neither is it mainstream. The women engaging in placentophagia include those who give birth at home and at hospitals (although there may be a relationship, there isn’t enough information available at present). They also include new mothers as well as women who have children. From the stories I read online, many women learned about the practice through the internet, friends, midwives, and in one case, birth classes at the hospital.
2nd – Because I know you’re curious, how exactly does one eat a placenta?
The placenta is frozen after the birth and can be substituted for meat in foods like stew, lasagna, spaghetti – you name it. If you’re interested, there are several recipes available online.
Some people eat it placenta raw or partially raw. This isn’t recommended for obvious reasons – just like meat, it can become contaminated and be a source of bacteria. Neither is it recommended that anyone other than the mother eat the placenta – though some do share it with their family members.
Others hire an encapsulation specialist (of course, that’s a thing) to dry and grind the organ into a powder and put it into capsules, which may be taken 1-3 times a day for weeks afterwards (Side note: It’s usually enough to make around 120 pills) The powdered placenta may also be sprinkled over foods or made into a smoothie. There are even DIY encapsulation kits for those that want to skip the specialist.
3rd – What does the research say?
Despite claims made by advocates about the convincing research available, there isn’t much evidence to support them.
A randomized control study (generally considered the gold standard) from 1954 reported that 1/3 of women that ate placenta as opposed to beef had a “strong reaction” with regards to improving lactation. This study has several limitations and would not hold up today. 210 women were given placenta (experimental group) with only 27 in the control group. The study was not replicated to confirm the findings.
There isn’t agreement among researchers about whether eating the placenta is a source of iron. However, four of the nine cited papers on the main placentophagia website studied the role of iron and fatigue in postpartum depression – for which there is evidence, but the researchers didn’t consider how placenta may mitigate these effects. (Side note: The 1954 Czech study is one of the 9 cited studies)
Similarly, there isn’t any evidence that eating placenta in humans will offset the postpartum drop in female hormones. It isn’t known whether cooking or drying the placenta would affect the supposed benefits of eating it. Kristal et al. (2012) reported that most of the molecules found in the placenta are peptides, with some steroids (both estrogen and progesterone are steroid hormones) and that cooking would destroy any potentially beneficial proteins.
There are studies that have shown effects of placenta consumption – in rats – and according the researchers involved, the findings can’t be extrapolated to humans as much because “there is no adequate animal model for human postpartum pathology”.
Mark Kristal, who has been studying placentophagia since the 1970’s, reported that mice that had received morphine and were then given placenta experienced an increase in their pain threshold. This effect was seen in non-pregnant and pregnant mice. Depending on the site of the morphine injection, eating placenta was found to result in exhibiting maternal behavior – licking and crouching over her offspring – earlier.
Recently researchers surveyed 189 women that ate their placenta. 96% reported a positive experience and the most common complaint was the taste of the pills and what is being referred to as the “ick” factor. The results were based solely on self-reports through interviews. An advocate of placentophagia also helped interview the subjects and co-authored the paper. These researchers are planning on conducting an experimental study to see if the positive effects reported are due to eating the placenta or simply a placebo effect – which some believe to be the case.
4th – OK. So, why exactly are people eating their placenta?
According to the advocates of placentophagia, the placenta is purported to:
- Improve breast milk supply
- Act as a uterine tonic
- Increase energy levels
- “Help” with postpartum depression
- Replenish nutrients (eg. iron) lost during pregnancy
- Balance your hormones
- Reduce excessive blood loss after delivery (postpartum hemorrhage)
- Prevent aging
- Encourage Faster recovery
5th – What does the placenta have to do with postpartum depression?
The placenta is an organ that allows for oxygen and nutrient transfer (including iron) from the mother to the fetus. It also filters fetal blood to eliminate waste products. The placenta also plays an important endocrine role. It produces and secretes several hormones necessary for the pregnancy – including estrogen and progesterone.
From week 8 to 38 during pregnancy, the amount of progesterone in the body increases by 7 while estrogen increases by 130 fold. Soon after delivery, the levels of these hormones drop quickly. In some women, thyroid hormone levels also decrease, affecting metabolism and energy levels.
This rapid fluctuation in hormone levels may result in the “baby blues”, which is experienced by 80% of women. This typically resolves on its own without treatment within a few days to two weeks. Female hormone levels usually go back to pre-pregnancy levels in about a week.
Postpartum depression (PPD) typically starts 2 – 3 weeks after birth and affects 10% of new mothers. Although it may also be related to fluctuating hormone levels, women who have a history of depression or within their family are at a higher risk of developing PPD.
So, the idea is that if the placenta produces and contains these hormones, eating it should balance out the drop in female hormone levels seen after birth – and, by doing so, would allow women to bypass the “baby blues” or postpartum depression.
Lastly – I look forward to reading about any findings about human placentophagy in the future, however, there currently isn’t enough research to make claims about its benefits. I think the real issue may be addressing the concerns of women about postpartum life – thoughts?