Placenta Smoothies, Anyone? A Look at the Practice and Effects of Placentophagia

by Haifa Haroon on March 23, 2013

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!

Courtesy of Seanmcgrath/

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.

Image courtesy of

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.

Dehydrated Placenta
Image courtesy of Danoxster/

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.

Powdered Placenta
Image courtesy of Danoxster/

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.

Placenta Capsules
Image courtesy of Danoxster/

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.

Anyone, Anyone?

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?


Aysha A March 24, 2013 at 3:42 pm

Thanks for sharing! Benefits of placentaphogia sound tempting. I want to see more relevant research conducted, not self-reported studies, on the topic before I am convinced. I think this “fad” is also a result of our nation’s, recent, well-intentioned, health craze where we want everything to be organic and pure, and what is more pure than what was once already a part of you? There are other ways to get the same benefits a placenta provides, but it may be too pharmaceutically engineered for our liking, regardless of effectiveness, safety, or convenience.

Haifa Haroon March 25, 2013 at 4:32 pm

I agree. One argument is that it’s natural since humans are one of the few mammals that don’t eat their placenta. There are a few hypotheses for why animals do this (hunger, cleaning the area after giving birth so as to not attract predators, replenish nutrients etc). But, they haven’t been tested and humans can obtain nutrients in other, even natural, ways – foods high in iron, for instance. Thanks for reading!

Hadiyah March 24, 2013 at 6:30 pm

Very insightful. I wonder how common placentaphogia is across race and ethnic groups. I had never heard of such practice until I heard a rumor about one of my undergraduate professors eating her placenta. Great blog! Thanks for the warning at the beginning! :)

Haifa Haroon March 25, 2013 at 4:54 pm

Thanks, Hadiyah! From what I’ve read, it isn’t commonly practiced by humans, rather it’s tends to be taboo. Though, in some cultures, people bury their placenta – usually near a tree.

maraden March 24, 2013 at 7:10 pm

Lots of pertinent info and clearly written. Well done. 1400 years of Chinese traditional medicine is an indicator that this may have been a common practice and worthy of study. I wonder if there is any other history of ancient tribes (or current native groups) eating the placenta as a common practice.

Haifa Haroon March 25, 2013 at 5:37 pm

Thanks! There are some historical accounts of people eating the placenta – not necessarily their own though. A recent study found that 1 of 179 societies they looked at practiced placentophagia by the mother. But, it was relatively rare and the researchers weren’t sure if it was due to the recent encouragement of midwives in the area rather than a cultural tradition.

If you’re interested, here is the study (if the link doesn’t work, let me know!):

Muna N. March 24, 2013 at 9:56 pm

Great article, Haifa! I’ve come across the practice of placentophagia many times while studying human fetal development and early environmental exposures, and have had long discussions with neighboring labs directly working with human placenta. There are several things I wanted to add to your discussion.

1) In the non-human world, pregnant animals have been known to eat their placentas right after birth as a survival mechanism. Any trace of blood could easily attract predators and thereby decrease the chance of survival of their offspring. Humans, on the other hand, have evolved in such a way that we no longer face any major wild predators during birth, AND we have other mechanisms of discarding the placenta (incineration is common) in case a wild beast was nearby threatening our babies.
2) The claim that placenta’s will help balance ones hormones is not true. While the placenta during pregnancy is a major source of progesterone and estrogen, once out of the body all the other important factors such as transporters and enzymes necessary for replenishing these levels (via signaling with the rest of the body) are probably no longer functional. Plus as mentioned, dehydrating/cooking/baking would probably take out all the said nutrients.
3) The placenta’s major role is to selectively pass chemicals across between mother and child. This includes not only nutrients but also TOXICANTS and WASTE. This is what is most concerning for me as an environmental health scientist for those who eat the placenta. Often, the placenta acts as a reservoir holding many dangerous chemicals (studies have found PCBs, phthalates, BPA, etc. in high concentrations in placenta) in order to protect the fetus. By eating it, mothers may actually be recirculating these same toxicants that can now be passed on to their children lactationally. Furthermore, the vaginal microbiome is quite different between pregnant and nonpregnant women. By eating this organ, there is a possibility that the mother is eating dangerous bacteria if eaten raw (studies about the microbiome are ongoing), which may effect her health as well as her baby’s health.

All in all, I really think we need to look at potential health risks and revisit the proposed health benefits (although I personally think there is very little proving the latter). Its dangerous to have these fads circulate in our mainstream media when there aren’t any REAL evidence to prove the benefits. The body is undergoing major changes during pregnancy which can lead to depression, low energy, etc, which can change over time and diet. If iron is necessary to reverse them, I can think of many sources that are PROVEN to be better than placenta. Pregnant women need to be very cautious given that early exposures can definitely impact the developmental trajectory of their offspring, and not go by what is popular (being organic/green).

Haifa Haroon March 25, 2013 at 6:23 pm

Clearly, I should have consulted you before I wrote this post! All great points! When some people talk about the placenta as a source of all these nutrients (which it is during pregnancy), they forget the other role of the placenta – to filter out harmful substances. I didn’t run into studies that looked at specific wastes – but, that’s a really good point. If they’ve found high concentrations of BPA and PCBs etc in the placenta, I agree, there need to be studies on the potential health risks.

What I found so interesting was the claims some people have made about being convinced about the benefits after seeing the research (when there really isn’t) – and, how dangerous that statement can be, because it offers credibility (though misplaced) to the practice, to women who are worried about postpartum depression.

Angela March 25, 2013 at 6:57 pm

Thank you for the post, Haifa! I did not know about this practice at all. It was very interesting to read about it (and to see the different consumption ‘formats’…).

Haifa Haroon March 25, 2013 at 7:09 pm

I’m glad you liked it!

@Loose_Lab_Rat March 27, 2013 at 5:36 pm

I’ve neither grown nor eaten a placenta…but I handle a lot of them. This is a very rapidly aging organ with little left to offer once it has done its job. Instead of eating it, take it to your favorite histologist and get some slides made for cool pictures to hang around the house. It makes for much better art than food.

Haifa Haroon March 27, 2013 at 11:32 pm

That’d actually be cool! I noticed that some people make placenta prints as well.

Lynnea Shrief March 28, 2013 at 10:46 am

Interesting you say this because thousands of placentas are donated for their highly beneficial stem cells for medical research. In fact, placenta therapy is growing in popularity because of it’s amazing benefits.

“Placenta therapy actually “wakes up” dormant cells within the human body, thereby stimulating growth and function of existing tissue and repairing or regenerating old and malfunctioning cells. Placenta therapy offers something that vitamins, minerals and other conventional or natural treatments cannot. It can provide the exact components necessary for injured or diseased tissue to heal and regenerate. While most pharmaceutical drugs work by suppressing certain symptoms over a short period of time and only as long as they are taken, placenta therapy stimulates the body’s own healing and revitalising powers and exerts a long term effect.”
September 2005, Ben L. Pfeifer, M.D., PhD, Professor and Director of Clinical Research AESKULAP HOSPITAL,BRUNNEN, SWITZERLAND Source

Lynnea Shrief March 28, 2013 at 10:41 am

I really find it interesting that so many people are so sceptical about placenta consumption in humans, but mammals do it as standard practice since the beginning of time and that seems to be very acceptable.

Do people want to see research suggesting eating pork/beef/chicken is beneficial? (and the UK has been eating horse meat for God knows how long because no one ever asked – at least you know what you’re getting with your own placenta)

What are the health risks of drinking cows milk? (there are so many risks, but socially it’s incredibly acceptable in the Western world whereas Chinese Medicine reserves dairy as harmful and dangerous for the human body)

What about the risks of vaccinations…toxic metals and other harmful substances injected into the bloodstream? (again, so many risks, but socially acceptable and considered dangerous if you don’t)

I find it interesting that the questions above are never asked because it’s common practice and socially acceptable even though they carry heavy risks and not necessarily healthy by any means.

Certainly objections to placenta consumption are more to do with social taboos rather than the need for scientific research.

Marie March 29, 2013 at 3:25 pm

awesome post – so interesting – I’m posting this to my fb!! hopefully there will be more evidence based info in the future!! also, I wonder… how about the fathers? maybe they could/do eat it as some sort of bonding act? did read about any fathers partaking in the placenta during your research?

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