When I fist heard about humans eating placentas I had the knee-jerk reaction that probably most of you also had. However, after the initial yuck-factor, when I really thought about it, it made sense. I grew up on a farm. My first experiences with birth were with sheep. Sheep are vegetarians. Sheep are domesticated. Sheep give birth in a safe environment (the barn). Sheep eat their placentas. Most other land mammals, vegetarian or not (with the exception of camelids), eat their placentas. I have heard the argument that this is an unconscious survival mechanism to prevent predators from finding the weakest members of the flock/herd/group of whatever the critter may be. That does not explain why animals domesticated for eons still practice placentaphagia. I now think there is an innate wisdom in the practice lost to humans (just like we have lost touch with so many of our instincts).
The placenta is the only organ of the body I can think of that has a functional obsolescence. Once it’s job is done it is more or less disposable. But is it? Think about all that has gone into creating this amazing organ. It grew from the same two cells as the baby. It differentiated itself from the developing fetus and served to protect and nourish that baby for 9 months. All of the nourishment the mother took in went through the placenta. All of her hormones went through the placenta. It was the communication tool between mother and baby for the entire pregnancy. So, after birth is it really so much waste? Maybe not!
Chinese medicine has used placentas for healing many conditions for millennia.There is a growing interest in scientifically researching the basis for the belief that placentas can promote healing on many levels. However, the study of placentaphagia in both humans and other mammals is extremely complicated and variables are nearly impossible (or immoral) to eradicate. Therefore, we may have to rely on the sparse and sometimes poorly executed or documented observations currently available. The question still remains as to whether the correlation of eating the placenta and it’s reported benefits are merely the placebo effect (those who believe it will help affect symptoms are the ones trying it and then reporting the it has been beneficial) or if there is a true physiological benefit. Following is a list of some of the research results that can be found with a quick poke through the internet:
▪ Placenta ingestion in animals results in pain relief and change in hormone levels. A study in 2004 found that elements in the placenta created pain relief and block pain receptions in the brain. Another study in 1980 showed that the placenta contains orally-active substance(s) which modify blood levels of pituitary and ovarian hormones when ingested. These two studies were done with rats.
▪ In 1954, a study was conducted in which 210 women, expected to have low milk supply, were administered dried placenta. 86% of the mothers noticed a significant increase in milk production. That’s impressive.
▪ In 1998, a study investigated the biological causes of postpartum depression. Researchers discovered that the last trimester of pregnancy, the placenta secretes a horomone called corticotropin-releasing hormone, or CRH. The rise during the third trimester is so dramatic that CRH levels in the maternal bloodstream increase threefold, which it is believed helps the women go through the end of pregnancy, labour and birth. George Chrousos, the endocrinologist who led the NIH study, and his colleagues monitored CRH levels in 17 women from the last trimester to a year after they gave birth. All the women had low levels of CRH – as low as seen in some forms of depression – in the six weeks following birth. The seven women with the lowest levels felt depressed. Chrousos suspects that CRH levels are temporarily low in new mothers because CRH from the placenta disrupts the feedback system that regulates normal production of the hormone. During pregnancy, when CRH levels are high in the bloodstream, the hypothalamus releases less CRH. After birth, however, when this supplementary source of CRH is gone, it takes a while for the hypothalamus to get the signal that it needs to start making more CRH. Since the placenta storehouses a large amount of this particular hormone, it makes good scientific sense that ingesting the placenta would result in more stable levels of CRH and therefore a more stable emotional life for the mother.
▪ We also know that the placenta has high amounts of iron. Low iron has been linked with feelings of fatigue. Low iron in the postpartum period has been linked with greater instances of post-partum depression. Greater feelings of fatigue have also been linked with greater instances of postpartum depression. So it follows that ingesting the iron from the placenta which is a bio-available source of iron, would result in more energy for the mother. More energy would conceivably help to protect her from depression.
So, is eating your placenta for you? If the benefits implied by animal studies and those cited anecdotally are appealing then maybe investigation of your options is appropriate. There are many ways to consume a placenta. The first and most obvious is to just “dig in”. This method is still a little daunting to most but I have seen it done and thoroughly enjoyed. There is the “smoothie method”, whereby the placenta is disguised in a refreshing drink. There are a variety of recipes out there for placenta preparation with or without other ingredients added for taste. Then there is encapsulation. I have been encapsulating placentas for several years now. Much to my children’s’ chagrin I really love the process (I have been told that I am NOT to be preparing placentas when the dates of children are expected to visit, nor is there to be discussion of said practice at the dinner table when dates are visiting). I follow the traditional Chinese Medicine method of preparation involving steaming, dehydrating and grinding the placenta before encapsulating. When preparing a placenta my intention is always on bringing positive energy to the process.
Many of the placentas I have prepared are for my own midwifery clients who I have known throughout their pregnancy. Preparing their placenta feels like a natural extension of my time with them. Other mother/babies I have never met prior to picking up the placenta. Meeting women and babies immediately after birth is a joy. I am happy to be a small part of welcoming these new mothers and babies at such precious time. I like to keep their health and happiness foremost in my mind as I prepare all placentas entrusted to me. I have come to feel that there is powerful medicine in this process, whether or not it can be scientifically proven at this time and I am honored to provide this service in our practice.
If you are interested in more information, both experiential and scientific, here are some resources for further investigation: