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When Mad Men actress January Jones announced that she ate her own placenta after giving birth, she gave celebrity credence to what is becoming a more common request in the United States.

Eating the placenta—called placentophagia—is believed by many people to provide medicinal and nutritional benefit to the mother following childbirth. For people who advocate placentophagia, the benefits are believed to include reduced risk of postpartum depression, increased energy, less chance of anemia, improved lactation, and an overall happier postpartum period.

In human history, the placenta has held special religious or cultural significance. For example, in ancient Egypt, the placenta had its own hieroglyphic symbol. In Chinese medicine, small pieces of human placenta are dried, mixed with herbs, and eaten to improve lactation (and, interestingly, impotence). Other cultures traditionally bury the placenta.

Almost all mammals other than humans eat their placenta following birth of their young. The practice is so common that scientists assume it must offer some biological advantage. Some studies suggest placenta ingestion may increase mother-infant bonding and reduce postpartum pain in mammals, but we have yet to see definitive studies in humans.

The modern interest of eating the placenta to achieve postpartum benefits can take many forms. The placenta may be dried, ground and formed into pills. Some women may even choose to dry it out and consume it like jerky. Others will use the placenta as an ingredient in blended smoothies.

The practice may have gained some notoriety recently, but it still remains far from common. Some hospitals will not hand over the placenta unless they are compelled by state law, while others will keep and store the placenta and then send it home with the patient when she is discharged.

The purported health benefits are not completely supported by science just yet. Although there are many personal stories about the benefits of placenta ingestion, there haven’t been any formal experiments to prove or disprove the theory.

In an article published on the University of Buffalo website, behavioral neuroscientist Mark Kristal, who studies placentophagia, described the current interest as faddish, and that many stories of the possible benefits may, in fact, be a placebo effect. A placebo effect occurs when a person believes a substance helps them, even if the substance itself has no actual medicinal effect.

In his research, human societies did not regularly encourage women to eat the placenta following birth. However, if there is an advantage to the practice, perhaps the beneficial molecule can be identified and replicated.

Until then, mothers-to-be who are interested in placentophagia should first learn of any restrictions exist that may prevent them from taking the placenta out of the hospital or birthing center. Make sure it is safely transported and look into the proper preparation techniques. There are certain businesses that will help process the placenta for a fee if the woman chooses this route.

Reviewed by Dr. Jen Lincoln, November 2018

Takeaways

  • Almost all mammals other than humans regularly engage in this practice.
  • Some women are choosing to eat their placenta in pill form, in a smoothie, or after it has been dried out.
  • Some hospitals may restrict this practice of taking your placenta home.

References

  1. University of Buffalo. Afterbirth: Study asks if there’s a benefit to eating the placenta.
  2. New York Magazine. The Placenta Cookbook.

Comments

    1. Such smart points you’ve made, and I agree for many of the “why?” when it comes to the animals. My other concern is that when animals eat their placenta, they do it then and there, whereas women in general have them made into pills that they consume over months or days. Considering there is a lot of progesterone in that placenta, and progesterone can interfere with a good milk supply, I also worry if this continued progesterone exposure actually hurts breastfeeding as a possible side effect. I really hope we get some good research going soon to answer these questions!

      Reply
  1. I was just talking about this today with some friends. I would wait until more research is done before I decided to do this. The current research just doesn’t convince me enough, plus I’ll admit it kind of grosses me out. 🙂

    Reply
    1. I agree with you Shelley. There is not enough research out there yet to determine if this has that much of a health benefit after giving birth. Millions of women give birth every day and have a fantastic postpartum period so I see no reason to do this. The ONLY way I would consider this is if postpartum depression ran in my family and there was more research to back up the theory that eating your placenta would decrease the chances of getting it.

      Reply

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