In non-human mammals, the mother’s ingestion of the placenta plays a role in triggering maternal bonding, caretaking behavior, and even mitigating postpartum depression (PPD).
Now, there’s a trend emerging in the U.S. for women to ingest their placenta after birth, in the form of capsules, as a “natural” way to help mitigate the emotional fallout, and hormonal and nutritional deficiencies following birth.
But does it really help? Is it safe? Is it really natural? The answers may surprise you.
What Is Placenta Encapsulation?
Placenta encapsulation is the process of dehydrating and pulverizing the placenta into a fine powder that is filled into gelatin caps to be ingested by the mother. While this is the most common method of ingestion, the placenta can also be eaten raw, cooked, roasted, and in smoothies and tinctures [*].
In humans, the placenta is truly an astonishing organ — the only organ in the body that serves two masters. It’s fully formed at about 12 weeks’ gestation and weighs about a pound at delivery. It makes the hormones that sustain the mother’s pregnancy, enables her milk production, and even primes her to care for her baby [*].
As scientists learn more about the benefits of post-natal cord blood and cord tissue in life-saving stem cell transplants and regenerative medicine, it’s natural to ask, is the placenta medical waste or does it have more to give?
Is Eating the Placenta Natural?
The practice of consuming one’s own placenta is called placentophagy in humans and placentophagia in animals. In various cultures, over the span of recorded history, the placenta has been:
- Carefully buried, as if it were a phantom twin;
- Carried into battle to confer warrior-like benefits to the infant it once held;
- Dried and a portion preserved as a good luck amulet;
- Preserved during the infant’s first year to re-supply missing life force;
- Dried, powdered, and added to milk as a potion for flagging ch’i;
- Decorated with flowers and little lights and set afloat on a river at night as food for crocodiles; and
- Added to cosmetics as a remedy for wrinkles [*].
But until the current trend here in the U.S, there have been virtually no cultures in recorded history in which the human placenta has been traditionally or routinely eaten by the mother.
More than 4,000 species of mammals consume their placenta as a biological imperative, with health benefits that extend beyond avoiding predators or keeping the nest clean. Why don’t humans?
The truth is anthropologists don’t know why. Some argue the fire theory — that a pregnant woman’s exposure to smoke and ash, known to contain harmful substances, may have accumulated in the placenta, which acts as a filter, and this may have had poor consequences for the health of the mother or her offspring [*].
Whether that’s true or not, from an evolutionary perspective, it’s likely that not engaging in placentophagy as a biological imperative conferred an adaptive advantage [*]. It’s not a stretch to say that most women today would find eating the raw placenta to be utterly repellent, notwithstanding the obvious social taboos surrounding cannibalism. That should tell us something, shouldn’t it?
Placentophagy isn’t natural for humans, we’ve clearly selected against it, nor is it an ancient practice in any other culture. The fact that women throughout history haven’t been naturally compelled to eat their placenta, biologically or from sheer hunger even in times of famine, begs the question: Why are they doing it now?
What Are the Benefits of Placenta Encapsulation?
Placenta encapsulation providers and those who advocate for the practice (including various celebrities and social media influencers) claim that placentophagy helps improve mood, mitigate fatigue and pain, speed recovery and increase the supply of breast milk — all major concerns facing postpartum women. By far the biggest reason women do it is to combat postpartum depression — though there’s no evidence beyond the anecdotal to suggest it’s effective [*].
While it’s not exactly clear when this practice began in the U.S., a medical journal recounts a Rolling Stone article from 1972 in which a woman who delivered on a commune recounts steaming her placenta and sharing it with friends.
Kinda makes you wonder what was served for dessert.
While meaningful clinical trials are scant, the scientific consensus among those that do exist does not support any of these claims. For instance, while the dried placenta is likely to contain a little iron, it’s not considered to be enough to treat anemia. There may be enough estradiol and progesterone left in the placenta to have a clinical effect on the mother, but it’s not necessarily a positive one: Estrogen can have a negative effect on milk supply in the first month of delivery and potentially lead to an increased risk of blood clots [*].
It’s also not clear how bioavailable the nutrients are from the placenta to begin with, but scientists who have studied the issue have generally found no nutritional difference owing to the manner in which the placenta was consumed.
There are those who claim that because so many other mammals do it, it must be good for us, too. But most mammals have wildly different reproductive physiology, and often have litters. Writing in the New York Times, OBGYN Dr. Jen Gunter argues that the mammal gambit is akin to your gastroenterologist recommending you eat grass to vomit to clear your upset stomach because your cat (a mammal) also does.
Advocates for placentophagy also claim the practice has a historical basis in ancient Chinese medicine to suggest it’s a time-honored practice, but this is quite deceptive.
While there is a recipe for dried, pulverized placenta mixed with warm milk that appears in the Great Pharmacopoeia of 1596 by Li Shih-chen as a remedy for exhaustion of ch’i (life-giving force, aka impotence or infertility), there is no written evidence whatsoever of a woman in China consuming her own placenta after childbirth [*].
This is also true of other cultures throughout history in which dried placenta may have been added to traditional medicines — including our own. Writing in 1979, humorist & histopathologist W.B. Ober noted that human placental extracts were being touted in the U.S. for their hormones, nutrients, and protective agents and could be found in at least 29 different cosmetic products. He posited that it was only a matter of time “before the American female consumer puts her mouth where her money is” [*].
And so we have.
What Are the Risks of Placenta Encapsulation?
Infection, blood clots, and accumulation of environmental toxins are the key health risks of placenta encapsulation, but not the only ones.
Contamination is a major concern. There are currently no standards in place for processing placenta for human consumption using encapsulation, and as such, there is a significant risk of bacterial contamination. Placenta encapsulation services are completely unregulated in the U.S. In the U.K., it was effectively outlawed in 2015 by declaring it a “novel food”. The government has since relented and the practice is gaining ground in the U.K. as well [*].
The CDC is emphatically against it. In 2016, they published a cautionary tale about a mother who passed a recurring, Group B Streptococcus infection to her infant from ingesting her own, contaminated placenta capsules [*].
The placenta is not a sterile organ. It contains toxins like mercury and lead as well as potential bacteria and viruses. An infection present during labor will most likely be present in the placental tissue. Cooking can decrease such pathogens but won’t clear them completely, according to the Mayo Clinic [*]. PFAs, also known as “forever chemicals”, have also been found in the placenta. [*]
As noted earlier, the estrogen present in the placenta capsules may increase the risk of blood clots and decrease milk production — the opposite of what most postpartum women want.
Another concern is that the placebo effect or the desire to try something “natural”, outside the clinical confines of a medical establishment that is so often deaf to women’s health concerns, can lead women with serious postpartum issues to postpone the medical care they really need.
Last but certainly not least, there just isn't enough research available to maternity care providers to help their patients manage the risks associated with this practice in an unregulated industry.
How Does Placenta Encapsulation Work?
First, it’s important to understand that there are cases where it’s not viable to save the placenta.
- Intra- or postpartum infections of the mother rule out the possibility of preserving the placenta for any other purpose beyond diagnosis and care of the mother and child.
- If the placenta was damaged during pregnancy, it may need to be tested to determine any risks to the newborn.
- In an emergency delivery with EMTs, who will likely dispose of the placenta.
- Hospital policy may require advance notice, a signed disclaimer, biohazard container, or other requirements before releasing the placenta to you. Always check with your hospital or birth center first.
Generally, the company or Doula you use to perform the encapsulation will provide a pickup or a kit to transport the placenta, which will weigh about a pound.
The placenta is then either dehydrated in raw form or lightly steamed (sometimes with warming elements like lemon, ginger, and hot peppers, dubbed the “traditional Chinese method”), and then dehydrated before being pulverized and poured into gel caps.
How Much Does Placenta Encapsulation Cost?
Generally, placenta encapsulation costs between $200-$500, depending on the type of services you opt for. Some Doulas do it as well. You might be tempted to DIY it at that price, but without access to a sterile environment, encapsulation would be folly at best, and dangerous to you and your baby at worst. It’s the last thing you’d want to be doing just after giving birth.
Is Encapsulating Your Placenta Worth It?
Well, a skillet would be a lot cheaper than placenta encapsulation, and by all scientific accounts, equal to it in any hormones or nutrients you might derive from ingesting it. But if you’re convinced you’d like to try it and can’t stomach the idea of eating offal, encapsulation may be your best bet. Even if you have a dehydrator on hand, it’s best not to attempt it at home for the contamination risks.
That said, if you’re looking for postpartum support with proven clinical benefits in a similar cost range, a postpartum Doula may be a better option.
Is the Placenta Medical Waste?
The answer is yes — and no. There are cord blood banks that offer parents an option to bank their newborn’s placental stem cells for an added cost. MiracleCord doesn’t, and here’s why:
While these stem cells are indeed valuable in regenerative medicine, they are more readily available in the cord tissue, and it is easier to extract them from the cord, where they won’t be contaminated with the mother’s cells.
Cord blood and cord tissue banking have proven clinical benefits in more than 80 FDA-approved stem cell treatments. To learn more about cord blood and cord tissue banking, request MiracleCord’s Free Info Kit.
It’s not hard to see why placentophagy would be trending in the U.S. now, with our country’s miserly postpartum support policies (especially compared to other industrialized countries), expensive child care costs, a for-profit medical establishment where many women believe they’re not being heard or supported, and rising rates of depression, especially among postpartum mothers. And on top of all that, the bullhorn of social media touting the magic of an ancient, natural practice that can help women overwhelmed after giving birth.
They say desperate times call for desperate measures. The trend toward placentophagy says a lot about our culture, and the desire among women to have some agency over their bodies in times of turmoil.
The more information you see touting the benefits of placenta encapsulation, the more you may begin to believe its hype — and that’s natural. For many, the placebo effect may be enough. But the fact remains that for human mothers, eating the placenta is not natural, it is not a time-honored practice in any world culture, there are real risks associated with it in an unregulated industry, and absolutely no clinical research to support the benefits anecdotally associated with it.