Orange is the new black, thirty is the new twenty, and placenta is the new… kale? Apparently, it is for many new moms who ingest the organ for its reported health benefits. This superfood can be eaten in smoothies, dehydrated into capsules, and ingested in just about any form. There are even placenta cookbooks with a variety of recipes to suit different tastes. So, how did placentophagy — the official term for eating one’s placenta — become a thing? And, is there any scientific proof that it works? Read on for the 411 on this controversial, yet increasingly popular, practice.
First of all, what is a placenta?
If you don’t have kids, chances are you’ve never seen one in the flesh (sorry, I had to). The placenta is an organ that your body creates when you are pregnant. It sits inside the uterus and connects mom to baby, delivering everything a baby needs to develop and thrive, like nutrients, oxygen, and hormones. Think of it as the lifeline for the fetus. During labor, the placenta detaches from the uterine wall and comes out of the birth canal with the baby. During C-section births, doctors remove the organ directly from the uterus.
What are the health benefits?
Because of its life-giving qualities, the placenta has held a special spiritual significance in many cultures around the world, some of which feature elaborate burial ceremonies and rituals for the organ. But, modern day advocates also attribute many health benefits to the practice of placentophagy.
Advocates from celebrity moms to credentialed midwives report that eating one’s placenta can boost milk supply, increase energy levels, promote faster healing from childbirth, stabilize hormones, and improve mood, which is a particular draw for mamas who want to avoid postpartum depression. (Alicia Silverstone called pills derived from her placenta her “happy pills.”) In fact, an academic survey of 189 women who had ingested their placenta found that a majority of participants said that they experienced positive benefits and would do it again for their next birth.
A scientific explanation for the health benefits associated with the practice is that a placenta is known to contain high levels of hormones, such as estrogen, oxytocin, and prolactin, which are crucial for milk production, healing, mood stabilization, and bonding with baby. The placenta also contains large amounts of iron and B-12, nutrients that can help with recovery. But, the scientific evidence is tenuous at best. Advocates reference a 1954 study that claimed ingesting freeze-dried placenta helped boost milk production in 86% of mothers (181 out of a total 210 participants). However, the study has been largely discredited because it lacked a control group and because researchers have failed to replicate its results.
Proponents like to point to the fact that most mammals eat their placenta (raw, of course). It’s unclear, though, if they do this for biological benefit or other reasons. One theory is that the new mom wants to quickly get rid of a bloody organ that might draw predators to her and her cubs, which she can most easily do by ingesting it.
Got any good placenta recipes?
As you might have guessed, most moms (myself included) ingest their placenta in capsule form. Since you can’t see it or taste it, the experience is no different from taking a multivitamin. Typically, a homebirth midwife or doula will steam, dehydrate, and encapsulate it for you, charging upwards of $250 for the service. (If you’re really brave, you can even do it yourself with this kit). They will also advise on the proper dosage and frequency.
Other not-so-squeamish moms eat their placenta in its raw form. According to NYC-based doula Laura Vladimirova, many women will pop a 3-inch slice into their blender for a post-birth smoothie and freeze the rest in chunks to be used later. (She estimates that one in four of her clients eat their placenta in some form.)
However you choose to ingest it, the most important thing is to keep the placenta cold, the same way you would do with any raw meat. Moms looking to save their placenta must come to the hospital with a cooler and ice, where the placenta will be stored until it is prepared for ingestion.
Are there any risks?
Some medical professionals believe that eating placenta can actually be harmful. In addition to providing the fetus with essential nutrients and oxygen, the placenta also acts as a filter to remove anything potentially harmful from reaching the baby, which means that it can contain mercury and other toxic substances.
Another concern is the placenta may become contaminated with bacteria or other germs during handling, making it unsafe to eat. And at least one woman who documented her experience reported jitters and mood swings when she took her placenta capsules. (Though she admits that her symptoms may have been caused by taking too high of a dosage and/or the mysterious herbs that were mixed into the capsules along with her placenta.)
As for me? I took placenta capsules after the birth of my third child and I’m not sure if it made a difference for me. My recovery was a little quicker, but I was super emotional (having three kids aged four and under can do that to you) and had to contend with severe back pain that I hadn’t experienced after my previous births. So, did it help? I’ll never know. Given the high price tag, I probably won’t get the capsules if I have another baby.