What’s Up With Eating Your Placenta?

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Alicia Silverstone did it. So did January Jones, Mayim Bialik, and Tamera Mowry. What they did is something rare in Western culture: They ate their placentas. While these celebrities all believe in the power of consuming their own placentas to help control postpartum pain, support lactation, fight anemia, and provide other health benefits, scientific evidence supporting the practice remains slim. However, some integrative health practitioners and alternative health providers believe women benefit from consuming their placentas, and the trend of placenta eating—also known as placentophagy—appears to be moving slowly out of celebrity culture and into the mainstream.

But does eating your placenta really do you any good? Let’s look at the claims, scientific evidence, and cost of preserving and consuming your placenta.

The Claims and the Evidence

Although placentophagy is common in many Eastern and South American cultures, the ritual never really caught on with European and American women. Many experienced midwives and birth doulas attest to the health benefits of eating placenta and often cite centuries of cultural tradition and anecdotal evidence to support recommending placentophagy to their clients. Here’s what we know about the science as it relates to placentophagy:

  • Supports postpartum pain relief. This claim is supported by at least one animal study—but no human studies—that suggests placentophagy enhances analgesia in new mothers.
  • Aids in lactation. Although the placenta contains hormones related to lactation, no studies yet confirm that placentophagy aids in lactation.
  • Fights anemia. Some practitioners refer to this phenomenon as “building up the blood.” Birthing causes significant blood loss, and the placenta contains high levels of iron, so placentophagy may return some lost iron to the mother.
  • Reduces postpartum depression. It’s important to note no studies support this hypothesis. You should always be alert to the signs of postpartum depression, and in fact, be aware of signs of depression that can occur even before the baby is born. That said, placenta contains a cornucopia of hormones and vitamins that may affect mood, so it’s possible placentophagy could help stave off the “baby blues.”

How to Consume Your Placenta

While generations of women in Eastern cultures have prepared and consumed their own placentas, if you do decide that placentophagy is for you, it’s not something you should take on without an experienced guide. You risk becoming seriously ill if you don’t handle and prepare your placenta properly, which may explain why the practice of hiring a professional to perform the encapsulation (dehydrating the tissue and putting it into capsule form) is on the rise. Arguably, most Western women who have consumed their placentas prefer encapsulation above any other method.

Placenta can be consumed raw, cooked, or dried and encapsulated. Women in some cultures prepare the placenta as a nourishing stew for the new mother. Tamera Mowry (of the television show Tia and Tamera) notably blended pieces of raw placenta into a smoothie to drink each day after the birth of her child.

Most women, however, choose to consume their placenta in capsule form. San Francisco-based doula and encapsulator Amanda Rose Raskind says expectant mothers should develop a relationship with the person who will be handling and encapsulating their placenta. After all, processing your placenta is not like sending your suit out for dry cleaning. And the encapsulation industry isn’t regulated, so you’ll need to vet your provider carefully for cleanliness and reputability.

Many birth doulas have added placenta encapsulation to their practice offerings. Some midwives and Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) practitioners also provide this service. If your midwife or birth doula doesn’t perform placenta encapsulation, chances are good she or he can recommend a provider. But if you have to seek out someone through the Web or by word-of-mouth, consider meeting with more than one encapsulation provider to make sure you’re hiring a pro. After all, the sanitary handling of your placenta is vital to your safety, so you want to make sure you’re entrusting the duty to an expert.

How Placenta Encapsulation Works

The placenta must be received within 24 hours of the birth in order to be encapsulated. If your midwife or birth doula doesn’t perform the service and doesn’t take the placenta with her immediately after you’ve given birth, place the placenta and umbilical cord in a sealed plastic bag, and put it in the refrigerator to preserve it. Alternatively, you can place the placenta on ice in a cooler until the person handling the encapsulation can pick it up. The encapsulation process involves a few steps taken over a couple of days.

First, your placenta will be washed and sanitized with a gentle steam. Next, the placenta will be sliced and dried. Finally, the placenta will be ground into a fine powder and placed in standard gelatin or vegan capsules. You should store the capsules in the refrigerator.

When working with your placenta encapsulator, you can discuss whether or not to add reputed healing herbs to the capsules. Many TCM practitioners, midwives, and integrative medicine doctors recommend taking postpartum herbs to aid the healing process. However, you should talk this over with your health care provider first to make sure it’s OK for you to take postpartum herbs, and to learn which ones and what doses are safe and effective.

Placenta Dosing

Once you have the capsules in hand, how many of them do you take? And how often? Placenta dosing is not an exact science. Many women begin by taking two capsules at a time, twice a day. Work with your midwife, doula, or primary care provider to find the dosage that’s right for you.

Cost of Placenta Encapsulation

In general, the service runs $100 to $350. Be sure to weigh the costs of placenta encapsulation against other postpartum supports you might want or need, such as a postpartum doula or a lactation consultant. If you decide you can’t afford it or don’t want to do it, don’t feel guilty. Plenty of women get through childbirth just fine without consuming placenta.

That said, if encapsulation is something you can afford, you may find that it helps. Despite the lack of scientific evidence, many mothers, midwives, and doctors report positive healing effects to the mother from consuming placenta, including One Medical Group provider April Blake, who is a naturopathic doctor and a licensed midwife.

Other Things to Do with Your Placenta

Traditionally in the US, the placenta is discarded and incinerated as medical waste. You certainly can opt to go that route. But consider these other options for your placenta:

  • Burial. Many cultures promote burying the placenta close to the baby’s home. This is believed to foster a protective energy around the home for both mother and baby.
  • Cremation. In some Eastern and South American cultures, ritual cremation of the placenta and placement of the ashes within the home or nearby in the outdoors is said to reinforce the child’s relationship with his place of birth and with ancestors.
  • Donation. The placenta is one of the most-studied human tissues, and research hospitals often will accept placenta donations for ongoing studies.

Placentophagy: One More Tool for a Comfortable Postpartum Recovery?

As placentophagy awareness rises, and more research is done, more women may avail themselves of this practice. According to Blake, questions about placentophagy in her practice are much more common now than they were a few years ago. If you choose to encapsulate your placenta, be sure you engage a professional with high quality standards, good communication, and excellent references.

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The One Medical blog is published by One Medical, an innovative primary care practice with offices in Boston, Chicago, Los Angeles, New York, Phoenix, the San Francisco Bay Area, Seattle, and Washington, DC.

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