Got an appetite for your afterbirth? More moms do these days, thanks to the hype for placentophagy, or eating your placenta.
Placenta, of course, is the “temporary organ” women have during pregnancy. Attached to the uterine wall and linked to the fetus via the umbilical cord, the placenta supplies nutrients, blood and oxygen to babies in the womb, while removing waste.
For years, hospitals considered the placenta a biohazard (and still do). But now, made trendy by celebrities like January Jones, two Kardashians and Alicia Silverstone, placentophagy has piqued the curiosity of women drawn by promises of the placenta’s health benefits for postpartum care.
Among those benefits sworn by proponents: That the placenta provides the mother essential nutrients, protects against postpartum depression, triggers more breast milk production and acts as an all-around self-care measure after delivery.
But does it?
“The science is, at best, unclear,” said Laurie McKechnie, a nurse practitioner at Lynn Women’s Health, a gynecology and obstetrics practice affiliated with Lahey Health. “What we do know is that there has been very little research available, and of the studies out there, they’ve found no evidence that eating your placenta has any health benefits at all. In fact, there may actually be risks associated with the practice.”
What the Research Says
A paper from the American Journal of Obstetrics and Gynecology found no clinical benefits — going so far to say, “physicians should discourage this practice.”
And two years before that, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) warned about a dangerous strain of bacteria that spread from one mom to her baby because of placentophagy.
Some researchers have even made the point that because the placenta’s job is to protect the baby against toxins, it can hold elements like mercury and lead — which aren’t ideal for mom either (Archives of Women’s Mental Health).
What the Trends Say
Research notwithstanding, however, interest keeps going up — at least as evidenced by Google trends. From 2004 to 2009, the search term “eating your placenta” had a low profile until it rose steadily in the early 2010s. In August 2013, it hit its peak — which just so happened to be the month Kim Kardashian first floated the idea on “Keeping Up With the Kardashians.”
“I would say that I’ve noticed an uptick in the number of patient questions about this topic in the last few years,” McKechnie said. “Many women are curious about it — maybe not actively considering it for themselves, but it has definitely become something more and more women want to know about.”
The buzz has fed into culinary exploration. Some women choose to grind the organ into beef-like bits for soups, casseroles and pastas. If you’re particularly adventurous and don’t mind the sarcastic customer reviews, you can even buy a cookbook on Amazon for meals like placenta kebabs, fajitas and stroganoff.
Others prefer the placenta dehydrated into powders for smoothies or capsules — a service you can buy from many companies that do that sort of thing — but there are questions surrounding what nutrients remain after the dehydration process. In addition, because those companies aren’t fully regulated, additional danger lies in how the placenta is handled. Just like any other meat, the organ can go bad or pass along dangerous bacteria.
The Origins of Placenta Eating
But in all the trends and curiosity, it’s important to know that 21st Century humans didn’t come up with the idea. Ancient Chinese healers practiced placentophagy for many of the same reasons modern-day women do, according to a review from the journal Nursing for Women’s Health.
Plus, many animals eat their own placenta raw after delivery, one researcher noted to the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD) in 2015. But animals, in large part, do so to hide the smell of their newborns from predators — something our own species doesn’t have to worry about.
So Should You … or Shouldn’t You?
So, does all of this mean that you shouldn’t eat your placenta? The science suggests you shouldn’t, but some people still point to the fact that there’s just not enough evidence either way to say for sure.
“I don’t openly encourage it for my patients, because I prefer to refer them to evidence-based ways to support lactation and postpartum care instead of solutions like this that aren’t as well studied,” McKechnie said.
“That said, I think it’s great that more women are taking an interest and curiosity in their health care during pregnancy. And I’m always happy to answer their questions and give my clinical advice about the risks, but also respect their wishes too.”
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