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 medical and nutritional benefits 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 the 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 the 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
- University of Buffalo
- Afterbirth: Study asks if there’s a benefit to eating the placenta.
New York Magazine
- The Placenta Cookbook.
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