Science says … well, nothing really
Having a baby means having to make decisions. Among the countless quandaries parents face are where and how they’ll give birth, what they’ll name the new little fella and whether they should buy a swing or a bouncer. In recent years, another question is getting thrown into the mix: Should a new mom eat her placenta?
Though statistics are elusive, it seems more and more women are answering yes. Dried placenta in pill form is a palatable choice for some, including celebrities Mayim Bialik, January Jones and Kourtney Kardashian. The founder of Placenta Benefits in Nevada, Jodi Selander says she has seen interest in her placenta-prepping business take off. Since opening her business in 2003, she has also trained several hundred other women to turn placentas into palatable pills. For DIY-ers, (link not for the faint of heart) recipes abound for placental tacos, spaghetti, jerky and smoothies. (Tip: expect a “mineral earthiness.”)
Enthusiasts argue that the placenta, a fetus-sustaining organ grown fresh for each pregnancy, is a panacea that can ward off the baby blues, boost milk production, replenish lost nutrients and even ease menopause symptoms later in life. But is there science behind these claims? No, concludes a review of the existing scientific literature published June 4 in Archives of Women’s Mental Health.
“I think it’s a woman’s choice whether or not to consume the placenta,” says study coauthor Cynthia Coyle, a clinical psychologist at Northwestern University. “Our concern is that a lot of this research is cited as evidence for the benefits,” when that evidence simply isn’t there, she says.
Post-partum placenta eating is actually a relatively new phenomenon. Coyle and her colleagues write that the first documented accounts were in North America in the 1970s. Partly because of this newness, scientists haven’t really spent much effort to figure out what the benefits and risks are. That means I can’t tell you about scientific results. Instead, I’ll tell you about some of the unknowns:
Placentas probably do contain hormones such as progesterone and oxytocin, but it’s not known whether ingesting those hormones could actually influence things like mood, energy or milk production. The hormones might not be abundant enough in the placenta to exert any effects. And they might not survive cooking, freezing, drying or aging, or a trip through the digestive system.
As for the claim of a milk-making boost, the results there are quite limited. In a single human study from 1954, 86 percent of women who had eaten freeze-dried placentas saw an increase in milk production. But that study, performed in the Czech Republic, probably wouldn’t pass muster today: For starters, there was no control group, no standards about who entered the study and no information about the timing of birth or placenta eating.
Some experiments with rats suggest eating the placenta might lead to pain relief during labor. But licking up the amniotic fluid might be a more relevant way to get similar relief, the results suggested. (And I may be projecting here, but I don’t think a woman in the throes of labor would be interested in drinking her leaking amniotic fluid.)
Like many other meat products, the placenta does contain iron, a mineral that can be important for post-partum women. But there’s no reason to believe placental iron is better than other sources of iron, says nutrition expert and neuroscientist Nicole Avena of Columbia University. “I prefer to get my iron stores back up with hamburgers and iron pills,” she says.
Other placenta ingredients may cause trouble. As an organ that keeps harmful substances away from the fetus, the placenta can accumulate lead, cadmium, mercury and other pollutants, substances that nursing women would want to avoid. Placentas also harbor bacteria from inside the mother’s body as well as from the messy birth process and post-birth handling. That means that like any other meat product, eating it raw could be dangerous.
No studies have shown that eating placenta after birth can combat the serious and common condition of post-partum depression. Coyle says that her concern is that women are choosing to eat their placentas instead of treatments such as antidepressants that are backed by evidence and monitored by a doctor. But she’s also quick to point out that women’s positive experiences shouldn’t be discounted. “I think we should take women’s reports of the benefits seriously,” Coyle says.
And there are growing numbers of anecdotally positive reports. Selander, for one, says she’s convinced of the benefits. After suffering from depression following the birth of her first child, Selander turned to the placenta for her second baby. “Honestly, I was shocked at how much better I felt. It was like night and day,” she says. Selander has now prepped placentas for over 1,000 clients, she says, and the vast majority of them say they found the pills helpful.
Selander’s personal experience and feedback from women convinced her that placentophagy was something that more women ought to be aware of. “That’s when I got on this mission to share the knowledge,” she says.
The problem with that knowledge, though, is that science can’t back it up yet, leaving women to make a complex risk/benefit calculation with imperfect information. From my perspective as someone who craves hard evidence, the science isn’t strong enough to convince me to eat placenta post-baby. The benefits are hazy and the risks, both to mothers and nursing babies, do exist. Lead, mercury and cadmium have been found in placentas, as have bacteria. And it is possible that women in the throes of post-partum depression might forego the help of a doctor, instead relying on the unproven placenta.
This amorphous calculation boils down to one clear fact: We need more research. It’s possible that eating placenta — or the powerful placebo effect that act may inspire — actually does help women. So in the meantime, what’s a pregnant woman to do? You could consider another way to honor the fascinating and powerful placenta, like planting it under a tree or making yourself some art. But if you’re sold on eating it, do yourself a favor and cook it thoroughly.