Should you be eating your placenta? Eating your own organ may not sound that appetizing, but there’s a chalk full of health claims promoting its use, from its energy-boosting benefits to curing the baby blues.
Let’s cut through the noise and find out whether the placenta diet is worth doing.
As absurd as it sounds, the placenta diet, or placentophagy, has become a more recent trend among new mothers in Western society, including celebrities like Kourtney Kardashian who advocate eating their own placenta after giving birth. Traditional roots of this practice are thought to be restorative and trace back to Chinese medicine. There are even websites dedicated to teaching others how to “prepare” and consume their placenta, including blending it raw into a smoothie, stir-frying, baking it like any other meat, or dehydrating and grinding it into a powder so that it can be encapsulated.
While it all sounds very promising, to date there is no proof or scientific evidence to support these claims.
What Does the Placenta Do?
The placenta, or the afterbirth, is the first organ that forms after conception, with a vital role of connecting the mother to her baby while in the uterus. With the help of the umbilical cord, the placenta nourishes the fetus by delivering nutrients (glucose, amino acids, fatty acids, B vitamins, vitamin A, C, D, minerals), oxygen and hormones, while removing wastes. Since this amazingly intricate organ provides many benefits during pregnancy, many believe that it may still be useful postpartum. All mammals consume the placenta with the exception of humans, marine mammals, and some domesticated mammals; potentially to promote bonding.
“Health Claims” Behind the Placenta Diet?
Let’s go back to where the first uses of placentophagy all started – traditional Chinese medicine. Dried placenta in capsules has historically been used to treat various health conditions such as malnutrition, depression, inadequate milk production and night sweats. Furthermore, it’s believed that the human placenta boosts energy, treats deficiencies and acts as nourishment to the blood. Once the placenta is lost, it is thought that there will be a significant alteration in hormone production, which would be “best resolved” through eating the placenta. As a result, each woman’s placenta is “uniquely tailored” to their nutritional needs required for rapid recovery.
In theory, eating the placenta may appear beneficial, because of its “nutrient-packed” properties. Because of this, advocates of maternal placenta consumption claim that there are a multitude of physical and mental health benefits from placenta contents that would still be advantageous after delivery, instead of throwing it away. Although the placenta does contain fats and protein, those nutrients can easily be found in a well-balanced, healthy diet (not to mention, it wouldn’t be so unappetizing). However, placentophagy advocates highlight key advantageous components of the placenta including its unique nutrient content (i.e. vitamin B6 and B12, iron) and important postpartum hormones (i.e. estrogen, progesterone, lactogen, β-endorphins and oxytocin), which is said to be retained in its tissue, whether prepared (cooked) or unprepared (raw).
Those supporting eating your placenta say that it can increase breast milk production, boost energy, regulate hormones, help with pain relief, reduce insomnia and the risk of postpartum depression (PPD). Other reported benefits include anti-aging benefits, accelerating uterine recovery (aiding uterine shrinkage and reducing bleeding) encouraging maternal bonding and strengthening the immune system. If you ask me, it sounds like eating your placenta could solve all your problems. However, it’s always important to actually think about whether there is any scientific basis to support these health claims, which are not without flaws. To date, there is no valid evidence that eating your placenta will actually do these things, but only anecdotal support, animal research with very poor research designs. Very little research has even been conducted to support these gigantic claims.
Based on an internet survey questionnaire, majority of American and Canadian Caucasian women participants (most from the U.S) said that they experienced an improvement in their mood, increased energy/less fatigue, enhanced lactation and reduced postpartum bleeding. Regarding negative experiences, majority indicated that there were none, or no answer was provided. However, some did experience negative consequences such as the unappetizing smell or taste, which resulted in headaches or unpleasant belching. Other negative effects included forgetting to take capsules, increased vaginal bleeding and uterine cramping, among others. Nonetheless, majority (98%) claimed that they would consider participating in placentophagy again due to most of the womens’ overall positive (75%) or very positive (20%) experience with it. Despite these astounding results, they are still preliminary, subjective, and non-representative to the general population. This was not a clinical trial so the findings do not objectively shed light on the effects of placentophagy. It is important to mention that the principal investigator in this study was also the founder of “Placenta Benefits”; a placenta encapsulation company. Other limitations of these findings include the potential for biases from the recruitment, its internet-based design, the lack of a placebo control group, and the homogenous sample consisting of primarily married, Caucasian, middle-class women who preferred home-births and had a college education.
Well, what does the research say on eating your placenta?
Currently, there are limited studies in the field to investigate the health effects of placentophagy on humans. Despite its historic practice (e.g in Chinese culture) for treating various health conditions in non-postpartum individuals, there is no strong evidence that postpartum mothers would therapeutically benefit. Majority of empirical evidence that evaluates placentophagy’s efficacy comes from studies conducted on animals, which display inconclusive results. Advocates propose that because nearly all mammalian mothers ingest their placenta postpartum as part of natural behaviour, placentophagy should be implemented into the process of human births. But that feels like a bit of a stretch to me, and without research supporting it, should not be the sole motivation behind eating our placenta.
Advocates suggest that placenta hormones such as prolactin and hPL increase milk supply. Research on animals has shown enhanced milk production with injection of hPL, but overall results remain inconclusive.
Prevention of Anemia
Placenta consumption is thought to have a “rich iron concentration” to prevent anemia, which postpartum women are more susceptible to. A review of 10 studies found that there was no data supporting this claim that placentophagy replenishes iron after pregnancy. In one of the very first of its kind, a double-blind, placebo-controlled, randomized pilot study investigated the effects from ingestion of encapsulated placenta versus a beef placebo on iron status of postpartum mothers (who consumed adequate (RDA) amounts of iron). With increased iron requirements during pregnancy and significant depletions after childbirth, advocates of placentophagy promote that eating the placenta would be “ideal” as an iron-rich dietary source. Researchers found that maternal iron status displayed no statistically significant differences when comparing mothers who consumed the placenta supplement compared to the placebo. These results suggest that eating the placenta will not provide superior or more iron-restoring effects than beef. The researchers also indicated that for mothers with iron deficiency, placenta consumption would be an insufficient dietary source, contrasting proponents of placentophagy.
Analgesic (Pain Reduction) Effects and Bonding
Placentophagy is also said to decrease pain and encourage maternal bonding. Placentophagy in animals (e.g rodents) demonstrated analgesic effects (ie labour pain reduction). The authors suggested that the results may have been due to ingesting “Placenta Opioid Enhancing Factor (POEF)”; a specific substance found in the placenta and amniotic fluid. However, the benefits depended on preparation (e.g temperature-sensitivity), timing and dose of placenta ingestion; indicating that consuming the tissue hours or days later would potentially offset these effects (as reflected in practices of human placentophagy). Given that these findings were observed in animals, and that there are currently no controlled experiments investigating the impact of POEF of the placenta in humans, it is unclear whether this can be replicated or have any relevance for human mothers.
Post-partum Depression (PPD) Prevention
A common and frequent promotion of this practice revolves around the prevention of PPD through provision of nutrients and hormone-replenishment (especially since large amounts were lost after giving birth). PPD has a multitude of risk factors that are biochemical or psychosocial in nature, which have not been tested on animals. The current evidence does not support that consuming the placenta would treat or prevent PPD this way, or even aid in restoring normal estrogen levels. Even though it is known that significant amounts of estrogen are reduced during childbirth, the certain role of estrogen in PPD is not completely understood, especially since not every woman will experience PPD symptoms. To add, placental corticotropin-releasing hormone (pCRH) is thought to prevent symptoms of PPD as well, although existing evidence does not provide any evidence for links between pCRH levels and PPD. Despite beliefs that B-vitamins and iron also play an important part in PPD prevention, there are unclear results on the relationship, with most studies not being able to demonstrate distinct roles or mechanisms.
Are There Harmful Side Effects to Eating Your Placenta?
Whether there are any risks from eating your human tissue is definitely a possibility, but is unknown. Concerns with placenta consumption include bacterial contamination, especially if eaten raw. One of the placenta’s important functions is protecting the unborn fetus from any harmful substances, and it is not sterile even if healthy. It is known to accumulate heavy metals including mercury, lead, selenium and cadmium, as well as bacteria or viruses with contamination after birth. Whether there are harmful effects on the mother consuming the placenta and her nursing baby still remains unknown.
The most popular reason why women decide to eat their placenta is to “improve mood”, which in itself, can result in the placebo effect making them believe that the placenta worked its magic. However, some women have been reported to feel ill. Therefore, experiences with placentophagy have varied responses, which are personal stories rather than experimental results. Currently, there is no research performed on harmful effects of placenta consumption. Although the risks have not been well-established, there is the possibility of thromboembolism due to estrogen in the placenta, infection, and accumulation of toxins and infectious agents affecting both the mother, her baby, and those handling the placenta. Since estrogen-containing contraceptives are contraindicated after birth, thromboembolic events could “theoretically” occur with consumption of the placenta. If a mother experiences intrauterine infection during labour or at birth, ingesting the raw placenta could re-introduce harmful substances back into the body. Contamination of the placenta is another possibility, especially with unsafe handling and preparation.
In Canada, there are ZERO regulations on eating your placenta, and recently medical experts have even spoken out warning against eating placenta, citing the lack of evidence supporting its benefits.
Overall, there needs to be clinical trials investigating the potential side effects of placentophagy.
The Bottom-line: Should You Eat Your Placenta?
With numerous health claims associated with maternal placentophagy, it may seem ideal to give it a shot. Considering all the research to date, overall human findings on placentophagy are inconclusive and outdated, and limited knowledge exists regarding the nutritional components of the placenta. However, it has been found that there are varying levels of amino acids, hormones and minerals in the human placenta, with unknown vitamin levels and mineral content being considerably low. From an objective point of view, the risks are high enough to outweigh any potentially significant benefits. With limited research in this area, most of the information we have about placentophagy advantages come from self-reported anecdotal evidence (known to be infamously inaccurate); providing no strong scientific support whatsoever.
Whether eating your placenta provides benefits, is damaging or has no effect on humans is not well-understood, especially since statistically significant findings revealed in animals cannot be directly reflected as meaningful human benefits. Bioavailability of ingested nutrients and hormones from the placenta is still a mystery. For example, placenta processing may change the concentrations of B-vitamins, just like how heating foods alters B vitamin levels. The stability and maintenance of hormones in its raw and prepared form have not been studied, nor the effects from consumption of these hormones. It is still unknown whether there would be sufficient concentrations in the placenta for advantageous health effects even if consumed raw. The placebo effect may be playing a very strong role here, so there has to be more clinical trials conducted in future research to properly evaluate the health effects of placenta consumption before any statements are made regarding its potential advantages or adverse consequences. If you’re really on board with this, remember that trying out this practice is not without a cost. The price for these capsules vary between about $200-$300 before the cost of getting a placenta specialist. You can get sufficient nutrition from following national guidelines recommended for the lactation period, without the additional expenses. If you go for it, remember to take caution and speak with your doctor before hand.
Bottom line: Eating your placenta is likely not dangerous for most women, but it may or may not have measurable benefits. I say, you do you!
So tell me, have you tried eating your placenta?
How did you prepare it?
Did you find it helped you in any way?
Leave us a comment below- I would love to hear about your experience!
RD2B Rachel Shim
Abbey Sharp is a Registered Dietitian, an avid food writer and blogger, a cookbook author and the founder of Abbey’s Kitchen Inc.