MD, PhD, FMedSci, FRSB, FRCP, FRCPEd

Placentophagy is the act of eating the placenta after childbirth. It seems to be advocated widely. But why would anyone even think of doing such a weird thing?

According to Wikipedia, the placenta contains high levels of prostaglandin. Prostaglandin stimulates involution (an inward curvature or penetration, or, a shrinking or return to a former size) of the uterus. The placenta also contains small amounts of oxytocin which eases birth stress and causes the smooth muscles around the mammary cells to contract and eject milk.

Wiki also tells us that human placenta has also been an ingredient in some traditional Chinese medicines, including using dried human placenta, known as “Ziheche” (simplified Chinese: 紫河车; traditional Chinese: 紫河車; pinyin: Zǐhéchē), to treat wasting diseases, infertility, impotence and other conditions. Most recently, the Center for Disease Control published a report of a newborn infected with Group B Streptococcus (GBS) bacteria likely after the mother ingested placenta capsules. Consequently, the CDC said that placenta capsule ingestion should be avoided and to educate mothers interested in placenta encapsulation about the potential risks. A recent publication advised that physicians should discourage placentophagy because it is potentially harmful with no documented benefit.

The benefits of placentophagy are, according to many proponents of this therapy, considerable. This website, for instance, claims the following effects:

START OF QUOTE

BALANCE HORMONES
When  a woman births the placenta, she loses the many useful hormones contained in it that were produced during pregnancy.  It can take months for the body to balance these hormones again. Taking placenta pills helps reintroduce these hormones into the mother’s body  in small doses, until her body resumes its natural hormonal balance.

DECREASE THE INCIDENCE OF POSTPARTUM DEPRESSION
Iron-deficiency in postpartum women can lead to fatigue, and may be a contributing factor to depressive symptoms. The placenta is extremely rich in natural iron and can be a valuable and natural resource to replenish the mother’s lost iron supply.  It is also rich in naturally-produced B6 which is often used to combat depression.  Many mothers find the combination of these substances in placenta encapsulation to be helpful in improving their post-birth emotional experience.

INCREASE ENERGY & FACILITATE FASTER HEALING
The placenta contains hormones and nutrients that have been found to increase energy and promote healing.  It is also rich in naturally-produced iron and protein, which can help replenish the mother’s nutrients following childbirth.

LESSEN POSTPARTUM BLEEDING
Historically, midwives have utilized a small portion of the placenta to control postpartum bleeding during and after childbirth.  Placenta pills contain these same hormones and can lessen bleeding and help promote uterine healing.

PROMOTE HEALTHY BREAST MILK PRODUCTION
The  placenta contains Human Placental Lactogen and Prolactin, which help prepare the mammary glands and stimulate milk production.  These are often beneficial in successful breastfeeding of a new infant.

END OF QUOTE

As we all know, bogus claims abound in alternative medicine; the question, as always is: are they true?

There have been no studies of whether placentophagy provides hormonal effects in humans, Wiki claims. But this last statement is no longer true. The first human trial of placentophagy has just been published. The objective of this study was to investigate whether salivary hormone concentrations of women ingesting their own encapsulated placenta during the early postpartum differed from those of women consuming a placebo.

Randomly assigned participants (N=27) were given a supplement containing either their dehydrated and homogenized placenta (n=12), or placebo (n=15). Saliva samples were collected during late pregnancy and early postpartum. Samples of participants’ processed placenta, and the encapsulated placebo, were also collected. Hormone analyses were conducted on all samples utilizing liquid chromatography-tandem mass spectrometry.

The results show that there were no significant differences in salivary hormone concentrations between the placenta and placebo groups post-supplementation that did not exist pre-supplementation. There were, however, significant dose-response relationships between the concentration of all 15 detected hormones in the placenta capsules and corresponding salivary hormone measures in placenta group participants not seen in the placebo group. The higher salivary concentrations of these hormones in the placenta group reflects the higher concentrations of these hormones in the placenta supplements, compared to the placebo.

In a second paper on the same trial, the authors assessed the maternal mood, bonding, and fatigue via validated scales across 4 time points during late pregnancy and early postpartum.

The results show no significant main effects related to maternal mood, bonding, or fatigue between placenta and placebo group participants. However, examination of individual time points suggested that some measures had specific time-related differences between placenta and placebo groups that may warrant future exploration. Though statistical significance should not be interpreted in these cases, the authors did find some evidence of a decrease in depressive symptoms within the placenta group but not the placebo group, and reduced fatigue in placenta group participants at the end of the study compared to the placebo group.

The authors concluded that no robust differences in postpartum maternal mood, bonding, or fatigue were detected between the placenta and placebo groups. This finding may be especially important for women considering maternal placentophagy as a ‘natural’ (i.e., non-pharmacological) means of preventing or treating blues/depression. Given the study limitations, these findings should be interpreted as preliminary. Small, time-related improvements in maternal mood and lower fatigue post-supplementation among placenta group participants may warrant further research.

Will this largely negative evidence stop enthusiasts of placentophagy making therapeutic claims?

I very much doubt it!

 

9 Responses to Possibly the weirdest alternative therapy of them all: placentophagy

  • Why are people eating a placenta? It’s not recommended for to solve any of the problems of mood or nutrition after giving birth. Eating a placente is no solution for the following:

    The main problem in nutrition before and after giving birth seems to be the reduced level of vitamins and minerals in a women because of all the circumstances of giving birth.

    Mostly the mothers stop to eat properly to avoid digestion problems of the newborn. But by avoiding a lot of products or meals rich on vitamins and minerals to stop colics in babies the problem is getting worse. There are a lot of risks coming up with special diets.

    If you look around in traditional cultures they have special cooking recipies for meals that pregnant and breastfeeding women should eat. All of them are very rich on vitamines and minerals because one person has to eat for two (or three).

    If the mothers follow such regulations by eating sea-fish, meat, vegetables with high concentrations of vitamins and minerals they recover much better from being exhausted and the babies get better milk and have less digestion problems.

    So physicians don’t need to prescribe H2 receptor blockers for newborn in cases of 3 month colics as more and more children’s doctors are doing nowadays.

    A baby’s colic from gas has nothing to do with too much acid in the stomach!

    And a baby’s 3 month colic cannot be solved by eating a placenta 🙂 or by other bogus therapies like Cranio Sacral therapies or Cranial Osteopathy or by “releasing the vagus nerve” by Atlas Therapy because of a KiSS syndrom and a lot of another alternative quack…

  • All those interested will find a delicious selection of recipes on the Internet, as you’dexpect, including placenta lasagne, placenta spaghetti Bolognese, placenta tacos, and placenta smoothies. You bring an appetite now!
    And if you’d like to ‘tackle cancer’,to use Noel Edmonds’ vacuous phrase, why not visit the Cancer Tutor site for details of how to increase your white blood cells by rubbing the insides of your elbows with lemon juice?
    Just as daft in its way.
    ( if there’s a word for the inside of the elbow, I don’t know it.
    Spike Milligan once pointed out that there’s no word for the back of the kneecap also.Maybe he invented this medical breakthrough ).

    • The inside of the elbow is the (anterior) cubital fossa, or elbow pit. The area behind the kneecap is the popliteal fossa, or knee pit (aka hough, pronounced ‘hock’). Sorry to be boring, but you can be pretty sure anatomists have never missed an opportunity to name a body part.

  • Placentophagy is widely practiced withing the natural kingdom.

    From a natural history pov i think it is considered more of a survival strategy (to reduce predation) rather than some kind of “nutritional booster” .

  • Apparently, it tastes like liver pate.

    There are number of homeopaths etc in the UK that offer placenta encapsulation services as well as offering to make a homeopathic remedy from placenta,

  • Many women attest to the benefits of eating the placenta (in capsules). We men could not possibly know or understand these benefits except from an intellectual point of view.

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