Eating a placenta

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Photo from Motionisland

Victor Liaw

The placenta nurtures and protects the fetus as it develops in the mother’s womb. Once the child is born, the placenta is no longer needed. Some mothers in the United States have recently become fascinated with placentophagy: the practice of eating the placenta after childbirth. It’s a trend that has become more popular over the past decade.

Most mammalian mothers eat the placenta. It’s speculated to be either for nutrition or to mask evidence of childbirth from potential predators. By contrast, human placentophagy is unusual. One exception to this historical trend is in traditional Chinese medicine, in which dried human placenta is thought to help with exhaustion. This practice is cited by modern placental consumption proponents.

The placenta can be eaten dehydrated, raw, or even cooked as a meat substitute for  lasagna or pasta. The most prevalent method of consumption is in pill form. In a process known as encapsulation, the placenta is cleaned, dehydrated, ground up, and placed in capsules. Encapsulation is a service that private companies can provide for a few hundred dollars, but it can also be done at home.   

People eat the placenta in the hope that it will aid with hormone balance, decrease the incidence of postpartum depression, increase energy, speed healing after childbirth, increase lactation, and increase intake of micronutrients. However, most scientists agree that there is no proven benefit from eating human placenta. Research on this relatively taboo subject is very limited, and most scientific studies on the alleged benefits of placentophagy are self-reports instead of experiments. Self-reports are subject to potential bias when mothers who already have positive expectations and beliefs report a good response.

Although the benefits of placental consumption are doubtful, the risk of side effects from this practice are also very low. The CDC recently described a case of Group B strep infection in a young infant after coming into contact with his mother’s placenta pills. Currently, there is no standard for processing and preparing placenta to ensure it is bacteria-free. Therefore, though it may be easy to find favorable testimonials supporting placentophagy, it is not recommended by doctors and scientists.

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