Doula-assisted home births and other ways to reclaim a more "natural" birth process are popular. Wrapped up in the same aesthetic is the idea of eating the placenta — animals do it in the wild and increasingly, celebrities are doing it. But the science supporting the practice is scant and a new study indicates it might even be a bad idea, reports Rachel Feltman for The Washington Post.
There are a lot of ideas about what eating the placenta might do for a woman. “What I tell women is that the placenta is an endocrine organ, and endocrine organs, among other things, trigger the body’s production of hormones,” midwife Claudia Booker told Ellen McCarthy in an article also from The Post about the placenta-eating trend. “It can help make your breast milk come in. It can also trigger the production of estrogen,” mitigating the baby blues and perhaps helping ward off post-partum depression, she argued. Other commonly cited potential benefits include reducing post-delivery pain, boosting energy, promoting skin elasticity, enhancing the mother-child bond and re-upping the body’s iron stores.
The question is whether any of that is actually proven. Provoked by patients’ questions about whether home-made pills containing freeze-dried placenta would interfere with their antidepressants, Crystal Clark, a psychiatrist, sought to determine what placenta eating does. Along with her colleagues at Northwestern University reviewed 10 already published studies and didn’t find any convincing evidence that eating the placenta actually helps mothers. They published their review in the Archives of Women’s Mental Health.
There are subjective reports from individual women who think they benefited — something that might be ascribed to the placebo effect — and studies on mice that aren’t translatable to human benefits, Clark says in a press statement. Plus, the way that human mothers eat their placentas is nothing like the way animals do in the wild. The only study that showed the potential for a benefit indicated that eating the raw, whole placenta immediately after birth can help with pain reduction, Feltman reports. But as Clark observes, "That’s not what human women are doing."
Indeed, most celebs in the news for consuming their placentas aren't praising the benefits of scarfing down a raw organ in the delivery room. Most eat it over time -- sometimes even months postpartum -- after having it dehydrated or cooked, often by a midwife.
"The animal practice that we see simply isn't what humans are doing," Clark said. "So you really can't compare the two."
But it might actually be a good thing that human mothers aren't noshing on raw placenta. Placentas are rich in microbes. This helps babies establish their own microbiome, but might not be the best thing to eat raw. The organ is also responsible for keeping toxins and heavy metals away from the developing fetus, so it’s possible placentas could contain higher levels of those dangerous substances. But there have been no investigations on whether these are problems for placenta eaters.
So why are women eating their placentas at all? For The Atlantic, Julie Beck spoke to Northwestern’s Cynthia Coyle, who also worked on the review.
“This is speculation, but there has been increased awareness on the prevalence of postpartum depression and other difficulties that women have after giving birth,” Coyle says. “Maybe due to shame or embarrassment, there’s ambivalence about taking medications during pregnancy and nursing. And I think the way supporters present it is that it’s a natural remedy and if all animals are doing it, why aren’t we? And I think that’s driving a lot of women.”
More evidence would help settle whether or not placenta eating is a good idea. But for now, maybe hold off and simply appreciate the beauty and functionality of the organ on its own, no fancy preparation or questionable meals needed.