Would you, could you, in a pill?

After giving birth, truly dedicated earth mothers don’t just delay cord clamping or ceremonially bury their placenta under a tree.

They eat it.

Why would they do this?  It’s not completely out of left field.  Many mammals, including herbivores, eat their placentas.  We don’t really know why yet.  Some people have taken this fact, together with the information that the placenta contains iron, estrogen, and progesterone, and concluded that eating your placenta will restore nutrients and hormones lost during labor, and help prevent such problems as anemia, low milk supply, and post-partum depression.  Most people seem to go for having the placenta dried and made into pills (“encapsulation”), to cut down on the ick factor.  Advocates of the practice are passionate and certain, employing a lot of bare assertion and very little actual evidence.

Check out some of the breathless claims from this placenta-preparation service:

The placenta has great restorative properties to assist you with your postpartum recovery.  It contains many vital nutrients including iron, protein, vitamin B6, and the hormones it excreted during pregnancy. Just as it supported and nourished your baby, the placenta, when carefully prepared, nourishes the postpartum mother. It supports lactation and assists in the involution of the uterus to it’s non-pregnant size. It facilitates an easier postpartum recovery by increasing maternal energy and easing transitions.

Placental Services also gives this citation:

“181 out of 210 women who were given dried placenta to increase milk supply had positive results and saw an increase in their milk supply.
Placenta as a Lactagogon; Gynaecologia 138: 617-627, 1954”

Now, first let me say, if you would like to consume your baby’s placenta on the off chance it will do you good, I suppose you should go for it. I don’t see much harm. If it does nothing, you might lose some money to a professional encapsulator. (Of course safe handling is important, just like with raw beef or chicken or whatever.) But really, whatever floats your boat.

I’ll also grant that it’s possible that placentophagy could have some benefits. It’s not completely ridiculous, the way homeopathy is. It’s at least feasible that recouping iron and hormones could be beneficial.

But here’s my problem – this is at best a hypothesis. It’s testable, but hasn’t really been tested (as far as I can tell, that study didn’t use a control group, and the sample is small to boot). It’s a pretty big leap from “animals do this” and “it contains hormones” to “ingesting dried placenta prevents depression and low milk supply.”  There’s also no particular reason to think that, say, iron from your placenta would be more beneficial than a Walgreens iron supplement.

And why are people so eager to make that huge leap? Because it’s “natural.” You won’t see this wide-eyed credulity when it comes to vaccines, for damn sure. People who avoid ingesting acetaminophen or corn syrup jump at the chance to chow down on placenta, because that’s what sheep do. It just doesn’t make sense to me. And I’m worried about the general mentality because it leads to distrust of science-based medicine and encourages faith in altmed woo – something that occurs in nature and seems like an alternative to Big Pharma products catches on fast, but any inquiry into whether it’s true is ignored.

About Christine

I'm a full-time mother to two kids, an ex-lawyer, a breastfeeding counselor, a skeptic, and (to steal a phase from Penn & Teller) a "science cheerleader." You can reach me through my Facebook page.

Posted on October 26, 2011, in Health and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 5 Comments.

  1. I always thought animals did it in order to not attract predators with the smell. I have nothing to back that up with of course, I just assumed. I didn’t even think about nutrients or anything like that. I don’t know that I would bother though.

  2. jekandsuch – I think it’s both. Afterbirth is attractive both because it signals a helpless snack and nutrients.

  3. I read your comment on The Stork Fund about this topic. I find this practice of eating placenta to be absolutely crazy. That said, if I knew for certain it would give me supermom strength and energy, I’d do it. Scratch that. Coffee gives me as much supermom strength as possible. However, if gave me superhuman strength during sleep-training while making me look like amazingly rested (I’m talking a minimum 12 hours of sleep), I’d eat it like a rare steak without hesitation.

  4. I agree with jekandsuch. But I expect the nutrients don’t hurt either.
    I doubt that healthy people and animals need those nutrients. i sure wouldn’t do it, though.

    I have to admit that upon seeing my daughter, newly born, I had a fleeting urge to lick her face. But that could have been because I had no other way to touch her as my arms where strapped down during my c-section! 🙂 But I did wonder if my ancient mammalian brain didn’t think, clean that baby NOW!

    Hi Christine. I sat next to you at Dale’s talk a couple of Sunday’s ago. I’ll be checking things out here when I have time.

  5. Hey Lynn! Thanks for reading!

    You know, there’s speculation that mothers want to lick their newborns because it exposes the mother to any pathogens the baby has contact with, so her body can make antibodies and pass them through her milk. I have no idea if there is any basis for this, but it’s interesting to hear you had that impulse!

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