At first you may think it unheard of for a woman to eat her own placenta after her baby is born. However, this practice is a growing trend among new mothers who hope to ward off postpartum depression, renew energy levels and recover faster from childbirth.
Even though I practice traditional medicine, I am on a mission to uncover alternative remedies, treatments and medical discoveries from around the world, such as placentophagy, the consumption of one's placenta. Is there any science behind this therapy or is this just a strange practice that is gaining popularity in the U.S.?
One out of every seven women develop postpartum depression, a condition that can significantly affect the relationship between mother and baby. Some women opt to take anti-depressants, but others are searching for more natural ways to offset postpartum depression and choose to eat their placenta, as they argue that we are one of the only mammals not to do it.
How is it done?
In the western world the placenta is usually incinerated, unless plans are made with your healthcare provider in advance. Once the baby is born, the doctor waits until the cord stops pulsing, has the mother birth the placenta, and then cuts the cord. The placenta is put in a bag and given to the parents at that time.
Some doctors or midwives will facilitate giving a tiny piece of the placenta to the mom to put under her tongue to stop any heavy bleeding after childbirth. Some will take the placenta and put it in a smoothie and give it to the mother to drink during the immediate postpartum period to help with blood loss and increase energy levels.
Most women prefer taking encapsulated pills that are prepared by certified encapsulation specialists. These specialists take great care in creating a sacred space for the process, providing positive energy, as well as citing prayers. They believe this is an important part in helping the mother cope with any sadness.
To make sure the placenta is sterilized, the specialists steam it with slices of lemon and ginger. They then remove all the membranes and dehydrate them for 12 to 24 hours. Once dried, they are ground into a fine powder and encapsulated. The rest of the placenta is made into a tincture by taking a small piece of the maternal part and mixing it with 100% pure alcohol. This is then fermented for six weeks or more. The mother can drink some drops as often as necessary. It can also be made into an ointment to be applied to a cesarean incision to help with recovery.
Is it medically beneficial or just a trend?
Traditional medicine offers new mothers experiencing postpartum depression anti-depressants such as Prozac, Zoloft or Lexapro, among others, which are proven to be effective 70 to 80% of the time.
However, this is not the case for some women and does not work for everyone. Antidepressants can also produce unwanted side effects, such as weight gain.
Women who are eating their placentas are doing so with great results, but there is not yet much research or science to back up these claims. It takes more than anecdotal evidence to change the practice of medicine. Pharmaceutical companies have no real incentive to conduct research. The placenta is a natural product that cannot be given to anyone but that mother. It is not something companies can mass-produce or turn into a profit.
What are the risks?
Currently, there is not much regulation on the practice. Most of the risks lie in how the placenta is handled. After delivery, there can be fecal contamination from both the baby and the mother. The placenta could sit on the counter for too long, exposing it to bacteria and other pathogens.
However, mothers from different cultures around the world have been eating placenta to renew their body and mind after childbirth since ancient times. Mothers in the U.S. who have done it tell me they have abundant energy and experience no postpartum depression or side effects.
Would I recommend it?
All of the research I have done and stories I have heard are only anecdotal evidence. To date, there is no scientific proof that this practice works for postpartum depression and other post-birth complications. But, it makes physiological sense. Placentas are rich in nutrients and hormones, which are depleted after delivery and could explain why new mothers experience depression or lack of energy.
If my wife tells me that she wishes to do it I wouldn’t be opposed to it, but I would make sure that we handle the placenta as carefully as possible and I would follow her clinically to make sure there are no unwanted side effects.
However, if you’ve tried eating placenta in some form for your postpartum depression and it's not getting better, don’t wait it out. Postpartum depression is serious, so please see your doctor, who can help you manage your symptoms with proven treatments.