Have you heard of eating your placenta? Would you do it? Well I did. It might sound gross, but it's really not so bad at all. Some women believe that this practice can improve energy levels and prevent postpartum depression. When it comes to sustainability, prioritizing your health is an important part of the equation. Pregnancy and childbirth is an incredible process that takes a lot of work from your body. And caring for a newborn is a whole other journey. That's why it's important for a new mother to be properly nourished and cared for. After giving birth to my son Hawthorn, our doula Rosie encapsulated my placenta into little pills for me to take postpartum. She recommended I take 1-3 capsules up to three times per day for the first two weeks postpartum, and then decrease to 1-2 capsules per day as needed. Read all about placenta encapsulation below:
WHAT IS A PLACENTA?
The placenta is a special organ that develops in the uterus of a pregnant woman. It is connected to the fetus via the umbilical cord, and delivers oxygen and nutrients to the growing fetus. I didn't know this until I had a baby, but you "deliver" it during the labor process, about 20-30 minutes after the baby comes out. It looks like a bloody chicken breast, or a very large bloody mushroom.
WHY WOULD YOU EAT IT?
Some people believe that the placenta has potent medicinal qualities. There is an increasing trend of women who have their placenta encapsulated for consumption after giving birth. It is believed to aid with postpartum recovery by increasing energy and breast milk production, and preventing postpartum depression.
In the animal world, most mammals actually consume their placentas after giving birth, although the reasons are not clear. One theory is that they do it to prevent predators from picking up their scent. Or perhaps they benefit from the nutrients and hormones in the placenta. (Young & Benyshek, 2010)
In Traditional Chinese Medicine, placenta has been used medicinally for thousands of years. The first written record of this was from Omissions from the Materia Medica written by Chen Cang-Qi in 741 A.D. Known as Zi He Che, some consider it to be the most essential, irreplaceable herb to tonify Jing or essence. It nourishes the blood, tonifies Lung qi, and is especially beneficial for reproductive disorders and organ development. (Chen, Chen, & Crampton, 2012)
WHAT IS IT MADE OF?
The composition of placenta is extremely complex, but it contains many proteins, amino acids, enzymes, and hormones including gonadotropins which are essential for reproductive functions. (Chen, Chen, & Crampton, 2012). While we don't know exactly how much of the nutrients survive the encapsulation process, there is definitely something in the final product. One study found the presence of 16 different hormones in the encapsulated placenta including physiologically significant concentrations of some estrogens and progestogens. (Young, Gryder, Zava, Kimball, & Benyshek, 2016) My mom, who is a biotechnologist, used to do research on placentas and found some of the proteins to be highly heat resistant, which means they would survive the cooking process.
SO DOES IT REALLY WORK?
While many women notice improved moods and energy from consuming their placenta, there isn't a whole lot of research based evidence for its benefits. (Farr, Chervenak, Mccullough, Baergen, & Grünebaum, 2018). That doesn't mean it's NOT effective. There just hasn't been a lot of research done on the subject matter.
I had my placenta encapsulated after giving birth, and took several pills a day for the first month postpartum. I don't know for sure if there were health benefits, but I can say that I felt pretty good and energized after giving birth. As someone who has struggled with anxiety and depression in the past, I was worried about how I would feel after giving birth. But fortunately I felt really good and didn't notice any feelings of postpartum depression. Sure I've had a few days where I felt exhausted and emotional, but for the most part I feel strong and energetic. I still have about half of the pills from my placenta, and I plan to save them for the future when we're trying for baby number two.
HOW IS IT MADE?
There are a variety of ways to prepare the placenta, but typically it is washed thoroughly to remove any blood. Then it is steamed and dried. My doula Rosie dehydrated my placenta, pulverized the powder, and had it encapsulated. While it's possible for the placenta to be contaminated with bacteria or heavy metals, this is not common if done properly. There are risks from eating any kind of meat, but organ meat from livers, kidneys, and placentas are known to be some of the most nutrient dense foods available. One study found that microorganisms were eliminated through dehydration, and concentrations of any toxic elements were below the threshold for foodstuffs. (Johnson et al., 2018).
HOW MUCH DOES IT COST?
Placenta encapsulation prices vary, but you can expect to pay between $125 to $425 to have it done. (Taylor, 2020) Many doulas can do it for you, so be sure to ask around. Be sure to talk to them about their process, and ask them what precautions they take to ensure quality and safety.
As an added surprise, our doula included my umbilical cord formed into the shape of the heart. To be honest, I was a little horrified when I opened the bag and saw this. It looks like a mummified piece of beef jerky, and the cats were going crazy for it, lol. But I guess we'll keep it for the baby book. Everything is precious when it comes from your first born child, right?
THE BOTTOM LINE
While there is some debate regarding the effectiveness of placenta consumption after giving birth, many women find it helps promote good mood and energy levels postpartum. I had my placenta encapsulated after birth and I would definitely do it again. I had a positive postpartum experience although I can't necessarily attribute it to eating my placenta. Still, you lose a lot of blood during the labor process, and I believe that there are beneficial nutrients in the placenta that can help replenish what is lost giving birth. As a student of Chinese medicine, I respect that it has been used medicinally for centuries. I would love to see more research on the subject matter in the future. What is your experience? Would you eat your placenta?
Chen, J. K., Chen, T. T., & Crampton, L. (2012). Chinese medical herbology and pharmacology. City of Industry, CA, CA: Art of Medicine Press.
Farr, A., Chervenak, F. A., Mccullough, L. B., Baergen, R. N., & Grünebaum, A. (2018). Human placentophagy: A review. American Journal of Obstetrics and Gynecology, 218(4). doi:10.1016/j.ajog.2017.08.016
Johnson, S. K., Groten, T., Pastuschek, J., Rödel, J., Sammer, U., & Markert, U. R. (2018). Human placentophagy: Effects of dehydration and steaming on hormones, metals and bacteria in placental tissue. Placenta, 67, 8-14. doi:10.1016/j.placenta.2018.05.006
Taylor, M. (2020, April 23). Placenta Encapsulation: Is It Safe To Take Pills Made From Your Own Placenta? Retrieved July 13, 2020, from https://www.whattoexpect.com/first-year/postpartum-health-and-care/placenta-encapsulation/
Young, S. M., & Benyshek, D. C. (2010). In Search of Human Placentophagy: A Cross-Cultural Survey of Human Placenta Consumption, Disposal Practices, and Cultural Beliefs. Ecology of Food and Nutrition, 49(6), 467-484. doi:10.1080/03670244.2010.524106
Young, S. M., Gryder, L. K., Zava, D., Kimball, D. W., & Benyshek, D. C. (2016). Presence and concentration of 17 hormones in human placenta processed for encapsulation and consumption. Placenta, 43, 86-89. doi:10.1016/j.placenta.2016.05.005