A new review of current research indicates that despite growing popularity, the act of eating your placenta is still a bit of a mystery: no proven benefits or risks.
The trend towards natural parenting—from cloth diapering to extended breastfeeding—has been beneficial in many ways, but one fairly recent phenomenon is cause for concern: placentophagy—or eating your placenta.
Consuming one's own placenta after childbirth has been practiced by nearly all non-human mammals for centuries—presumably to clean the birth site, avoid attracting predators and restore strength after labor—but American women didn't start giving it a go themselves until the 1970s. Today, the custom is experiencing a rebirth of sorts as highly visible and vocal celebrities from Kourtney Kardashian to January Jones are touting the purported benefits of dehydrating and consuming their placentas in the form of "magic pills."
The problem is, the risks are unknown, and a new review published in Archives of Women's Mental Health indicates no evidence, after analyzing 10 studies, that eating your placenta, which acts as a filter to absorb and protect the fetus from toxins, has any benefits. This includes some widely made allegations that it can fend off postpartum depression and postnatal pain, bolster lactation, energy, and skin elasticity, and foster mother-baby bonding.
In one rodent study, placentophagy affected hormones that might aid in milk production. The belief for many women is that since other mammals might experience such gains from eating their afterbirths, humans should stand to benefit as well. But the risks or benefits found as a result of animal studies can't be directly translated to humans.
So where is all this misinformation coming from? "Our sense is that women are primarily getting this information after hearing about it from a friend or via individual experiences reported on blogs, websites, social media or TV," study author Kara E. Driscoll, M.D., told Fit Pregnancy. "Our review shows that women are less likely to hear about eating placenta from their health care providers, which may be due to the lack of randomized, placebo-controlled scientific studies in humans illustrating benefits of placenta consumption."
Without more data, it's problematic for researchers or medical professionals to make any recommendations regarding the risks or benefits of eating the placenta. Still, mothers and mothers-to-be should ask their doctors for their opinions and then consider whether or not placentophagy is a safe choice for them and their babies, especially if they are breastfeeding.
If you ultimately do decide to hire someone to dehydrate your placenta so that you can consume it in the form of pills, Driscoll notes that there are "no set standards or regulation of these preparations," so buyer beware. You really don't know what's lurking in those capsules or how those ingredients got there.
But beyond the uncertainty in having the placenta prepared for ingestion are additional worries regarding the mother's overall well being. "My primary concern about the use of the placenta relates to its perceived role as prevention or treatment of postpartum depression, instead of treatment for which we have solid scientific evidence, such as psychotherapy or antidepressant medications," Driscoll adds.
The takeaway, it seems, is that women experiencing any challenging postpartum symptoms should find a more direct means of addressing their issues. And one good place to start is by speaking with their doctors and getting the help they need to tackle their specific problems.