Pregnancy & ChildbirthPseudoscience

Please Don’t Eat Your Placenta

I am guessing you clicked on this post for one of two reasons.

  1. You are so grossed out by the thought of eating your own or anyone else’s placenta that you wanted to read more out of morbid curiosity.
  2. You want to skip to the end and tell me that I can’t tell you what to do with your own medical waste.

4661308938_0b41b9e9f9_zIf you are in group number one, you are right to be grossed out. Don’t get me wrong. The placenta is amazing – when it’s in your body and working to connect your baby with your uterus, giving them the oxygen, nutrients and hormones necessary to grow, develop, and thrive. It’s also the organ that transports their waste. And filters out bad stuff, so it doesn’t reach your fetus. A-freaking-mazing. But, it’s not full of magical nutrients that you can’t find in a balanced diet or able to give you amazing superpowers like boosting breast milk supply, increasing bonding with your newborn or avoiding postpartum depression. No matter if it’s fresh, fried, blended, freeze-dried or dehydrated.

A 2015 Northwestern Medicine review of 10 studies on eating the placenta (a.k.a. placentophagy) did not turn up any data to support common claims that eating raw, cooked or encapsulated placenta impacts postpartum depression, post-delivery pain, energy levels, lactation, skin elasticity, bonding, or iron levels (which I have to admit surprised me since my placentas greatly resembled ginormous livers).

Despite the fact that there’s no research evidence supporting any benefits of placentophagy, it is becoming a popular trend and many “birth professionals” like midwives, doulas, and lactation consultants recommend it and even sell “placenta encapsulation” as a service. You may be surprised to learn that contrary to what they or the internet might tell you, it is not a common practice among prehistoric, historic or contemporary human cultures. So, no appeals to antiquity please.

Placentophagy is pretty common in the animal world. Mostly to provide food for mama animals, as they recover from labor and delivery and have no one to bring them onion rings and cheese cake. Also, it helps hide mama and her new babies from predators. Neither of these functions is even remotely relevant in a modern human context. Unless, that is, you gave birth in a forest full of hungry wolves.

In addition to having no benefit, it also could be dangerous or harmful. Remember, this is a filter organ, which removes waste and prevents harmful substances from reaching baby. It also degrades during pregnancy. You have no way of knowing if it’s contaminated or calcified. And, let’s not forget, it’s meat, capable of being a host for bacteria and viruses.

5732280987_1aba56d7c4_zBut, what about encapsulated placenta that has been dried or freeze dried? Not only is it potentially prepared in someone’s kitchen, but the FDA doesn’t regulate supplements in the U.S., so you have no idea how it was prepared, the qualifications of or safety precautions employed by the encapsulator or if it’s safe for human consumption. Also, the encapsulation process likely destroys any nutritional content.

So, it’s gross, useless, and potentially harmful, but, then again, a lot of things people eat are those things. Why am I asking you not to try it?

What’s the harm?

Answer – it doesn’t work, and while you are waiting to see if it works, you might be foregoing important or even lifesaving medical treatment for yourself or your baby. I had both postpartum depression and breast milk supply issues. If I had relied on pseudoscience bullshit to treat them, I or my beautiful babies, may have died. Died. I don’t want you to die. I really don’t. I know how challenging the postpartum days can be. I know that fear and desperation. I know how horrible I felt on the darkest days following the birth of my son. I probably would have tried it, then, if I had known about it before delivery. I also know that there’s a light after the dark. Get real help right away. Don’t miss out on beautiful days with your newborn.

But, many people say it worked for them…

This is called the placebo effect. They wanted it to work. It’s likely that their milk came in, they started feeling good again, their hormones regulated, etc. Correlation does not equal causation. The problem with placebos? If you try it, experience a placebo effect and then spread the word, other people might try it to and might not get real medical care when they have postpartum depression or breast milk supply issues and risk serious harm to themselves or their babies “trying it out” or get sick from an unsafe product.

Additionally, when you spend money on this dumbfuckery, you line the pockets of charlatans and snake oil sales people, and if you and/or they post about it on social media and/or tell everyone you know, you spread woo and magical thinking like a disease. Soon, it becomes “real” in our culture, even though it does not work.

Don’t take my word for it. I asked International Board Certified Lactation Consultant and neonatal nurse specialist Jody Segrave-Daly if she recommends placentophagy to her patients.

I never recommend consuming the placenta in any form, because of the overwhelming studies that show there are no benefits for a mother. In addition, I am equally concerned how the placenta is processed in an unregulated manner, usually in a kitchen of an encapsulator. The cost of the pills is equally concerning, and I find any doula, midwife or lactation consultant who provides this service to be unethical. In my clinical practice, I see women who have low supply regularly. After an extensive assessment, many of these mothers are taking encapsulated placenta. The harm of trying it is we do not know the risks of consuming an organ that filters toxins to protect your baby in utero.

425817957_037d76e9f4_mIf you are in group number two and you made it this far, you are absolutely right. I can’t tell you what to do, but I can tell you why I think the practice could be harmful and why we’ve got to stop promoting pseudoscience and simultaneously reinforcing a natural birth industry that keeps trying to sell you shit that doesn’t work.

You can eat your placenta if you want, but please, for the love of spaghetti, don’t tell anyone. Keep it a secret. Don’t spread the woo. Or instead, plant it by a tree, make a painting with it, put googly eyes on it and name it George, or dispose of it properly. Any of those is a better choice.

Image credits: moppet65535latisha (herbmother), Tomaž Štolfatakomabibelot

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Steph

Steph

Steph recently traded single parenthood to two awesome kids (3 and 7) for marriage to a great guy with two awesome kids (5 and 10). Their adventures in parenting are set in a tiny town in the middle of a corn field. Their newest edition is due in February 2017. In late 2015 she left her stressful, more than full-time job with a victim services agency to pursue writing and activism. When she's not busy writing, chasing kids around, cleaning up messes and engaging in social justice warfare, Steph enjoys snuggling, making pies, engaging in debates on the internet, yoga, and fitness. A recovered natural parent, Steph now considers herself a semi-crunchy peaceful parent and trusts science, evidence and common sense to lead the way. She has been actively involved in the reproductive and women's rights movements for more than 20 years and is a passionate pro-choice feminist.

7 Comments

  1. January 23, 2016 at 10:59 pm —

    It’s probably ever so slightly healthier than letting it just rot off the newborn, which is an actual thing. The woo believers call this a “lotus birth” which I have to admit sounds much nicer than “garbage tether” or “oh dear god where is that smell coming from”.

    • February 1, 2016 at 7:47 pm —

      Ugh, I completely agree. I don’t care what herbs or essential oils you use, that’s disgusting.

    • February 1, 2016 at 8:49 pm —

      If there’s one thing that’s grosser than eating your placenta it’s letting it hang out until it rots off. I suppose if you cured it with salt, you could do both…that would be the worst.

  2. February 1, 2016 at 7:59 pm —

    I was a doula for a very long time, and I loved my work- except two things. The antivaxxers and the woo, like this. I’d tell people that a nice big steak or liver would do just as well- or, heck, get pizza or Chinese delivered. Unless you’re craving meat there’s no reason to eat it. And we all know there’s nothing special about the placenta. The body is magical enough for the things it does without thinking it is ACTUALLY magic.

    To be honest, the lotus birth and placenta prints gross me out slightly more. But, then, I’m vegan, so this is literally the only piece of meat I WOULD eat. (Bleah. If I found myself craving meat that badly I’d have a serious look at my diet.)

    If you have to do something with the placenta- say, you had a (low risk) home birth (attended by a CNM), why not bury it? Plant a tree or something. Make it nice but also not incredibly nasty.

    Ah, there I go again, dreaming.

  3. February 2, 2016 at 12:17 am —

    Steph,

    This is seriously one of the grossest things I’ve ever heard of.

  4. February 3, 2016 at 6:38 pm —

    My best friend and birth partner (the father worked out of town) took the placenta home and planted a tree over it.  She was very happy that the placenta that nourished my baby was now nourishing a sapling on her farm.  The tree is still there.  I assume the placenta is gone though.

    Anyway, the point I was coming to make(but you really made it in your post) is that there are happy mediums between treating your placenta as a gross thing that must be incinerated and eating it.

    I wish I could have donated it for medical science, along with the cord blood, but apparently I had to sign up for that in my 1st trimester.  Nice of them to put the posters advertising both the need and the process for donating in labour/delivery.  Very effective.

  5. February 4, 2016 at 7:34 pm —

    The assertion that it was commonly done by ‘primitive’ cultures (Oh don’t we just love the inherent ethnocentrism of ‘ancient wisdom’ tropes.) reminds me of an article I read many years back, don’t have a cite right now, where it was claimed a common male initiation ritual for American Indian boys (didn’t say <em>which ones</em>, of course) was to drink menstrual blood. Like, I’m wondering, how would you go about collecting that much menstrual blood, what about taboos regarding menses (which are far more documented), and seriously?

    So yeah, the ‘ancient wisdom’ trope is just more racism.

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