Should Women Eat Their Placentas?
Kelsey McLaughlin, PhD
There has been an increasing trend of women eating their placentas in the postpartum period, mostly believed to be for health benefits and recovery from pregnancy.
Keep reading to learn the science behind this interesting phenomenon!
What is the placenta?
The placenta is the organ that forms between the baby and mom in order to support the pregnancy. The placenta is made up of both maternal and fetal cells, and begins to develop as soon as the embryo implants into the wall of the uterus.
The purpose of the placenta is to:
Physically connect the mother and baby to provide the baby with nutrients, oxygen and antibodies from the maternal blood to the fetal system; it also removes waste from the fetal system into the maternal system
Act as a barrier to protect the baby from damaging substances in the mother’s system
Produce and release a wide range of proteins and hormones that help the mother’s system adjust and needed to sustain the pregnancy
What happens to the placenta at delivery?
After the baby is born, the placenta is also delivered. Known as the third stage of labour, the placenta detaches from the uterus and is typically delivered within 30 min of the baby being born.
Doctors will typically have a quick examination at the placenta to make sure it looks normal and healthy. If women have pregnancy complications relating to the placenta, such as preeclampsia or fetal growth restriction, their placentas may be sent for pathology analysis to check for abnormalities in the placental structure.
If the placenta is healthy, doctors will then discard of it, as it no longer needed.
Why do some species eat their placentas?
Humans eating their placentas, also known as placentophagy, is not a new concept. Many types of mammals consume their placentas following birth; scientists hypothesize that mammals and other animals may consume their placentas for the nutrition & hormones located in the placenta that may help recovery from birth and promote milk production, or to erase signs of birth from predators.
As such, there has been discussion that eating placentas in the postpartum period could provide women with beneficial effects that may be gained in other types of mammalian species. Some claim that consuming the placenta in the postpartum period provides new moms with additional energy and nourishment for themselves and their babies. Women can consume placentas in different methods, ranging from raw, cooked to placental encapsulation.
How common is it for women to eat their placenta?
There is an increasing interest in maternal ingestion of the placenta in the postpartum period, especially in North America.
A recent American study found that 30% of women deliver outside of the hospital (home birth or birth centers) consumed their placenta, with the primary reason to prevent postpartum depression. The most common form of consumption was placental encapsulation. This study did not find an association between placentophagy and negative effects on the baby. Women who were pregnant for the first time and women who had pre-pregnancy anxiety or depression were more likely to consume their placentas.
Are there health benefits associated with eating your placenta?
A recent expert review published in the American Journal of Obstetrics & Gynecology stated:
‘To date, there is no scientific evidence for any clinical benefit of human placentophagy…very few studies
have been conducted, and those available are often of poor quality’.
A small study examined 28 encapsulated placenta samples to measure concentrations of 14 minerals and elements, some potentially harmful. Iron was present at the highest concentrations, followed by copper, manganese, rubidium, selenium, strontium and zinc. Arsenic, cadmium, cobalt, lead, molybdenum and uranium were also present in the placenta samples, while mercury levels were below the detection rate. Encapsulated placenta consumption may provide a modest source of some beneficial micronutrients to women in the postpartum period, however, it is important to keep in mind that all the placenta samples were encapsulated by the same provider. There are additional potentially toxic substances that were not tested for in this study, and this was a small study.
These 28 encapsulated placental samples were also tested for levels of 17 hormones. In all placental samples, 11-deoxycortisol, 17-hydroxyprogesterone, 7-ketodehydroepiandrosterone, aldosterone, allopregnanolone, androstenedione, corticosterone, cortisol, cortisone, dehydroepiandrosterone, estradiol, estriol, estrone, progesterone and testosterone were detected, while melatonin and dihydrotestosterone were not present in all samples. Although it is not possible to know if the hormones measured in encapsulated placental samples could impact the health and wellbeing of women in the postpartum period, the scientists who conducted this study hypothesized that the hormones estradiol, progesterone, and allopregnanolone were present at high enough concentrations in the capsules that they could potentially have a physiological effect.
The only available randomized, double-blinded, placebo-controlled trial in women determined that encapsulated placenta supplementation did not impact the postpartum iron status of 10 women who consumed placental supplements, compared to 13 women who consumed an encapsulated beef placebo. Importantly, 75% of these women had adequate dietary iron intake during pregnancy. These results suggest that placental capsules in women with adequate dietary iron intake would not further impact their postpartum iron status.
A recent Canadian study evaluated 138 women with a history of mood disorders in the postpartum period. Women who had consumed their placenta did not exhibit differences in mood, energy, lactation, or vitamin B12 levels, when compared to women who did not consumed their placentas.
Similarly, placental consumption did not have an impact on maternal mood, bonding, fatigue, prolactin levels or neonatal weight gain in 12 healthy postpartum women, compared to 15 healthy pregnant women who consumed a placebo.
Are there health risks associated with eating your placenta?
The potential risks of placental consumption in the postpartum period to mom and baby are unknown.
According to an expert review in the American Journal of Obstetrics & Gynecology:
‘…no well-designed study has evaluated the potential harm that might be induced by this practice’ and ‘There is no scientific evidence of any clinical benefit of placentophagy, and there is evidence for an actual risk of harm’.
Doctors and scientists are generally concerned regarding placental consumption for the following reasons:
The placenta is not sterile and it’s microbiome is related to history of previous infection
During pregnancy, the placenta protects the baby from harmful, toxic substances that could be sequestered in the placenta
It is not known if the heating and preparation of the placenta for consumption would be sufficient to kill viruses that may have contaminated the placenta during pregnancy, birth or post-birth, including HIV, hepatitis virus, or Zika virus
The process of preparing placenta samples for consumption is not standardized, and it is unknown if providers are following the same steps for efficacy and safety
The effects that placental diseases have on the placenta is not well known. For example, the placentas from pregnancies complicated by fetal growth restriction have increased concentrations of cadmium, lead and arsenic, compared to women with normal weight babies
In 2017, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reported a case of group B Streptococcus agalactiae (GBS) bacteremia in a baby that resulted in respiratory distress and neonatal intensive care unit admission. Doctors determined that the baby’s mother was actively consuming placental capsules in the postpartum period that were contaminated with GBS, which was being transferred to the infant. The CDC highlighted that there is a lack of scientific evidence to support physical and psychological benefits of placental consumption, and the dangers of lack of standardization for placental processing for consumption.
Additional cases have reported harmful effects of the infant’s health when the breastfeeding mother is consuming placental capsules in the postpartum period, including a case of infant vaginal bleeding.
There is a lack of standard policies and guidelines for the release and consumption of placentas in the postpartum period; women are recommended to check with their own hospital and doctor.
The Society of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists of Canada (SOGC) released a Committee Opinion regarding placentophagy in May 2019. The SOGC does not recommend placentophagy, due to concerns regarding a lack of evidence for the benefit of placentophagy and potential harm associated with consumption.
The American College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists does not have an official opinion regarding placentophagy.
The practice of consuming the placenta in the post-partum period is becoming more common in North America, with women looking to improve energy levels, nourishment and general recovery from delivery. This is currently no scientific evidence to suggest that placental consumption leads to any clinical benefit in postpartum women. However, there have been documented cases where placental consumption had caused harm to the baby, and there is scientific and medical concern regarding the safety of placental consumption. Placental consumption is not supported by the Society of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists of Canada.
Every woman and every pregnancy is unique. Pregnant women should speak to their healthcare provider to ensure maternal and fetal safety. This article is meant to provide readers with current information and opinions. All medical and treatment decisions should be discussed with your healthcare provider.