Should I eat my placenta? Exploring the pros and cons of placentophagy

a hand holding a jar of white substance

Depending on your background, community, and lifestyle, the concept of eating placenta—“placentophagy”—may seem totally normal or completely shocking. 

In case you’re new to the mostly underground world of placenta consumption, it is the postpartum maternal consumption of the placenta. 

Whether or not you should consume your placenta is a somewhat complicated question with a very personal answer. There are a wide variety of professional opinions due to both research-based information and clinical and personal experiences. 

I’ll answer this question with a few additional questions and some information and resources to help guide you in the best direction for your situation. For some women, consuming their placenta feels amazing, while for others, it triggers or worsens postpartum depression.

The history behind placentophagy

Aside from humans, most mammals consume the placenta immediately following birth. This is likely for practical reasons of hunger or to keep predators away from the alluring smell of blood (1). 

The practice of placentophagy in humans seems to be a fairly modern tradition centered in Westernized countries, gaining popularity in the US in the 1970s. However, placentophagy appeared in the literature as early as 1917, when the Journal of Biological Chemistry studied the effect of postpartum supplementation with the encapsulated placenta on the composition of the mother’s milk (2). We actually have access to the full text of this paper; the main finding was that the percentage of protein and lactose contained in breast milk increased after ingestion of desiccated placenta, while protein decreased in the colostrum.

Although some advocates of maternal placentophagy allude to the use of the placenta in traditional medicine, the mother’s consumption of her own placenta seems to be quite rare and likely absent from most societies around the globe. 

In a cross-cultural search of 179 societies around the world, only a single account was given of a mother eating the placenta following childbirth. This account was reported by midwives in a Mexico-US border town in the 1980s (1). 

Reports of placentophagy gathered from the remaining majority of societies from numerous indigenous groups on each continent found other traditional uses or disposal methods for the placenta. 

More than half of cultures believe that the placenta has a supernatural influence on the health of the mother or altering the future. Others believe the connection between the placenta and the child continues after birth. One researcher hypothesized that the rituals involving the placenta may be a means to lessen the anxiety that comes with childbirth (1). 

The most common tradition is disposal in a specified area (such as behind the home) or an undisclosed but special location. Some cultures hang the placenta in a specific location, which may be to keep it away from animals or to protect the mother. 

“The Ojibwa of North America historically disposed of the organ in this manner by hanging the placenta in the fork of a tree out of the reach of animals…Palestinians of the Middle East will/would salt and hang a son’s placenta inside the doorpost to ward off Karine (described as the woman’s special enemy) but will otherwise bury the organ…the Manus of Melanesia will wrap it in a mat with a piece of the umbilicus and hang it on the wall behind the mother [before discarding it]” (1).

Although maternal placentophagy appears to be rare worldwide, there are records of the placenta being used medicinally, particularly in traditional Chinese medicine, and being consumed by other family members, such as the husband (let’s keep in mind that the placenta is equally genetically derived from mother and father) or the child (1). The therapeutic properties of the placenta are attributed to its rich stores of nutrients and hormones. 

What are the benefits and risks of placentophagy?

 

It us human nature to look to our ancestors or indigenous cultures for guidance surrounding traditional medicine and holistic practices. So, if it’s true that placentophagy has been universally avoided in most cultures, the obvious question is, should we be doing it? 

What are the benefits, and what are the potential risks? Is there any solid science to support the practice? 

To make a long story short, the research up to this point is relatively limited and has generally been conducted on small groups of participants, making it hard to draw conclusions on the larger population.

Thus far, analyses of the placenta have been conducted both in terms of mineral and hormonal content. As far as mineral content goes, the research has established that the placenta contains significant levels of iron, which is not surprising given the fact that the placenta is highly served by blood vessels that transport nutrients to the developing baby.

A 2017 study that analyzed the macronutrient, micronutrient, and toxic metal levels contained in a sampling of ten human placentas found that the placenta is rich in cholesterol, protein, iron, and selenium. Other minerals are present in the placenta but not in significant amounts. 

Toxic metals were not found in significant quantities in the samples analyzed (3).

A 2016 analysis of 28 human placentas found similarly insignificant levels of toxic metals and relevant levels of iron and selenium (a standard serving size of 3 grams per day supplies 24% of the RDA of iron and 7% of the RDA of selenium), along with more modest amounts of a dozen other minerals (4).

Given the blood loss that occurs during birth and in the postpartum period, it’s unlikely that placenta capsules would provide excessive iron. However, if you are affected by hereditary hemochromatosis (a condition that leads to excessive storage of iron), please speak with your doctor prior to considering placenta encapsulation.

A 2016 study examined the hormones present in placenta. Researchers detected 15 of the 17 hormones tested, and of these, progesterone and estradiol were found in potentially therapeutic amounts. This suggests that an imbalance between the hormone levels in the placenta and your actual postpartum needs could potentially affect your health. 

This may very well account for why placenta tinctures seem to help some women but not others during perimenopause when the ovaries produce less of these hormones (5).

 

In a 2018 randomized controlled trial, Young et al. found that 20 days of postpartum placenta supplements, but not a placebo, mildly increased salivary steroid hormones. The measurable hormones included estriol, aldosterone, estrone, testosterone, and DHEA (6). The women in the placenta group experienced less depressive symptoms in the first week after birth and reduced fatigue towards the end of the study, but otherwise, there were no significant differences in mood or bonding between the groups (7).

However, there is also evidence linking placentophagy to an increase in postpartum depression (PPD).

 

A recent study of nearly 4,000 women found that women who consumed the placenta postpartum had a 15 to 20% increased risk of PPD (8). The authors suggest that this may be a result of reverse causality. Preventing PPD is a primary motivator to try placentophagy, so the researchers believe that the findings could be attributed to the fact that women who try it are already at a higher risk for PDD. While this is entirely plausible in many cases, my personal and professional experiences also include instances where that does not appear to be the case.

How do you eat the placenta?

Those interested in placentophagy have a few options regarding the method of consumption. There is no best way; instead, choose based on your own preferences and needs. 

  • Raw or cooked in the immediate postpartum period. 
  • Encapsulated as a sort of nutritional supplement to be taken on an ongoing basis during the postpartum period. This means that someone, ideally a birth worker with a placenta encapsulation training background, dehydrates, pulverizes, and encapsulates your placenta. You consume a few capsules per day until you run out.
  • Saved as a tincture for later use, again by someone with experience and credentials to do so properly. The tincture has purported benefits for rebalancing hormones during the perimenopausal years.

Keep in mind that the placenta is a highly absorbent organ, meaning it can accumulate toxins you are exposed to during pregnancy or labor.

If you took any medications during pregnancy or labor, some of those medications may still be present in your placenta. The same goes for environmental and nutritional toxic exposures. For example, smoking during pregnancy results in cadmium accumulation in the placenta (9). 

As an anecdotal aside, I’ve spoken to several women who took antibiotics or other medications during pregnancy and/or labor and then experienced adverse reactions to consuming their placenta. 

Other toxic exposures to be aware of include:

  • Living or working in a toxic area (for example, golf courses can exposure you to very high levels of pesticides)
  • Amalgam fillings (the silver-colored ones)
  • Exposure to building remodeling
  • First and secondhand smoke (cigarette, marijuana, or vape) 
  • New furniture
  • Chemicals in cosmetics and household products
  • A fire that burned in/near your area
  • Mold in your home/workplace

In our modern world, exposure to one or more of these toxic elements is not uncommon. If any apply to you, that doesn’t always mean your placenta isn’t fit for consumption, but they are simply important factors to consider in the context of exposure extent, how much of the substance might have been absorbed into the placenta, and how well your detoxification pathways currently function. 

 

The ideal timing for optimizing detoxification is prior to conception, and I have found that, along with preparing for placentophagy, paying attention to gentle detoxification support also improves pregnancy outcomes for my fertility clients. 

Click here to schedule a free discovery call if you’d like to learn more.

Conversely, if none of the above applies to you, that doesn’t mean your placenta will be your postpartum panacea! There are just so many factors that contribute, including the specific mix of hormones your placenta contains in relation to your current picture of hormonal balance and needs.

Yes, it’s a bit complicated.

There are multiple lines of reasoning in the “yay or nay” debate over placenta consumption

The “yay” camp essentially argues that the placenta is your body’s gift back to you in the postpartum period and beyond. 

  • It contains nutrients such as iron that help compensate for blood loss.
  • It contains hormones that can sustain you, even in perimenopause and menopause. 
  • It’s the only type of flesh that you can consume that doesn’t involve death. 
  • Other mammals have the instinct to eat placenta. 
  • Many women have eaten their placenta and had positive experiences.

The “nay” camp proposes different arguments. 

  • Our highly toxic living conditions don’t make the placenta fit for human consumption. 
  • We have a wide array of nutritional and supplement options to help women restore health postpartum. 
  • Wild animals have the instinct to consume the placenta because leaving it near the birthplace, where the mother is caring for her little one, leaves mom and baby vulnerable to predators that may smell the placenta from far away. 
  • Many women have tried eating their placenta and had negative experiences.
  • It was not a widespread ancestral practice.

What does your innate intelligence/gut sense tell you about placentophagy?

Some women feel a powerful attraction or repulsion to the idea of consuming their placenta—an attraction or repulsion that comes from inside you, not a mirroring of what someone in your life, on social media, or in an article you read said is the voice to pay attention to.

If you are innately drawn to the idea, take this as a strong clue to try placentophagy. That being said, if you try it and feel terrible, then take a break or stop. Don’t push through taking something that makes you feel terrible!

Remember, many other methods can be used to improve postpartum health.

Boosting your nutrient intake in the preconception period and optimizing your diet during pregnancy will help ensure that you have plentiful stores of nutrients to support your postpartum health. If you’re concerned about the possibility of developing PPD, you can reduce your risk by consuming a diet that provides essential nutrients like vitamin D, omega-3 fatty acids, protein, and fiber. 

Click here to learn about how diet and your gut health protect against PPD. 

And click here for even more information on placentophagy!

References

  1. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/21888574/
  2. https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S002192581886759X 
  3. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/28851560/ 
  4. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/27440542/ 
  5. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/27324105/
  6. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/29174274/
  7. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/29174273/
  8. https://bmcpregnancychildbirth.biomedcentral.com/articles/10.1186/s12884-023-05852-7 
  9. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/10736249/
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