Placentophagia

Body: 
 
“Wait, did you say polenta or placenta?” A friend recently asked me recently. Then she made a loud “Ewwww” squeal when I confirmed I was talking about consuming placentas.
 
This seems to be all I read about these days.
 
I remember a few years back hearing about Hollywood stars going public about this practice. I cannot remember if it was January Jones or Alicia Silverstone that I first heard about, but it was around the time of my own pregnancy and birth.
 
At the time I was not interested, but now I wonder how my postpartum time would have been different if I had consumed my placenta in pill form. Would I have had more success with breastfeeding, improved bonding with my baby, and increased energy?
 
What is placenta encapsulation?
 
Placenta encapsulation is the process of converting the placenta into capsules for human consumption after childbirth. Depending on training and ethics of the placenta encapsulation specialist, the processing location can vary between the client or specialist's home. For these purposes, I will discuss the process in the client's home, since I believe that is the most sanitary place to complete this process.
 
Shortly after birth, the family takes the placenta to the client’s home in a cooler. It is then placed in the client’s freezer until an appointment is set up with a specialist. One the appointment is confirmed; the placenta is removed from the freezer to thaw in time for processing.
 
The specialist will visit the client’s home to encapsulate the placenta using techniques that maintain sterility and eliminate any pathogens or blood born diseases. The placenta will be defrosted before the process of steaming, dehydrating, pulverizing, and encapsulating is finished. The end result is a bottle of pills that look similar to any herb you may take.
 
Why are people doing this?
 
America is a pill popping society; we even have pills to counter the side effects of our pills. We believe deeply in the placebo effect as a society, so even if there is little empirical evidence of the effects, shouldn’t the placebo effect of consuming your placenta be enough?
 
I have had clients who have had this service relay tales of increased energy, breast milk, and decreased postpartum depression symptoms. I have had clients state they literally felt a difference the first day they were no longer consuming their placentas.
 
Even if this were a perceived effect, wouldn’t it benefit their newborn and the bond they have with their baby? If a mother feels better, isn’t she better able to meet the demands of her newborn?
 
I tell my clients all the time they are in survival mode the first month postpartum. Their only daily tasks should be eating, sleeping, breastfeeding, and bonding as a family. If placentophagia helps a client perform these tasks, then by all means, she should do it!
 
Does it really work?
 
Although this practice is common among all mammals (think of when your family pet has a litter), humans have not done this for quite sometime. In addition, since it is an organ, it would be difficult to see this practice in the archaeological record unless drawn, written, or spoke about. I was unable to find concrete evidence about when this practice stopped in humans, or if it was practiced in the past, which is disappointing as an anthropologist because I find this practice fascinating. 
 
When doing research for this post, I had difficulty finding articles that related to the specific act of drying the placenta for human consumption in pill form. However, there were studies of anecdotal evidence, or effects reported by the consumer. According to a study by The University of Nevada, Las Vegas women reported improved mood, energy, and lactation when after consuming their placentas.
 
A statement by the American Pregnancy Association also attributes increased maternal stress hormones and iron stores after placentophagia.
 
A review by Placenta Wise of scientific studies also notes the following benefits: cortisone to reduce inflammation, interferon for immune system health, hemoglobin for energy from increased iron-binding of red blood cells, and molecules responsible for wound healing and decreased bleeding.
 
It always amazes me how quickly trends can take hold and drive consumer demand.  But once again, I cannot help but think that if people were becoming really sick it would be all over social media and the news. But since that isn’t happening, it may be an eccentric but beneficial survival trend for a woman who is newly postpartum.
 
I will continue to write about this as I can find more research, or as more research becomes available, but for now this is a primer about this practice.
 
MCC will begin to offer postpartum placenta encapsulation services in Chicago the fall of 2016.