Placentophagy, the eating of one’s placenta after birth, is a practice common in mammals. There is very little written about this practice in humans until recently when its popularity has increased in certain Western cultures. The primary reason many cite for engaging in this practice is to help prevent postpartum depression, along with improved lactation and pain management postpartum. But does it work? This is a question I have received from a number of my patients.
How is the placenta ingested?
Most commonly, it is encapsulated. There are companies that can take your placenta, steam, slice, dehydrate, and turn into capsules in about 2 days. However, it can also be cooked and eaten as a meal. It is difficult to say that taking placenta capsules will provide the same benefits that animals get from eating their placentas because the method of preparation is ever so different. It is not known how the preparation process affects the nutrients inside the placenta.
The placebo effect
One possible explanation for the fact that anecdotally women find that placentophagy is helpful for mood is that they believe it will be. The placebo effect – the idea that believing that something will work actually helps it do so – is quite powerful. In fact, it is even a significant component of many of our medications for treating depression and anxiety!
Mechanisms by which placentophagy might work
Several mechanisms have been hypothesized to be the reason eating one’s placenta can help with postpartum mood. Most of these are related to the nutrients in the placenta, including B vitamins and iron, which can play a role in depression. For example, iron deficiency is associated with fatigue, irritability and poor concentration, while B vitamin deficiency (particularly folate) has also been linked with mood and depression. It is possible to rectify these deficiencies with vitamin supplementation.
Possible down-sides of placentophagy
- There is a significant financial cost with placenta encapsulation to consider.
- There is also potential for negative consequences if the placenta was exposed to smoking during the pregnancy or meconium during delivery. The placenta is a barrier protecting the fetus, so it may contain substances like mercury, lead, or bacteria.
- Finally, there is the potential for delayed treatment of nutritional deficiencies or mood disturbance – if a woman is using placenta encapsulation to treat these conditions, she may delay obtaining a medical or mental health evaluation and the opportunity to engage in treatment options that do have research behind them.
In general, one of the primary issues is that there is not yet any research conducted rigorously to show that eating one’s placenta does help with mood and lactation, and there is a potential for negative consequences. Therefore, I encourage my patients who ask this question to think about all these elements before making a decision about encapsulation.
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Marraccini, M.E. & Gorman, K.S. Exploring placentophagy in humans: Problems and recommendations. (2015) Journal of Midwifery & Women’s Health 60: 371-379.
Coyle, C.W. et al. Placentophagy: therapeutic miracle or myth? (2015) Arch Womens Ment Health 18: 673 – 680.