Placentophagy for Postpartum Depression
I started researching placentophagy, or the act of eating the placenta, during my second pregnancy. My first pregnancy had ended in a miscarriage at only eight weeks along and was swiftly followed by the worst depression I had ever experienced. When my second pregnancy came along only a few months after that, it carried with it new fears. Even with the hope of a healthy baby restored, I couldn’t completely forget the depression that had been with me since my miscarriage. I worried that even if I had a successful pregnancy this time, I might still feel the effects of my pregnancy hormones dropping off after the birth. I had heard that placentophagy was used to level hormones after pregnancy, so I decided to look into it.
I had never liked taking drugs of any kind, but mood stabilizers were something I was expressly against, so to me, placenta pills made from my own body sounded like a more natural method. I had already found a group of midwives in my area that could do the encapsulation, but the price made me look for other options. I had heard of people cooking the placenta, freezing it, eating it raw or blending it into a smoothie. Raw sounded a little too hardcore for me, but freezing it and using it in smoothies was doable. Still, I needed more information on how to safely handle and prepare my raw placenta, so I kept digging.
The more I learned, the more I realized how unsupported the benefits of placentophagy were. It seemed commonly accepted online, and I was not alone in wanting a natural treatment for postpartum depression (PPD). PPD was the most common motivation for placentophagy, but it was completely unsupported by scientific research. There had been so few human studies done that claims for the effectiveness of ingesting the placenta, or its medical benefits, were neither supported nor disproved. There was also surprisingly little evidence of historical placentophagy in human cultures. Placentabenifits.info, a website which fully supported and encouraged the practice of ingesting the placenta, claimed that the practice is not a new one, stating that it is a long time Chinese tradition to use the placenta for post-pregnancy support. While it is documented that eastern medicine has used the placenta in the past, I did not find much evidence of this being a commonly accepted cultural tradition, and a study done by Young and Benyshek in 2010 reported that out of 179 cultures, they found none that practiced maternal placentophagy and only three which used the placenta for other medicinal purposes.
In America, placentophagy seems to have gotten popular in the 1970s. One frequently cited study was done in 1954 (quite a while ago). It supported the belief that eating the placenta could help human lactation, but others argued that the results were inconclusive given the small number of women studied, the vague methods of measuring results and the lack of a control group. The most recent study done on human placentophagy was published in 2016 by Gryder and looked at the possibility that encapsulated placenta could be a supplemental source of iron for recovering women. The study, however, showed that in healthy post-pregnancy women, the placenta supplements had little to no effect.
After I found so little support for placentophagy in humans, I moved my attention to animals. I was still hopeful. Humans are just mammals, after all. Why would we be so much different? A study published in 2012 explained that placentophagy in mammals offered them a variety of observable evolutionary benefits, such as nutrition, pain relief and the release of hormones which facilitate maternal instincts. There are numerous possible benefits which are harder to observe, however, and there is no evidence that humans have any natural need to eat their own afterbirth. Animal studies further showed that the pain-reducing effects were extremely time and temperature sensitive. Any heat above 40 degrees C applied to the placenta tissue rendered it ineffective. The study was done on rats and showed that placental tissue, as well as amniotic fluid, had a couple observable effects in rats. It reacted with the natural production of opioids produced during birth, prolonging, and increasing their pain-reducing effects as well as aiding the digestive system. It was observed that these effects were only present when the rat ingested the tissue and that any other method of introduction to the rat’s body proved ineffective. It took understanding the morphological and technical differences between rat and human pregnancies to convince me that these findings were not applicable to humans. The natural opioids produced and released during labor react with the placenta and amniotic fluid to enhance the pain tolerance of the animal. For this reaction to take place, however, the animal would need to consume the placenta while still giving birth, which mammals who have litters can do, as each baby is born attached to its own placenta. Humans, on the other hand, typically eat the placenta after the act of labor is completed, which would not provide the same pain-relieving benefits, even if we assume our bodies react the same as the rats’.
Helping improve lactation is another possible benefit observed in mammals. A study done by Blank and Friesen in 1980 looked at these effects in rats. Ingested rat placentas seemed to have a positive effect on lactation, but other species', including human, placentas ingested by rats showed no significant effects.
The placenta’s role in the body should also tell us something about the effects it could have if ingested. In a paper published in 2015, on placentophagy in humans, Dr. Coyle and associates voiced their concerns. Since the placenta acts as a filter from the mother’s body to the child, it has been shown to have trace levels of toxic substances left in it post birth. The levels vary depending on the amount of toxin the mother is exposed to and are individual to each pregnancy. Placentabenifits.info also suggests asking your health provider or midwife if your placenta is healthy enough for consumption, suggesting that some might not be. In a study published in 2001, it was shown that there were amounts of progesterone in the placental tissue immediately after birth but was not shown to effect postpartum depression and it wasn’t shown whether or not these hormone levels were still present and effective after preparation by encapsulation or other methods. Along with the progesterone, toxins such as cadmium, lead and copper were found. This was the last nail in the placenta coffin, for me, not only was there a lack of support for the effects of hormone levels in placental tissue, but there were proven levels of toxins as well.
Postpartum depression is clearly a concern on many modern American women’s minds, mine included, but I couldn’t find any strong research supporting placentophagy as a treatment. Hopefully, more research will come out in the future, and we will learn more about whether eating the placenta could be beneficial to humans, or what other natural treatments women could use for preventing/treating postpartum depression. For now, it is up to us to choose what we believe will be best for our bodies and minds. For me, I have decided against harvesting my placenta—for this pregnancy, at least.
Benyshek, DC., & Young, SM. (2010). In search of human placentophagy: a cross-cultural survey of human placenta consumption, disposal practices, and cultural beliefs, Ecology Food and Nutrition, 49 (issue 6) Retrieved from http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/03670244.2010.524106.
Blank, MS. & Friesen HG. (1980). Effects of placentophagy on serum prolactin and progesterone concentrations in rats after parturition or superovulation, Reproduction: The Journal of the Society for Reproduction and Fertility, 60 (issue 2) Retrieved from http://www.reproduction-online.org/content/60/2/273.long.
Coyle, CW., Hulse KE. & assoc. (2015). Placentophagy: Therapeutic Miracle or Myth, Archives of Women’s Mental Health, 18 (issue 5) Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4580132/.
Gryder, LK., Young, SM. & assoc. (2016) Effects of Human Placentophagy on Maternal Postpartum Iron Status: A Randomized, Double-Blind, Placebo-Controlled Pilot Study, Journal of Midwifery & Women’s Health, 62 (issue 1) Retrieved from http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/jmwh.12549/full.
Kristal, MB., DiPirro, JM. & Thompson, AC. (2012). Placentophagia in Humans and Non-Human Mammals: Causes and Consequences [Abstract] , Ecology Food and Nutrition, 51 (issue 3) Retrieved from http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/03670244.2012.661325.
Piasek, M., Blanusa, M. & assoc. (2001). Placental cadmium and progesterone concentrations in cigarette smokers, Reproductive Toxicology, 15 (issue 6) Retrieved from http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0890623801001745?via%3Dihub.
Selander, Jodi. Placenta for Healing. Retrieved on September 27th 2017 from http://placentabenefits.info/placenta-for-healing/.