Are you really going to eat that? The rising trend of placenta encapsulation

A few years ago, if you told me I’d one day eat my placenta, I would have laughed in your face. What kind of weirdo does that? And like every idiotic judgy-mcjudge-pants comment I made before I became a parent, it turns out I would eat my words (and in the end, my placenta).

After 18 hours of back labor, an emergency C-section and a 9lb baby, my husband dutifully went down to the doula waiting on the curb with the plastic ice cream bucket I’d kept especially for the occasion. There was no triple choc-chip ripple inside. Instead, it was my placenta, off to be steamed with traditional Chinese herbs, dehydrated, pulverized into powder and popped into capsules, ready for me to take with my daily vitamin pills.

The placenta isn’t everyone’s first choice for a post-childbirth meal. There’s UberEats for one thing, and most likely a steady stream of friends and family willing to bring in soft cheese and sushi in exchange for a glimpse of the cute wailing watermelon you just pushed through your lemon.

But alongside those mainstream options, a growing number of women are choosing to add their placenta to the menu – including the likes of Kim Kardashian, January Jones and Hilary Duff. Why? Well, some of the benefits are said to include pain relief, good milk production due to prolactin and improved energy and mood. Some opt for a placenta smoothie (BYO blender and frozen banana to the hospital), others turn it into a tincture distilled in alcohol, while the most popular (and arguably palatable) method is the one I went for.

The skinny on placentophagy

Placentophagy, the postpartum consumption of the placenta, has been a growing trend for years. “A lot of it is anecdotal,” says Nicole Rice, an Australia-based doula who worked in Los Angeles for over a decade. “You get a group of midwives and doulas together and you’ll hear hundreds of stories about placentas working… but if you talk to your gynecologist about it, or your obstetrician, you’re not going to hear those stories.”

Nicole believes it’s a trend that’s being driven by the experiences of other mothers. 

“As women, we have always shared stories about what goes on with our bodies,” she says. “I think when you have a good friend who had a baby six months ago, and she just swears that she feels great, and believes that it’s all to do with her placenta, that story is powerful to a new mom.”

Science, word of mouth and myth

While these stories have fuelled the trend, medical professionals argue there simply isn’t the science to back it up. A 2018 German study weighed up the possible benefits (including increased milk production, reduced bleeding, accelerated recovery and improved mood) with the possible risks identified in previous studies (including toxic trace elements, bacterial infection and the potential accumulation of drugs such as anesthetics and antibiotics). Overall, the study concluded that more solid scientific research was needed, and that patients should be informed about the potential risks and effects.

“I think it’s good to remember what the function of the placenta is, which is to keep your baby alive during pregnancy and to prepare your body for the next stage. I think that helps to put it in context,” says Dr Bryony McNeill, lecturer in Reproductive and Developmental Biology at Deakin University, who is wary of relying on anecdotal evidence. “[The lack of scientific evidence] suggests that these placenta pills don’t contain anything that we could link to these beneficial effects that people are reporting… If there’s no clear benefit, do we want to take the risk of potentially consuming contaminants?”

The lowdown on the law

Legislation varies around the world – which many women see as having their postpartum birth choices policed – so it’s important to investigate the rules where you are. However, the overarching argument against placentophagy is the lack of safety regulation around its preparation and production by those offering the services. While food and medicine for consumption has to be prepared to rigorous standards of hygiene in most countries, the process of placenta encapsulation is often done with domestic grade equipment in an unregulated home environment, which is what many medical professionals see as the problem.

Most women find someone – often a doula – who offers the service through word of mouth and online forums. The one I used was recommended by several people in my local parenting group.

End game

Despite the contention behind the practice, there’s no doubt the trend has grown in popularity. In December 2019,  NPR published a detailed opinion piece attributing the trend to women needing more postpartum help than traditional medicine is currently providing. And there is a decent argument behind that. Despite being at opposite ends of the argument when it comes to plancentophathy, both Rice and Dr McNeill believe women need more support following childbirth.

Looking back, this was a key reason why I chose to have my placenta encapsulated. I wanted something else in my arsenal as a first-time parent, beyond the neat lines drawn for me by others who were responsible for my care. My experience was good, but that might just be coincidence. It certainly was tinged with the privilege of being able to afford it. Regardless, I’m glad the choice was mine.

Read next: Breastfeeding supplements: do they actually work?

US magazine, MAFS’ Cortney Hendrix, More Celebrity Moms Who Ate Their Own Placentas

Farr A, Chervenak FA, McCullough LB, Baergen RN, Grünebaum A. Human placentophagy: a review. Am J Obstet Gynecol. 2018;218(4):401.e1-401.e11.

Johnson SK, Pastuschek J, Rödel J, Markert UR, Groten T. Placenta – Worth Trying? Human Maternal Placentophagia: Possible Benefit and Potential Risks [published correction appears in Geburtshilfe Frauenheilkd. 2018 Sep;78(9):e1]. Geburtshilfe Frauenheilkd. 2018;78(9):846-852. doi:10.1055/a-0674-6275

National Public Radio, Placenta-Eating’s Disputed Science Gets A Lift From ‘Highly Medicalized’ Childbirth : Shots

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