Why Some Mothers Choose to Eat Their Placentas

Most other mammals do it. So did January Jones.

Nikki L./Flickr

The placenta can be eaten raw, or it can be incorporated into a special meal. Placenta recipes are a real thing that are on the Internet. Lest you never want to eat lasagna again, I have not included links. It can be cooked (usually steamed) then sliced, dehydrated, and encapsulated into a pill. Sometimes women freeze it in small chunks and blend it into a smoothie.

Whether one's placenta is seen as a bloody byproduct or a bonus prize is up to cultural and personal interpretation. Placentas contain remainder nutrients and hormones that were passed from mother to child in utero, but no clinical studies attest to their benefit (or harm). Often cited is a 1954 study that aimed to increase lactation in new mothers by feeding them freeze-dried placenta. "So far," its authors boasted, "we can report on 210 women who ate placenta: 71 with very good results, 110 with good, and 29 with negative results," with very good results involving an increase in breast size and milk production. The study is limited, however, in that no controls were used, and 59 years later, science has yet to follow up on those initial findings.

Jodi Selander (­@placenta­l­a­dy) started a site that vends DIY placenta encapsulating kits and is herself an advocate of the practice. In the dearth of medical evidence, she helped anthropologists at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas (UNLV), find subjects for a study that looked at women's reasons for eating their placentas and the effects they reported experiencing. These may well have been what Western medicine would call placebo effects, but nonetheless provide a rare look into the mindsets of people to whom the practice makes sense.

placentainset.jpgKing Namer in a ceremonial procession that includes his placenta and umbilical cord. [Bull. N.Y. Acam Med]

The authors interviewed 189 "women over the age of 18 who use the Internet and who had ingested their placenta after the birth of at least one child." Such women turned out to be overwhelmingly white, American, middle-class, college-educated home-birthers. Most reported positive effects. And in what might be the most important measure of what exactly's going on here, most said they would do it again for their next birth.

Although many proponents argue that placenta eating is natural, it doesn't appear to be something humans used to do before "society" interfered and deemed it gross. A historical review found "scant evidence" for the practice. Its author, William Ober, allowed that placenta may have been credited with some medical properties throughout human history, but wrote that most instances of its ingestion were probably due to extreme circumstances, like famine. He could conclude only that "given sufficient motivation, mankind will eat anything." 

PlacentaBenefits.info does highlight the placenta's cross-cultural importance. It doesn't, however, explain why the placenta, viewed as sacred by the Navajo and the ancient Egyptians, and believed to be a "second child" by the Baganda, should be ground up and consumed.

The modern idea of mothers eating their own placentas didn't really take hold until the 1970s, when Ober reported of "a woman of the counter-culture" who tried it out after giving birth on her commune. (She and her friends, who joined in, called it "wonderfully replenishing and delicious.")

A friend who is studying to be a midwife and assists with natural births has heard women speak often of the way the placenta resembles a "tree of life," and of their fascination with their bodies' ability not just to create a new human being, but also an entire organ dedicated to protecting and sustaining that life.

The most frequent belief cited by the women in the UNLV study was that it would improve their mood, followed by "general, but unspecified, benefits." They reported experiencing a wide range of perceived benefits, mostly "improved mood," but also "improved lactation" and "balance."

Close to 70 percent of the women had no negative effects to report, although some experienced headaches and "unpleasant belching." Other negatives: it caused a rash on the baby; it worsened hot flashes, cramping, bleeding, and constipation; "social stigma." Seventy-five percent of women, though, said it had been a "very positive experience."

"I felt almost immediate relief after my first 'smoothie,'" said one. Said another, "My family could always tell if I hadn't taken the placenta pills that day!"

Again, while there's no evidence that eating placenta causes harm, there's also little to suggest it does any good -- and some anecdotal evidence is less effusive than that gathered by Selander. On The New York Times "Motherlode," Nancy Redd wrote of how she became an unlikely participant in the practice: "I've spent my career helping young women to avoid scams and misperceptions that prey on their body insecurities, and I pride myself on thorough research and general common sense." Yet "shaken" by impending motherhood, she took pills containing dried placenta mixed with "cleansing herbs." Her experience, characterized by a weird, jittery feeling and a "tabloid-worthy meltdown," was far from ideal. "I am disappointed in myself for letting fear and insecurity cause me to make a potentially dangerous decision without doing due diligence on its safety," she ended up concluding.

Attributing a bad mood to her ingested placenta might have been just as uncircumspect as taking the pills in the first place, but we really don't know enough to judge the outcome of her or anyone else's experience. And while some may end up regretting they tried it, if only because placenta burps seem extremely unpleasant, there are stranger things they could do with their placenta.

Until more research is done, important questions will remain: Is eating one's placenta actually beneficial/harmful? "I like the idea of placenta eating, but [I] can't get over equating it with meat"-- Is it vegan?" "How is this not cannibalism?"

This post originally stated that Jodie Selander sponsored the UNLV study. Although Selander is listed as a co-author, she did not contribute financially to the research.