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Mad Men's Star Eats Placenta, Fad or Health Benefit?

Some women choose to eat the placenta

Updated June 5, 2015 (in italics) to original article published March 29, 2012--A new review from Northwestern University on the practice of new mothers eating the placenta did not reveal any health advantages. The authors were even more concerned that among the 10 current published research studies on the topic of placentophagy (placentophagia), none explored the risks associated with ingesting the placenta.

The new study, which appeared in the Archives of Women’s Mental Health, did not find any systematic research on the benefits or risks of placentophagy. According to one of the study’s authors, Dr. Crystal Clark, a psychiatrist specializing in reproduction-related mood disorders and assistant professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine, “The studies on mice aren’t translatable into human benefits.”

Prior to her research into placentophagy, Clark had not been familiar with the practice. But when some of her pregnant patients asked whether it would be safe for them to take their antidepressants if they ate their placentas, she began her investigation. “I was surprised that it was more widespread than I anticipated,” said Clark.

As the following original article shows, placentophagy is popular among some women and has its advocates. The authors of the new study are currently gathering data on the practice from sources around the world.

When Mad Men’s star January Jones recently announced she has been taking capsules containing the placenta (afterbirth) of her recently born son, Xander, she shed light on placentophagia, a common practice among non-human mammals, yet among humans…not so much. While there are many thoughts that can race through your mind when you think about eating the placenta, near the top of the list is “why?” Is this a fad or are there health benefits?

Placentophagia has possible health benefits

At the University of Buffalo and Buffalo State College, a team of neuroscientists, under direction of Mark Kristal, PhD, professor of psychology and neuroscience, have suggested that human mothers who ingest the placenta may experience some health benefits.

Kristal, who has been studying placentophagia for more than 40 years, explains in his article, “Placentophagia in Human and Nonhuman Mammals: Causes and Consequences,” that this practice among non-human mammals is associated with initiating caretaking behaviors and promotes mother-infant interaction.

Given the problems associated with human childbirth, including postpartum depression, hostility of mothers against their infants, and failure to bond, Kristal noted that ingesting the afterbirth may provide new mothers with components, such as hormones, that may relieve these problems.

Thus far, however, no empirical studies have been conducted, even though ingesting the placenta is practiced by some women in China, Vietnam, and Italy. Kristal pointed out that “if such studies are undertaken, the results, if positive, will be medically relevant. If the results are negative, speculations and recommendations will persist, as it is not possible to prove the negative.”

Research on placentophagia is also being conducted at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, by Dr. Daniel Benyshek, associate professor of anthropology, and his research team, including Jodi Selander, founder of Placenta Benefits, an organization that helps women encapsulate their placenta. They are investigating the components of the placenta and the possible beneficial health effects and/or risks of placentophagia on postpartum maternal health.

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Placentophagia and anecdotal evidence
Without scientific proof that consuming the afterbirth has health benefits, women who want to pursue this practice are left with anecdotal evidence, and that appears to be enough for some new mothers, like January Jones, who are turning in increasing numbers to having their placenta dried and encapsulated as supplements.

A woman’s plan to have her placenta encapsulated does not always work out, however, as experienced by Michelle Pfenninghaus, CHC (certified health coach), who lives in Virginia. After giving birth, the hospital held her placenta in their morgue, and she was told she would need to hire (and pay for) an undertaker to retrieve it.

After failing to find a funeral home that would honor her request, and while still searching for help, her placenta spoiled in the morgue refrigerator. In retrospect, she said, “I would have chosen a hospital with a system in place to honor a mother’s request for her placenta, and not just for burial/ceremonial purposes.” Pfenninghaus also noted that she developed postpartum depression.

Indeed, one of the reasons women give for wanting to consume the placenta are reports from other new mothers who say they feel better emotionally as quickly as after their first dose. Placentophagia may be an antidote to the baby blues and postpartum depression.

Placenta encapsulation and other methods
Pfenninghaus’ desire to encapsulate her placenta is an approach that has been taken up by women like Jodi Selander, who started Placenta Benefits in 2006 in Las Vegas, Nevada. The purpose of the organization “is to educate women and professional communities about the benefits of placentophagy (placenta ingestion) for postpartum recovery.”

One of the services provided by Placenta Benefits is a training course that teaches individuals how to properly handle, store, and prepare placentas for human consumption. The website also has an online directory of certified, trained Placenta Encapsulation Specialists in the United States, Canada, Australia, Puerto Rico, South Korea, Hong Kong, Germany, and the United Kingdom.

Drying and encapsulating the placenta is not the only way some mothers choose to eat the afterbirth. Recipes and tips on how to consume the placenta are circulating on the Internet and among women who want to share this experience.

Kristal noted that an anthropological question is “Why don’t humans engage in placentophagia as a biological imperative as so many other mammals apparently do?” For now, experts do not have the answer to this question, nor to many others surrounding the practice of placentophagia among humans.

Is eating the placenta a fad or does it provide health benefits for women? For now, the jury is still out.

Kristal M et al. Placentophagia in human and nonhuman mammals: causes and consequences. Ecology of Food and Nutrition 2012 Mar; 51(2)
Placenta Benefits
Northwestern University news

Image: Wikimedia Commons