The placenta is considered sacred by many societies, and often there are elaborate rituals surrounding it. In 2010, medical anthropologists analyzed the traditions of 179 ancient cultures and found that 109 of them had placenta rituals, including burials, incineration, intentional placement, or hanging from a tree or other location. The placenta has enormous cultural and spiritual significance around the world.
What is Placentophagy? The act of consuming part or all of the afterbirth following parturition (childbirth). Many mammals practice placentophagy, particularly herbivores. The reasons for this are not entirely known, but it could be for nutrition or to prevent predators from knowing that there is a newborn animal.
There are a few reports of human placentophagy, but it is unknown how widespread the practice was or if they were isolated cases. Here are a few examples:
Various cultures did and do eat animal placenta. That practice is well documented and often fits with the practice of not wasting any part of an animal. Many cultures have soups and stews that combine blood, fetal animal, and placenta. You can still get these dishes in many small rural villages. In Shanghai, deer placenta soup is still very popular. Great Plains Native American tribes would make a stew prepared from fetal bison calf with placenta given to expectant and nursing mothers.
Here are just a few of the claimed benefits of eating placenta:
Soft, supple skin
Reduction in dry, crepey skin
Support for postpartum health
Fertility and conception support
And much more
Unfortunately, there are not any good studies on the consumption of placenta after birth, as it would be tough to conduct a large-scale, correctly done study of this nature, as you can imagine. So most of the claimed benefits are based on anecdotal reports.
The placenta is made up of fetal membranes, naval (umbilicus), and the amniotic sack. It supports the growth of the fertilized egg into an infant. The fertilized egg comes out of the fallopian tube as an embryo. When it reaches the uterine wall, some cells embed themselves. These cells will grow to form the placenta, while the ones that remain in the uterus will become the baby. The placenta actually develops on its own as part of the growing baby; nerve cells, it functions without being controlled by the mother!
The placenta has to perform the work of multiple organs to support the growing baby. It functions as the baby’s lungs to supply oxygen, the kidneys to remove waste, and the immune and gastrointestinal systems. It also works as an endocrine system by secreting hormones and growth factors. Those compounds also help to support a healthy stress response in the mother. What an incredible organ!
During birth, a mother will lose about 10% of her blood supply (cesarean section blood loss can be much higher). It is one of the reasons many mothers feel so tired after giving birth. It makes sense why many mothers say they feel much better (increased energy, less bleeding, and an improved mood) after consuming placenta because it supplies many of these compounds (stem cells, growth factors, hormones, etc.) and nutrients (heme iron, b12, amino acids, essential fats, etc.) that were lost during childbirth.
While the cord is cut immediately after birth in hospitals, many midwives feel that leaving the placenta attached for a time after delivery allows more nutrients and beneficial compounds to flow to the baby through the cord and nurture the infant. Full disclosure, we did this with baby Parker.
More and more women consume their placenta after birth because they believe it provides many benefits. Midwives often offer it as a service after home births, and many businesses specialize in placenta preparation and encapsulation.
Does placenta contain a lot of nutrients?
Here are just a few of the things it contains:
Heme iron is much more bioavailable and effective than non-heme iron. In addition, it is gentle on the stomach and does not have the side effects of traditional iron supplements. To learn more about it, check out our blog article, All About Iron.
B Vitamins, including b12
Placental opioid-enhancing factor(POEF)
Hormone-Releasing Neuropeptides, Cofactors & Precursors
Placenta Specific Proteins, Stem Cells & Hormones (Prolactin and Oxytocin)
Various other hormones and compounds
It’s clear that it is very nutrient-dense.
The question that most people have is, is it safe? While it may be easier when things are black and white, this is one of those gray areas. Let’s take a look.
The Mayo Clinic writes, “Eating your placenta after giving birth (placentophagy) can pose harm to both you and your baby.” Their reason for this is: “These preparations don't completely destroy infectious bacteria and viruses that the placenta might contain.”
Web MD states, “While there doesn't seem to be any proof that eating your placenta can help you, there is some proof that it can hurt. If you eat it "fresh" or raw, it might spread infection. Even processing your placenta by putting it in capsules might spoil it with bacteria or viruses.”
In 2016, the CDC found a case of Late-Onset Infant Group B Streptococcus Infection Associated with Maternal Consumption of Capsules Containing Dehydrated Placenta.
This was a case of a commercial placenta processing company producing capsules that were contaminated. According to the CDC, “Heating at 130°F (54°C) for 121 minutes is required to reduce Salmonella bacterial counts by 7 log10.”
All of the information and data we could find stating the dangers of eating placenta came from the risk of contamination while preparing it for consumption or insufficient processing that did not kill off the group B strep bacteria in the placenta.
All of the cases we could find of people getting sick from eating it came from contamination of the placenta during processing or because the mother was infected with group B strep bacteria. There are a number of case reports of this happening, so it is a very real risk. This contamination puts not just the mother's health at risk but also the baby's as well, as these contaminants can be passed through to the baby while breastfeeding.
Does all of this mean that the practice of placenta eating is entirely unsafe? Not necessarily, but it does speak to the critical task of ensuring that there is no bacterial contamination of the placenta and the importance of proper processing and handling. Never eat raw placenta, and never eat another person's placenta, as there is a real risk of passing blood-borne diseases.
Group B Streptococcus is not your friend.
What should you do if you want to consume your placenta?
Most hospitals will not allow you to take your placenta home, so if you want to do this, you will most likely need a home birth with a midwife.
Connie is the best!
The first step is to have a conversation with your midwife. Talk about what the process entails, their recommendations, and if they think it might be a good fit for you.
If all of that points to yes, you should set up a plan for what you will do with the placenta after giving birth. It will involve how you store it until it can go off to where it will be processed. We do not recommend home processing as most people do not have the proper home setup to prevent contamination.
Where should you have it sent? We suggest asking your midwife about where they recommend sending it. If they do not have a recommendation, contact a few places and ask them some questions, such as:
What steps do they take to prevent and protect the placenta preparation from contamination?
What temperature and length of time do they heat it for?
What is their process, from start to capsule?
Do they have any tests or proof showing the absence of bacteria contamination?
This is a big health decision and should not be taken lightly or flippantly. If you find a place you feel comfortable with, share this information with your midwife and ensure they are on board with the company or person you are using.
Not everyone who wants to do this will be able to find a good place to do it for them. Don’t go with a questionable place just because you want to do it. You want to be 100% certain it is safe. It’s not worth the risk to you or your baby to use a place that does not do everything right.
We understand that is a hard decision, but if you cannot find a place that will guarantee it is safe, we recommend making an alternative plan for the placenta.
One option is it bury it under a small sapling tree. Many believe that the placenta is sacred, and this is a great way to honor that. Other options include making a placenta print or having an amulet made.
What if you want the nutritional benefits of placenta without the risks?
There is no question that the placenta is packed with a ton of nutrition. I don’t think many people would disagree (they are getting smacked if they do) that giving birth takes a lot out of a mom mentally and physically (Check out our article, A Guide to Postpartum Support, for more helpful tips.) So, understandably, they would want something packed with nutrition to help them recover.
So what’s the solution?
These capsules are packed with all those nutrients and compounds found in the placenta and grass-fed liver for added nutritional benefits.
The placenta is dried using a slow, freeze-drying process that preserves many nutrients and compounds lost during the traditional placenta cooking and drying process, which involves a lot of heat. It is produced from regeneratively farmed cattle in the Lake Eyre region of Australia.
The raw materials and finished product are tested to ensure it is free of bacterial contamination and other possible contaminants. It allows you to get the nourishment and benefits that placenta offers without the risks.
Hopefully, this article helped to answer your questions about placentophagy. If you have any questions, please email us at firstname.lastname@example.org, and we will do our best to get you the answers you need.
Don’t forget to check out the rest of our pregnancy center for more helpful pregnancy and postpartum support!