After giving birth, most mammals eat the afterbirth, the placenta. Most humans don’t. Several hypotheses have been suggested as to why placentophagy might have had evolutionary survival value, but are there any actual benefits for modern women? Placentophagy has been recommended for various reasons, from nutritional benefit to preventing postpartum depression to “honoring the placenta.” In other cultures, various rituals surround the placenta including burial and treating it as sacred or as another child with its own spirit. Eating the placenta is promoted by some modern New Age, holistic, and “natural-is-good” cultural beliefs.
Some women eat it raw, but many women have a yuck-factor objection to eating raw bloody tissue. It can be cooked: recipes are available for preparing it in various ways. For those who don’t like the idea of eating the tissue, placenta encapsulation services are available, putting placenta into a capsule that is more esthetically acceptable and that can even be frozen and saved for later use in menopause.
Does placentophagia benefit health? Does it constitute cannibalism? It it just a way to recycle nutrients? How can science inform our thinking about this practice?
Is It Cannibalism?
As I researched this, I found the assertion that the placenta is part of the woman’s body. Actually, this is inaccurate. While there is a maternal component, placental tissue is mainly derived from the fertilized egg and carries the fetus’s genome. So technically, wouldn’t eating the placenta fit the definition of cannibalism: eating the flesh of another individual of your own species? Some people have categorical philosophical or ethical objections to cannibalism, but there is no evidence (and no reason to think) that eating “long pig” would be harmful to health as long as the tissue is healthy and unable to transmit diseases (such as the infamous kuru).
My mind wandered into other hypothetical scenarios. What about swallowing semen: would that fit the definition of cannibalism? If eating human tissue is sometimes acceptable as in placentophagia, when does it become not acceptable and why? Would it be acceptable to eat surgical specimens of healthy tissue? For instance, a healthy uterus that had been removed only because of prolapse, or breast tissue from breast reduction surgery? Circumcised foreskins? Unused tissue from a phallus removed during sex-change surgery? Not that anyone has suggested eating those things, but it’s interesting to think about where reasoning might lead us once we have accepted a principle. Socrates was famous for that: he would get his interlocutors to agree to a statement and then would make them explore the logical consequences that would necessarily ensue.
Some vegetarians make an exception for placentas. One writer on Yahoo! Answers justified placentophagia by rationalizing that she eats eggs and placenta is basically human egg white!
My personal preference? I didn’t eat my placentas because I saw no reason to do so, but I don’t object on principle. Even if placentophagia qualifies as cannibalism, I don’t see any rational objection to cannibalism per se, as long as it doesn’t involve unethical practices like murder. I have an aversion to raw meat, but I wouldn’t have any objection to eating placenta if it were cooked and seasoned. With the high blood content, I imagine it would taste somewhat similar to the fried (bovine) blood I enjoyed eating when I lived in Spain. Fried blood tastes something like liver and is delicious when prepared with garlic and olive oil.
Forgive the digression and the weird speculations.
Is It Recycling?
The placenta contains a lot of nutrients and could help replace the nutrients depleted during pregnancy, especially iron. This might be important for some animals; but for humans who have adequate access to food, these nutrients are easily replaced through more conventionally accepted means. It seems a shame for good nutrients to be thrown away. On the other hand, recycling placental nutrients would have only a very small impact. Most of us don’t feel an obligation to recycle everything. We throw away other nutrients by discarding the outer leaves of cabbages and the fat trimmings from cuts of meat. A fanatical recycler might accept recycling as a compelling reason for placentophagia, but I suspect that most people wouldn’t be persuaded by that argument alone.
What Health Benefits Are Claimed?
According to Placentabenefits.info, health claims include:
- Increase general energy
- Allow a quicker return to health after birth
- Increase production of breast milk
- Decrease likelihood of baby blues and post natal depression
- Decrease likelihood of insomnia or sleep disorders
- Other benefits are also likely but too numerous to mention.
- “Definitely worth considering as part of a holistic postpartum recovery for every expectant woman.”
Dried human placenta is also used in traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) to treat wasting diseases, infertility, impotence, and other conditions.
Is there scientific support for those claims?
The Placentabenefits website offers the following scientific research to support those claims:
- A 1954 article from Czechoslovakia showed that taking a supplement derived from placenta increased milk production, but after 57 years this study has still not been replicated. This same study is mentioned by the authors of the second reference only to question it, characterizing it as “a somewhat unrigorous study”
- “Placentophagia: A Biobehavioral Enigma” discusses animals and human cultures that practice placentophagia and ponders why. It provides no data directly relevant to the claims for human health.
- A study of opioid levels in rats after placenta ingestion, showing that placenta enhances y- and n-opioid antinociception, but suppresses A-opioid antinociception — in rats. No apparent relevance to their claims for human benefits.
- A 1980 study showing that placentophagy alters hormone levels in rats. It didn’t even look at what clinical effects might result from those altered levels.
- They cite an article without giving sufficient clues for me to be able to locate it. By their description, the article apparently cites research by Chrousos suggesting that lower levels of human corticotrophin releasing hormone (CRH) after delivery might be a possible etiology for postpartum depression; but it says nothing about treatment or the effects of eating the placenta.
- An article showing that iron deficiency anemia affects postpartum emotions and cognition, with no discussion or evaluation of whether eating placenta elevates serum iron levels significantly or improves emotions or cognition.
- An article about predicting postpartum depression by assessing postpartum fatigue. Nothing about eating placenta.
- Unexplained fatigue may benefit from iron supplementation. Nothing about eating placenta.
- A discussion of why postpartum iron deficiency should not be overlooked. No mention of placentas.
My own search of PubMed didn’t uncover any relevant studies on humans. If these 9 articles are their best effort, they’re grasping at straws. All they’ve got is rats and speculation. The best they can do is to mention the need for adequate iron and speculate that placenta-eating might be a useful source of iron. To counter that, we know enough about iron metabolism to make us think it is highly implausible that a one-time ingestion of placenta would contribute very much to effectively replenishing the body’s iron stores.
Science does not offer sufficient evidence to either support or reject placentophagia as a health practice. Nonscientific considerations will continue to determine women’s choices in this matter.
This article was originally published in the Science-Based Medicine Blog