Placentophagia - the practice of eating the placenta after childbirth.
Posted on January 31 2013
I received a mass email a while ago that was both puzzling and intriguing. I had heard of people doing various things with their placentas after birth, but I didn't realize there was an official term for the practice of eating a placenta. Dr. Michele Brown of Beaute de Maman wrote a very thorough blog post about the practice that I thought I would share. I am due to give birth in a few weeks, and this pregnancy has been rough on me in many ways, but I think I'll probably be leaving my placenta at the hospital. Have any of you ever "consumed" your placenta? If so, what were the benefits?
"No sooner had I written my blog last week on the Placenta—Time Machine of the Future, when a patient of mine went into labor and asked if she could keep her placenta after the delivery. When the shocked look disappeared from my face, I asked for the reasons behind this request. In 35 years of practicing obstetrics, I had never before heard this request from a patient. After the overwhelming jubilation of delivering a new life, the delivery of the placenta often passes completely unnoticed.
My patient’s surprising response was that she wanted to make placenta capsules postpartum for ingestion. I was then told that there are groups of birthing mothers who believe that ingesting their placentas after delivery will reduce postpartum depression, give quicker pain relief, allow for a speedier recovery and also increase milk supply.
My impulse was to then research to see if there was any known medical basis for this theory, as most people, admittedly including myself, equated human placentophagy with cannibalism. Is there truth to these theories or is it simply without basis. After all, both infant and mother usually discarded this unappealing hunk of beefy looking material after its attachment was severed from the baby, since it serves no further use to the life and wellbeing of either mother or baby after birth.
Rituals involving the placenta have existed throughout history and varied broadly from culture to culture. The symbol of the medical profession, the caduceus, is the wand of Hippocrates with two snakes entwined which is derived from the triple vesseled umbilical cord. In ancient lore, rituals for preserving the placenta were created to protect the baby and the mother throughout their lifetimes because it was thought that there was an enduring spiritual connection between mother and baby embodied in the placenta. By those subscribing to the belief, it is felt that interfering with these rituals can have lasting, permanent negative effects. Severing the cord—in some cultures, does not end the connection that exists between the placenta and child. The afterbirth, felt to have supernatural powers, is thought to have capacity to influence or determine the whole life story of the child and was thought to be joined forever to the fate of the infant with whom it shared the maternal womb. Appropriate treatment of the placenta after birth was thought to lead to future luck, skill and even the owner’s prosperity.
Placental reverence was observed as far back as Egyptian times. The royal placenta was carried in procession before the king with pole bearer having the organ and cord dangling from above. The kings’ health and destiny were linked to this “bundle of life.” This bundle accompanied the Pharaoh at state and religious ceremonies. This custom continued from as early as 3000 BC to 200BC. Placentas were actually buried in separate duplicate individual tombs!! This is quite different from treatment of the placenta today, where it is thrown in bio hazardous medical waste or sent to pathology for later medical disposal.
Today, individuals raised in rural settings throughout the world still maintain some of the traditional practices regarding disposal of the placenta due to the belief that this will protect the mother and the infant from harm.
In Cambodia, reports of burying the placenta in the right location and position protect the soul of the baby for its lifetime. The place of burial has to be protected from evil spirits by placing a spiked plant over it. Costa Rican midwives will wrap the newborn placenta in paper and bury in a dry hole covered with burned ashes. This protects the mother from cramps, infection and retained blood clots. Burying the placenta in a shady spot can prevent “puerperal fever.” In Turkey, the placenta is wrapped in a clean cloth and buried. If the family wants the child to be a priest, the burial site must be near a mosque. If the parents want the child to be well educated, the placenta is buried in a schoolyard. The placenta becomes a link between the child, the spirits, and the land. Some tribes believe that the placenta continues to be the “nourishing mother of the child” and the placenta is clothed in infant clothes after birth. Other cultures consider the placenta to be a brother or sister of the newborn and it is wrapped in white cotton preserved in a pot, “fed for several days” and later buried and permanently marked with palm trees. A child’s destiny is linked to the welfare of the palm tree. Children are safe as long as they do not stray too far from where their placentas are buried. Segments of the umbilical cord have been preserved as protective amulets or good luck charms in some cultures. Descriptions of the cord being boiled and the broth being used as a medicine for sick children, snake bites and eye troubles have been described.
Placentas are not always treated with reverence. Some Indian cultures “kill” the placenta after birth. The placenta is stabbed by the mother after birth or burned publicly to prevent evil fairies or vampires from attacking the newborn. Placentas have been thrown in rivers to avoid unfavorable influences which the placenta may have on the life of the individual. In other cultures, as in Java, the placenta is placed on a small raft surrounded by fruit and flowers and surrounded by oil lamps. It is then floated down the river as an offering to crocodiles and the evil spirits whose souls inhabit crocodiles. Some Peruvian cultures believe that the placenta has to be buried very deep under a cemetery gate since it possesses the potential to harm the community.
Eating the placenta is also an accepted ritual in certain cultures. Historically, eating placentas have been associated with curing infertility, hastening labor, aiding in lactation, preventing afterpains, removing birthmarks and scars, curing epilepsy and as a form of birth control. Many carnivorous animals, with the exception of man, eat the afterbirth. Animals do this to aid survival since it prevents other predatory animals from being aware that a weakened mother and a newly born animal are in the vicinity. In the Jewish Talmud, the placenta is considered a remedy to aid a child who is too thin or has difficulty breathing. Reports of Vietnamese minority groups of Chinese and Thai origin that live in protein poor mountainous areas eat pan fried placenta sautéed with onions. In some Peruvian cultures, burning the placenta and mixing the ashes with water to drink is thought to promote fertility, as a remedy for childhood ailments and to relieve prolonged and difficult labor.
Extensive research and literature searches that I conducted revealed no articles reporting a scientific basis for the claimed healthful benefits of consuming placenta. The process of steaming, baking, and dehydrating will probably destroy most of the nutritional and hormonal content that is believed to cure women from postpartum problems. The American College of Obstetrics and Gynecology has had no comment regarding this practice. However, the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists in England stated that there is no need to consume placenta when people are already well nourished, as opposed to animals which might benefit from the additional nutrition that the placenta would provide. On questioning my patient, who is now 3 weeks postpartum, on her experience of ingesting capsules, she replied that she felt much better and had her energy level restored within a few days after taking her placenta pills. She is a licensed clinical social worker and is familiar with seeing postpartum depression in some of her clients. By taking the placenta pills, she felt she was able to prevent this from occurring. She also reported no adverse side effects.
In conclusion, psychiatrists believe that placenta disposal rituals were created as anxiety releasing mechanisms that provided the new mother with a feeling of control over the future health and welfare of her child and herself. Today it is acceptable to find placental extracts in skin and moisturizing creams, shampoos, hair conditioners and face creams. The placenta contains concentrated levels of hormones, stem cells, immune factors and nutrients, which are believed by many women to enhance beauty products. These products are often containing some elements of bovine placental tissue."