Imagine for a moment, that someone told you there is a magical pill that was said to ward off postpartum depression, help your milk to come in, and give you a little energy boost after a sleepless night. Sounds crazy, right? Well, these are just a few of the reasons that many women choose to encapsulate and consume their baby’s placenta after birth.
Many cultures throughout history have shared a variety of rituals with the placenta, from Lotus birth to burying it in a ceremony. In her book Birth: The Surprising History of How We are Born, Tina Cassidy explains: “On Java and Kol, women ate [the placenta] to boost fertility. In Transylvania, a woman who did not want more children burned the placenta and put the ashes in her husband’s drink. In the Philippines, midwives would add placenta blood to porridge to improve the new mother’s strength. And throughout Asia, from Vietnam to Burma, the placenta was dried and used for medicinal purposes.” (pg 218)
In Hygieia: A Woman’s Herbal, Jeannine Parvati shares that even some western cultures had some traditional practices with the afterbirth:“The Salish women on the coast of British Columbia would bury her placenta with a scallop shell, thusly, giving her a few years rest in between pregnancies. The Cherokee father would walk over as many ridges with the placenta as years they desired to not conceive children. There he would bury it deep in the ground. A lot of my natural childbirth students, with no placenta recipe to follow, so to speak, spontaneously decide to bury theirs.” (pg 187)
Although placentaphagy (the practice of consuming the placenta) seemed for many years to be an eastern tradition, it began to grow in popularity in the 1970’s here in the U.S. as a part of home birth customs. Even many vegetarians were open to the idea, as nothing was killed to harvest the organ, and many considered it a sacred ritual.
The placenta is loaded with iron, protein, and the mother’s own hormones from pregnancy. According to Y.W. Loke in Life’s Vital Link, most animals (both carnivores and herbivores) eat their placentas for the nutritional benefits. Avila Jill Romm writes in her book Natural Health After Birth that “although taking the placenta as medicine may not be everyone’s cup of tea, many of my clients over the years have done this and found it very tonifying.”
What kind of nutrients does a placenta provide? There are well over a dozen healing substances found in the organ, which are particularly beneficial to a postpartum mother. These are just a few that Laura Curtis lists on her website, PlacentaWise: Estrogen, Progesterone, Testosterone, Prolactin, Oxytocin, Placental Opioid-Enhancing Factor (POEF), Thyroid Stimulating Hormone, Corticotropin Releasing Hormone (CRH), Cortisone, Prostaglandins, Iron, Hemoglobin, Urokinase Inhibiting Factor and Factor XIII, Immunoglobulin G (IgG), and Human Placental Lactogen.
What kind of benefits can these hormones and nutrients provide? Reintroducing them into your system has been shown to help balance postpartum hormones, and according to the website PlacentaBenefits.info, consuming your placenta may also: -replenish depleted iron -give you more energy -lessen bleeding postnatally -shown to increase milk production -help you have a happier postpartum period -hasten return of uterus to pre-pregnancy state -be helpful during menopause
In addition, PlacentaWise claims these benefits: -stabilizes postpartum mood -regulates post-birth uterine cramping -enhances the mothering instinct -oxytocin decreases pain -increases mother-infant bonding -counteracts stress hormones such as Cortisol -stimulates natural endorphins -helps to prevent depression -reduces inflammation and swelling -triggers the immune system to fight infection
So how exactly does one go about consuming their placenta? There are a variety of methods that have been used throughout history – pulling off pieces to consume raw, blending chunks into a smoothie, cooking it like a steak, soaking it in alcohol to create a tincture, draining and drinking the blood, dehydrating strips into jerky, and encapsulation.
Placenta encapsulation is an ancient Chinese method that has recently gained popularity in the Western world. It seems to be an easier process for those who might find ingestion of their afterbirth unappetizing. The process typically results in about 100-200 capsules, depending on the size of the organ, which can be stored in the freezer for many years. They can be consumed to relieve postpartum symptoms, PMS, or even later in life for menopause.
What does preparation of the capsules entail? After birth, your placenta should be stored in a sterile container. (It can be frozen and saved for a later date, or prepared shortly after birth.) It is generally best to have a professional prepare your placenta, as they have experience and training in the proper procedures. Your specialist will take your placenta to a sterilized preparation area where they will clean and inspect it for deformities, clots, or anything else of concern. They will steam it (if desired – some prefer the raw method, as it is believed to retain more nutrients), thinly slice it up, dehydrate it, and then grind it into a fine powder. Depending on the method, they might add other herbs – and then they will fill several capsules with your dried placenta.
Your specialist will give you a recommended dosage, but generally during the postpartum period, a mother will take 2-4 capsules, about 3 times daily. Some specialists can also provide placenta tincture – which is an alcohol solution soaked in a small piece of your placenta. Once strained off, the solution can be kept in a dropper bottle for years and used for things such as balancing hormones, easing anxiety, reducing PMS or menopausal symptoms… and for your baby, it can be used for colic, teething, stress, trauma, and illness.
What are the potential downsides? According to Sarah Hollister, a RN and IBCLC, she has seen many patients with milk supply issues after ingesting placenta. She suspects that this may be due to progesterone hormones in the placenta, a hormone that is increased during pregnancy, and is known to inhibit prolactin (the lactation hormone). There are no studies to show whether this may be correlation or causation, and there is also debate as to whether the length of time over which women consumed their placenta was a factor (slowly consuming the capsules over a two month period, vs. those who consumed the majority of their placenta more quickly within the first hours or days following birth).
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In Conclusion ~ Many people are skeptical of this process – and of course, few studies have been done on the benefits, because pharmaceutical companies do not stand to make any profits from the practice. As Cornelia Enning says in her book Placenta: The Gift of Life: “Throughout the world generations have passed down knowledge of how ingesting placenta helps a mother’s postpartum recovery…. Many conditions during birth, the postpartum period and nursing would not arise if we returned to the old custom of applying placenta remedies.” I highly recommend that women do their own research about the potential benefits vs. side effects of placenta consumption, and make the choice that is right for them.
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Cassidy, Tina. Birth: The Surprising History of How We Are Born. New York: Grove Press, 2006. Print.
Curtis, Laura. PlacentaWise. PlacentaWise. Web. (www.placentawise.com)
Enning, Cornelia. Placenta: The Gift of Life. Eugene: Motherbaby Press, 2007. Print.
Hollister, Sarah. Happy Goat Productions. A Lactation Consultant’s Perspective on Placenta Encapsulation. Web. (http://www.happygoatproductions.com)
Loke, Y.W. Life’s Vital Link: The Astonishing Role of the Placenta. Oxford University Press, 2013. Print.
Parvati, Jeannine. Hygieia: A Woman’s Herbal. San Francisco: Freestone Publishing Company, 1978. Print.
Romm, Aviva Jill. Natural Health After Birth: The Complete Guide to Postpartum Wellness. Rochester: Healing Arts Press, 2002. Print.