Tuesday, September 6, 2011

When You Eat What You Are: Placentophagia

Image courtesy of Squat Birth Journal
Yes, I shall now delve into a topic many of those in the mainstream would call "bizarre" - the hows' and the whys' of eating your placenta.

Perhaps some of you have never heard of this ritual, and "ewww" alarm bells are going off in your head. Before you pre-judge (remember my previous post?), why don't you sit tight for a few minutes and have a little read? You might learn something new, or perhaps, this will convince you to do something you never thought possible!

Let's start at the beginning. I'm not going to assume you all know what I'm taking about, so here's a quick definition of the placenta: this is the organ in the uterus of pregnant mammals, which nourishes and maintains the fetus through the umbilical cord. To be all dramatic about it, the placenta is "life itself." It is what sustains and holds your baby for those ten looong months. So before you begin saying "gross" consider where we would be without the placenta....childless!

You can certainly develop an appreciation for the beautiful life-giving organ, but perhaps you think eating it after birth is going a little too far. But think about this: in an (old! 1980) article from Neuroscience and Biohehavioral Reviews, Mark Kristal writes that:

"During delivery, a striking behavior occurs in most nonhuman mammalian species: the mother consumes the afterbirth. Although this placentophagia does not seem, on the surface, to be critical to the birth process or to the immediate well-being of the infant, the mother purposefully, laboriously, and usually completely, devours the placenta and fetal membranes. Often she stops attending to the newborn during placentophagia, which may last for an hour or more, and resumes infant-directed behaviors only when the afterbirth has been completely eaten. To date we know almost nothing of the causes or consequences of this behavioral phenomenon."

Now, if we're going to be skeptical for a minute, we might ask "what types of mammals eat their placentas?" Or, "how common is this in higher-order mammals?" The paper I've quoted above gives a great overview of what types of mammals engage in this behaviour - some of them being higher-order mammals such as apes.

Kristal notes that no evidence of placentophagia was found in anthropological records from 296 cultures around the world. Whether this occured in ancient cultures, for which we have no data, is a question that remains unanswered.

So why are we talking about eating our placentas if it doesn't seem to be a "normal" behaviour amongst humans? Kristal writes that although there is no evidence that this has been a historical practice amongst human cultures, there are many strong statements against the eating of the placenta, which suggests that these cultures recognized the placenta as a substance that could be eaten. So perhaps, somewhere along the line in our history, eating the placenta was shunned as a dangerous or "gross" practice. Given that many primates eat their placentas, it's quite possible our early ancestors participated in this practice and it was slowly phased out over time.

So back to the present - there are currently no good (or bad) quality studies that have focused on placentophagia in humans. Which means that there is no evidence-based information to suggest that there are benefits to eating your after-birth.

However, in the past 40 years, a small (but determined) movement has grown in support of placentophagia. Some suggest this developed out of the homebirth movement in 1970s California - after all, those crazies were doing it all! (I say this with sarcasm). Despite the lack of evidence, these proponents claim that eating the placenta can balance your system, replenish your iron levels, increase milk production and even ward off postpartum depression.

I had the chance to chat with someone who has first-hand experience with placenta encapsulation: this is a practice where the placenta is dried, ground, and encapsulated, to be taken over the course of several weeks. (There are also some women who will cook a recipe with their placenta, blend it into a smoothie, or eat it raw - clearly, this needs to be done quickly, as bacteria can certainly grow. Encapsulation allows for a much longer shelf life, and the people who do this claim that the same benefits remain in the pills for many years to come).

This local Mommy decided to encapsulate her placenta after her second pregnancy. She became interested in the process while reading about it on MODG and says that "I am very lucky to have a supportive husband. We share money, so if he hadn't been on board, I would have had a hard time spending our money. He knew I had done my research so, for us, it was worth the money even if the effects were only placebo."

I've heard similar statements concerning homeopathy, a form of medicine that uses micro-doses of natural remedies to stimluate the body's natural healing processes. Good scientific evidence in support of homeopathy is lacking, and yet thousands of people can lay a claim to its efficacy. The benefits could be entirely based in the placebo effect, or perhaps our science is not advanced enough to realize the worth of this form of medicine. Either way, people are paying money for homepathic care and are experiencing its benefits.

And just how much does placenta encapsulation cost? With a little bit of research, I've found the cost to range anywhere from $175-$300. Some people claim you can do it yourself for much less, by purchasing encapsulation supplies and dehydrating the placenta in your oven.

Despite the costs, the Mommy I spoke to was impressed with the results. She had a smooth postpartum transition and although she believes there were several factors that played a part, she is sure that the pills had some positive effect on her mood and physical recovery.

After reading this post and doing your research, if you still aren't convinced, consider other ways to "honour" your placenta and its life-giving qualities:
  • Have your partner, doula or other family member snap some pics - when your child is 15 and slamming doors in your face, you may need to be reminded of the beauty of life.
  • Ask for your midwife or the nurse to show you the placenta. Make sure to catch them before they stick it in a baggie and send it off. Most midwives and nurses are excited to show off the "pouch" and explain how your baby has lived those past 10 months.
  • Gifted artists can make "placenta prints," by rolling your placenta on a canvas. The artwork is rather beautiful, although not without its "gross" factor. Just tell your guests your son/daughter painted it!
  • Plant the placenta in your yard, along with a fruit tree. As the child grows and the tree grows, it becomes a special memorial of all that is beautiful in the circle of life. And hopefully the dog doesn't pee on it too much.


  1. I couldn't do it but I have heard of it. Interesting topic...

  2. ya, it's not for everyone LeeAnn! We wanted to plant ours with a tree, but we lived in an apartment. So it would be kinda sad to move away and leave the poor tree to die or be peed on by more dogs :o)

  3. This is fabulous. I'm grossed right out and thrilled at the same time! I love what I learned in this post. I must say that I snapped a photo myself of my placenta and birth sac. I was delirious and exhausted and had already taken some snapshots of my baby that was being weighed and measured. But now when I have guests and my computer is on, it is set to go around on all of the photos and that whacky one just freaks people out. It's lots of fun. :) I also have watched our cows eat the afterbirth many times and thought that it would make a good practise for eluding predators from the birthing scene (and the fact that a new, helpless baby is in the world). I'm sure those thoughts are all out there.


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