Issue 24 / 29 June 2015

WE live in a society where naturalistic fallacies abound — the Paleo diet, traditional remedies, the radical arm of the homebirth movement.
It should not be surprising, then, that some women choose to — wait for it — eat their placenta. Cringe worthy, perhaps, but not surprising.
Placentophagia is practised by many placental mammals, and there is some evidence that it is practised in non-human primates as well. It is not practised by any traditional human societies anywhere in the world.
The practice emerged in the 1970s in a published report, supposedly as a reaction to the increasing “medicalisation” of childbirth. It is also believed by some that the placental tissue — being hormone-rich during gestation — can provide therapeutic substances by ingestion, even after being expelled.
A recent well referenced review, published in Archives of Women’s Mental Health, has covered this unusual topic. “Postpartum women are consuming their placentas … encapsulated, cooked, and raw for the prevention of postpartum depression (PPD) and other perceived health benefits”, the authors write.
Indeed, the internet abounds with placenta recipes — from smoothies to lasagna! Instructions are given for freezing and dehydration and providers are even selling encapsulation services — eliminating the “yuk” factor.
The Archives of Women’s Mental Health authors conducted a structured literature review to investigate current attitudes, motivations and experiences with maternal placentophagy, as well as empirical studies of potential health benefits and risks. In particular, they looked for evidence of retained contents of the raw, cooked and encapsulated placenta.
Despite finding that the most common reason for ingesting placental tissue was the belief that there were therapeutic benefits for postpartum recovery, there were no controlled human studies on the absorption of hormones.
Limited animal studies showed that concentrations of hormones were in order of magnitude below therapeutic levels, and were destroyed by low pH, as in the gastric environment. In short, the animal studies show no evidence of benefits for lactation, pain-reduction, uterine contraction, or any hormonal benefit associated with postpartum recovery.
While the risks of eating your own tissue, other than a sense of revulsion, may be negligible, it’s not advisable to eat raw tissue that has passed the birth canal. Better and safer sources of protein and iron are readily available.
In the animal kingdom, it is natural for many mammals to eat their own placenta. In the setting of marginal nutrition and with the risk of predators, this makes sense.
In human civilisation, however, placentophagia is not, and never has been, “natural”.
Placenta-eating is yet another area of pseudoscience — borrowing knowledge and language from endocrinology and obstetrics and misapplying it is a way that rejects orthodoxy.
Certainly hospital midwifery and obstetric practices of the past were overly regimented and allowed little choice, but this has changed significantly in recent decades. It can, and should, continue to improve through evidence and knowledge — not through the magic of pseudoscience.
Yes, many mammals eat their placenta. Many lick their offspring clean, and carry them around by the scruff of the neck. Some even eat them. Naturally.
But they never write blogs about it. Or even share recipes.
Dr Sue Ieraci is a specialist emergency physician with 30 years’ experience in the public hospital system. Her particular interests include policy development and health system design, and she has held roles in medical regulation and management.

6 thoughts on “Sue Ieraci: Placenta placebo

  1. David Allen says:

    Interesting article Sue. And dogs eat their own vomit among other nasty things. Don’t see many vomitus recipes online.  For health benefits I will stick to eating more broccoli frankly!

  2. donna knox says:

    Im not sure why a profesisonal who may have professional opinions on a subject has to resort to belittling others for their opinions.  Why not as a Dr give the facts, the research and your opinion based on these things in a non emotional, neutral and non judgemental way? Why treat people with disdain and disrespect?   Why must you act as “in charge” of others decisions and talk down to them?


  3. Carole Ciavarra says:

    Thanks Sue. I agree with your well-researched views. I do however think we humans carry many atavistic responses, if no longer traits, of our placental relatives. I remember feeling ravenous when presented with a view of my intact  placenta, proudly bowled by a skilled midwife. I wanted to eat meat, and demanded (and received) grilled lamb chops. Outside the immediately post-partum, the sight of a warm, newly-birthed placenta instigates no such reaction. And usually I  try to avoid all meat. Let us show the mothers their placentas – and have a nutritious meal ready to serve.

  4. Sue Justice says:

    Look, I think the placenta has done its job by the time it plops into a kidney dish,   I do, however, defend a women’s right to research, discuss and make a choice about what she does with her own placenta. We can’t dictate EVERYTHING!  Just back off.  Many of the women believe that it may help them to avoid the postnatal depression that plagued their mother and grandmother. I don’t know if it will. They’ve voiced it, though, and we can watch them carefully in case more help is needed.  Let’s offer information and applaud their efforts to help themselves, not look down our noses at their ‘unscientific’ reasoning. 

  5. Sue Ieraci says:

    Hi, Sue J. I absolutely agree that women should be informed about the non-viability of placental hormones after ingestion, so that they can make an informed decision to seek effective care for conditions like post-natal depression. I don’t deny anyone’s right to eat what they like, but I strongly oppose the selling of “encapsulation services” to vulnerable women without disclosure of this information. That’s the point of this article, which can inform others of the research so that they can pass it on. The accusation that my article is somehow controlling what women do is astounding. Why should post-partum women be sold snake oil rather than effective therapy? “Just back off”? What a strange response. I want women, their families and their medical advisors to know the facts, as is their right.

  6. David Allen says:

    Why not  vernix on a Vita-wheat?

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