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.
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.
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.