Placental encapsulation

Should I eat my placenta?

There is no scientific evidence to support claims of health benefits from consuming human placenta. Placenta is sometimes steamed or cooked, dehydrated, ground, and placed into capsules. These capsules can contain active hormones that may increase the risk of blood clot formation and decrease milk supply. A baby was reported to have developed small breasts and vaginal bleeding that stopped when the mother stopped eating the encapsulated placenta. Consuming placenta can also spread bacteria to the baby if the placenta is infected. There are no standards for processing human placenta.

A) Describing consuming a placenta

Human placenta has been an ingredient in some traditional Chinese medicine, but it is not, nor has it been, generally consumed (placentophagy) (Young 2010). Interest in placentophagy has grown in industrialized cities in the last 50 years (Mota-Rojas 2020). This is in contrast to other mammals, including primates, where it is widespread.

A study (Benyshek 2018) of over 20,000 American mothers showed that nearly one third of the women who had planned to give birth at home consumed their placenta.

Placenta is processed using methods that include steaming or cooking, dehydrating, grinding, and placing in capsules (encapsulating). However, some mothers consume their placenta without any processing (Elwood 2019).

A small number of animal studies of placentophagy have shown improvement in milk production and bonding but processing of the placenta may remove the responsible agents (Mota-Rojas 2020).

B) No evidence of benefits

There is no scientific evidence to support claims that health benefits are associated with consuming human placenta (Coyle 2015; Elwood 2019; Farr 2018; Health Canada 2018). The practice has not been shown to:

  • Help the uterus return to pre-pregnancy size.
  • Increase milk supply.
  • Affect the return of the menstrual cycle.
  • Prevent postpartum depression.
  • Decrease pain.
  • Increase iron intake.
  • Increase the mother’s prolactin levels (Young 2019).
  • Increase the baby’s weight gain after delivery (Young 2019).

The human placenta has more iron than ground beef but less than goose liver (Ellwood 2019; Young 2016). It is no more effective than beef at changing iron levels (Gryder 2017).

C) Risks

1) Exposure to hormones

A placenta may contain biologically active hormones that can harm a mother’s health (Young 2016). Estrogens may increase the risk of blood clot formation and may decrease milk supply (Hayes 2016). 

A three-month-old baby of a mother who was consuming dehydrated placenta was reported to have developed small breasts and vaginal bleeding. These abnormalities disappeared when the mother stopped consuming the placenta (Stambough 2018). 

2) Infection

Bacteria and viruses can be transmitted by eating human placenta. Consumption should be avoided if there is any sign of infection by group B  Streptococcus (GBS) or if the placenta is otherwise contaminated.

There is one reported case of a breastfed baby getting a serious GBS infection after the mother consumed infected encapsulated placenta (Buser 2017). The same bacteria that caused the baby’s infection was found in the encapsulated placenta but not in the mother’s breast milk.  

There are no standards for processing human placenta. Unsafe practices can result in bacterial contamination and infection.

3) Toxins

The placenta may be contaminated with heavy metals (arsenic, lead, and mercury) or medication given during labour (Mota-Rojas 2020).

 

References

Benyshek DC, Cheyney M, Brown J, et al. Placentophagy among women planning community births in the United States: Frequency, rationale, and associated neonatal outcomes. Birth. 2018 Dec;45(4):459-468
 
Buser GL, Mató S, Zhang AY, et al. Notes from the Field: Late-Onset Infant Group B Streptococcus Infection Associated with Maternal Consumption of Capsules Containing Dehydrated Placenta - Oregon, 2016. MMWR Morb Mortal Wkl Rep 2017;66:677–678
 
Coyle CW, Hulse KE, Wisner KL, et al. Placentophagy: therapeutic miracle or myth? Arch Womens Ment Health. 2015; 8(673) 
 
Elwood C, Money D, van Schalkwyk J, et al. No. 378-Placentophagy. J Obstet Gynaecol Can. 2019 May;41(5):679-682
 
Farr A, Chervenak FA, McCullough LB, et al. Human placentophagy: a review. 2018 Apr;218(4):401.e1-401.e11
 
Gryder LK, Young SM, Zava D, et al. Effects of Human Maternal Placentophagy on Maternal Postpartum Iron Status: A Randomized, Double-Blind, Placebo-Controlled Pilot Study. J Midwifery Womens Health. 2017 Jan;62(1):68-79
 
Hayes EH. Consumption of the Placenta in the Postpartum Period. J Obstet Gynecol Neonatal Nurs. 2016 Jan-Feb;45(1):78-89
 
Health Canada. Human placenta products for consumption not authorized in Canada, may pose serious health risks. Ottawa: Health Canada; 2018 Nov 11

Mota-Rojas D, Orihuela A, Strappini A, et al. Consumption of Maternal Placenta in Humans and Nonhuman Mammals: Beneficial and Adverse Effects. Animals (Basel). 2020 Dec 15;10(12):2398

Stambough K, Hernandez A, Gunn S, et al. Maternal placentophagy as a possible cause of breast budding and vaginal bleeding in a breast-fed three month old. J Pediatr Adolesc Gynecol. 2018 Sep 20. pii: S1083-3188(18)30309-7

Young SM, Benyshek DC. In search of human placentophagy: a cross-cultural survey of human placenta consumption, disposal practices, and cultural beliefs. Ecol Food Nutr. 2010 Nov-Dec;49(6):467-84

Young SM, Gryder LK, Cross CL. et al. Ingestion of Steamed and Dehydrated Placenta Capsules Does Not Affect Postpartum Plasma Prolactin Levels or Neonatal Weight Gain: Results from a Randomized, Double-Bind, Placebo-Controlled Pilot Study. J Midwifery Womens Health. 2019 Mar 18
 
Young SM, Gryder LK, Zava D. Presence and concentration of 17 hormones in human placenta processed for encapsulation and consumption. Placenta. 2016 Jul;43:86-9