Every so often, a celebrity does something outside the norm that causes everyone to freak out. This time around, “Girls” Gaby Hoffman is in the news for recommending a placenta smoothie, something she did after giving birth to her new baby girl. Hoffman isn’t the first celeb to get swept up in the placenta-eating trend. Actresses January Jones, Mayim Bialik, Alicia Silverstone, and even Kim Kardashian have all gone on record as having ingested their placentas — also known as the afterbirth — postpartum in one form or another.
But this practice is certainly not one reserved for the Hollywood elite. In fact, eating your placenta after birth isn’t new at all; traditional Chinese medicine has incorporated the practice for hundreds of years, claiming all sorts of benefits for postpartum women. Because the placenta itself is so rich in certain nutrients and hormones (including Human Placental Lactogen, which helps in milk production), it’s no surprise that Placentophagy — the act of eating placenta after birth — is an actual thing. In fact, most mammals in the wild eat their placentas after birth, and despite the disagreement in the medical field over the exact benefits for humans, it’s clearly turned into a trend in the U.S. over the last few years.
But what is a placenta, anyway? It’s the organ that develops on the wall of the uterus during pregnancy, and it provides oxygen and nutrition to the baby in utero via the umbilical cord, while also eliminating waste. After a baby is born, the placenta separates from the wall of the uterus and is expelled. Weighing an average of 1-2 pounds, it usually is delivered about 15 to 30 minutes after the baby. When it comes out, it looks like a large, somewhat deflated, blue-ish beach ball, all covered in veins and blood.Most placentas end up getting tossed, thrown into medical waste and never to be thought of again. When I gave birth, my midwife asked if I wanted to see mine. With an equal interest in all things science and strange, I nodded with as much enthusiasm as a 10-hour labor allows. She not only showed my placenta to me, but gave me a “tour” of it, indicating where it was attached to me and how my son was connected to it. She also gave me the rundown of all the amazing things the placenta is capable of in utero beyond nourishing the fetus. It protected my son inside the womb, passing along antibodies he needed to boost his immunity. It also secretes some important hormones, both for babies and their moms. And, as the growing popularity in placenta ingestion has shown, it offers some potential postpartum benefits as well.
Proponents of eating the placenta say that the benefits are numerous, and particularly helpful in recovering from childbirth, including boosts in energy and healing, increased milk production and even help fighting off postpartum depression or the “baby blues.”*** Cara Del Favero, a doula from Albany, NY, noticed a variety of these benefits for herself, personally. “My second placenta vastly changed my postpartum experience,” she described via email. “I was able to stave off postpartum depression and anxiety, I experienced a large amount of energy to care for my children, and I found that I had a very nice sense of overall well being within an hour of taking my pills.”
In addition to being a doula, Del Favero is an OSHA Certified Placenta Encapsulator, and offers a variety of services related to processing a postpartum placenta. An entire “full service package” goes for around $250 and includes dehydrated and ground placental pills, a high efficacy placental tincture, a drinkable liquid essence of placenta, breastfeeding support, umbilical cord keepsakes, hand-blended sitz bath herbs, and a lifetime support for all placenta products. Del Favero, who noticed an influx in clients after January Jones went public with her placenta ingestion, prepares placentas in different ways from steaming them before dehydration, or without steaming first, although both methods involve full cooking to OSHA specifications to prevent any chance of bacteria or blood borne pathogens making it through.
She shared some benefits that her clients have reported to her, such as:
“…slight euphoria, drastic increase in milk supply immediately following taking their pills, an increase in energy, a mood boost (usually this is reported to me by the domestic partner!) and decreased uterine cramping.”
Del Favero noted that every client is different and she instructs that one pill should be taken to start and waiting at least an hour to see if more may be needed. She stressed that she:
“…always actually suggest that people listen to their bodies when it comes to ingestion of placenta pills and products, as each placenta contains a different ratio of nutrients and hormones based on the needs of each person for the postpartum period.”
North Carolina doula and placenta encapsulator, Julie McBurney walked me through the process of preparing a placenta. She starts by removing the umbilical cord and the membranes surrounding the placenta before rinsing away any blood clots and excess blood from the vessels. At this point, if she’s also creating a smoothie or tincture, she’ll remove and save a raw section for that purpose. Then, if using the Traditional Chinese Medicine Inspired Method (TCMI), she lightly steams the placenta over boiling water and fresh organic ginger before slicing it thinly and dehydrating it for 7 to 10 hours. After it’s properly dry to “a crisp finish,” the strips are ground finely either by hand or with an electric herb grinder or Vitamix blender. The resulting powder is placed into capsules and is ready for the new mom.
I asked McBurney if she has seen any downsides to ingesting placenta, and she said that if it’s not handled or prepared properly, there could be issues. There is also the possibility of “…not meeting someone expectations,” she explained. “Every woman grows and experiences their placenta differently, some may experience better mood support and others better milk supply and that may not be what they are looking for.”
I spoke to a number of women who chose to encapsulate their placentas, and many of them came to the decision to do so because the potential benefits seemed worth it, regardless of the limited research within the medical field that has been done surrounding it. Meryl Fields, a social worker from California felt there wasn’t much to lose. “My doula originally told me about the benefits of ingesting my placenta and after doing some research I thought why not?,” she shared with me. “All mamas, especially new ones need all the support they can receive.” Fields, who took capsules of her placenta, noticed the benefits immediately, and credits the pills with her physical healing and her positive mood postpartum.
It was for the purported staving off of postpartum depression that caused Vera Rigali to do something with her placenta for her third baby. Rigali, a pharmacist in Connecticut described how she suffered from PPD with her first two children. She questioned her OBGYN about the effects of ingesting placenta, who told Rigali that while there wasn’t much research to support or reject the benefits of placental consumption, there wasn’t really any harm in it either. She went for it, and was pleased with the results.
“I started the capsules three days after Aleksa’s birth and as far as I’m concerned, they did exactly what they were supposed to do,” said Rigali. “I was tired, but I still had energy to go about my day. My milk supply was abundant, I did not experience the hot flashes I had after the first birth, I did not feel manic when my post-birthing hormones should have plummeted, and I did not weep for no apparent reason.” Whether it was the less stressful birth, the more mild-tempered baby, or the placenta pills, Rigali isn’t sure. But she does know that her postpartum experience with her most recent baby was the best of all her children. She also notes that while on the pills, her skin was extra-radiant.
As a pharmacist, Rigali feels that placenta ingestion absolutely has a place in postpartum healing. “I’m sure there are cases where placental capsules may be contraindicated,” she explained. “Yet for the majority of mamas, their placenta is the most balanced hormone replacement supplement they will ever take for one reason or another. As for any and all medication, you have to consider the benefit vs risk ratio. In the case of placental ingestion, the benefit most definitely outweighs any potential and most likely minimal risks for most women.” Rigali also suggests that once more clinical research data is available on placental ingestion, it will become more available and widespread.Perhaps, one day we’ll see more women taking home not only their babies from their hospital, but their placentas as well.
*** It should be noted that while ingesting placenta can have a positive impact on mood, it is not a recognized cure for postpartum depression and should not be used in place of seeking medical treatment for PPD.