PLACENTOPHAGY: SCIENCE-BASED MEDICINE OR OLD WIVES’ TALE?

By Chinmayo Forro, Alaska State Licensed Midwife

            As a practicing homebirth midwife for the past twenty years, it has always been my understanding that there were many health benefits for a new mother to consume her placenta, either raw or steamed, dehydrated and encapsulated for later use. I was also taught that giving a piece of raw placenta to the new mother could stop postpartum hemorrhage when everything else failed. But, is there any scientific basis for this practice, and what research, if any, exists on human placentophagy?

            According to Professor Mark B. Kristal, at the Department of Psychology, State University of New York at Buffalo, “it remains possible that placentophagy is practiced in some cultures, or may have been before the era of modern anthropological records” yet, he acknowledges that, upon initiating his research in 1975, “…a passing, unreferenced remark about placentophagy in humans” from researchers Tinklepaugh and Hartman on rhesus macaque, got his attention:

After licking the afterbirth, she begins the grueling task – one common to most if not all sub-human mammals and probably related to human placentophagia (emphasis added)…of consuming this tough fibrous mass.  Holding the organ in her hands, she bites and tears at it with her teeth” ([73] 89).                                                                                                                                           

Krystal’s research is primarily on non-human mammals but he mentions a “somewhat un rigorous study on humans reported in 1954” about placentophagy used to improve milk production: “86% of the subjects showed improved milk production and flow.”

            Meanwhile, there is a lot more scientific information available about the medicinal use of placental extracts than the practice of placentophagy per se. From all the countries that use placental medicinal properties, China has the best track record. In her book Placenta, the Gift of Life, German midwife Cornelia Enning notes: “Placenta has been used in Chinese medicine for more than 1400 years…and is considered a powerful and sacred medicine, full of life force” (23, 29). In the United States, on the other hand, “placenta medicine is not recognized, either in popular culture or law” (24).

            Yet, there is no denying the use of placental extracts in different sectors of the health and cosmetic industries. Take for example, scientists Shin et al. who report in the journal “Cell Proliferation the use of placental extract as an alternative to serum; they conclude: “Placental extract could be used in translational research for regenerative medicine” (435-444).The dermatological benefits of placental extracts on rats with thermal injury were also reported by scientists Wu et al. in the “British Journal of Dermatology” and they suggest “the use of porcine placental extracts as an alternative medicine for accelerating wound healing” (236-254). Others have also suggested the benefits of stem cells contained in placental tissues; scientists Poloni, Antonella et al. concluded their research by noting, in the Journal Cytotherapy  that  mesenchymal progenitor cells…may be an excellent source for therapeutic applications” (690-697).                                                                                                                

The hormonal content in placental tissues is a well- established fact in the scientific community. In his article for the Yale University School of Medicine, entitled Placental Hormones, Dr. Harvey Kliman states:

Throphoblasts synthetize and secrete a vast array of endocrine products.  Collectively, these hormones function to regulate throphoblast growth and differentiation, affect fetal growth and homeostasis, modulate maternal immunologic, cardiovascular and nutritional status, protect the fetus from infection and prepare the uterus and mother for parturition.

But the hormone that most gets attention these days is oxytocin. The mother’s pituitary gland releases this love hormone, which crosses the placenta and reaches the fetus’ brain, cushioning him/her against the stress of labor. According to French obstetrician and Primal Health researcher Dr. Michel Odent, “the release of oxytocin peaks in the hour after the birth, at the time when mother and baby first make contact” (117). He continues: “…oxytocin is the hormone of altruism, the forgetting of oneself.  And in fact we find, significantly enough, that oxytocin depresses memory” (118). However the hormone prolactin is also released in great quantity and ensures the breastfeeding instinct of the new mother. Odent explains:

An abundance of specifically erotic stimuli is to be anticipated, given that the hormone of love (oxytocin) tends to lead in only one direction when it is without the harmonizing influence of prolactin” (119).

                                                                                                                                                Midwife Cornelia Enning goes as far as recommending that “women whose milk lacks oxytocin because of toxemia, gallbladder disease or a stressful birth, can make up for it by using a placenta remedy” (22).

The above mentioned hormones could validate the claims of the “placental encapsulators” of the many benefits of placentophagy, amongst others: immune system enhancer (quick recovery), postpartum depression and stress reduction modulator, milk production enhancer and a general sense of well -being. The high content of oxytocin, immediately prior to, and in the hour following birth, could also explain the use of raw placenta to stop postpartum hemorrhage; the synthetic version is used intravenously in most hospitals for the same purpose.

The fact that most mammals do eat their placentas after delivery merits attention since, as Odent states:

“Humans are mammals…To give birth to their offspring through the process of delivery, female mammals have to secrete a number of hormones.  These same hormones are at work in the delivery of human babies. They are secreted by the brain’s most primitive structures – those that we share with all mammals” (6, 7). He continues: “We have distanced ourselves from our mammalian roots with the surge of the neo-cortex, the human brain, which interferes with the normal birth process, as in medicalized childbirth” (8).                                                                                                                

And what about the sense of well being claimed by the proponents of placentophagy? Odent, who has done extensive research on the role of human female  hormones before, during and after childbirth,  tells us: “The secretion of certain kinds of endorphins is necessary for the release of the hormone for lactation – prolactin – which plays a part in completing the maturation of the baby’s lungs.  And these endorphins might also play a part in the bonding between mother and newborn” (40). Interestingly enough, midwives have observed that when a new mother is stressed out, her baby will sense it and breastfeeding becomes challenging. Yet, with the help of placental remedy, she relaxes (endorphins at work?) and breastfeeding resumes normally.

            Still, placentophagy triggers a lot of controversy in the western world. Dr. Harriet Hall, MD, one of the co-founders of www.sciencebasedmedicine.org., questions the validity of this practice in her article Eating Placentas: cannibalism, recycling, or health food? The comments on her blog vary from sheer disgust to mockery. Even though she has nothing against it and admits that “the placenta contains a lot of nutrients and could help replace the nutrients depleted during pregnancy,” she suggests that “these nutrients are easily replaced through more conventionally accepted means.” A question to ask then is: Is infant formula a “more conventionally accepted means” than colostrum and mother’s milk?  We now have abundant research to prove it otherwise. Dr. Hall analyzes the scientific claims listed on the www.PlacentaBenefits.info  website and discards them all for not being scientific enough or not specific to placentophagy. Dr. Hall also briefly mentions the use of dried human placenta in TCM (Traditional Chinese Medicine), but does not elaborate, either favorably or unfavorably. Perhaps it is too daunting a task to challenge a 1400 year old tradition?      

Considering that the placenta is an organ, one may question how the skeptics would react if they were on dialysis and needed a kidney transplant, or their arteries were so clogged up that they needed a heart transplant? Or, what if their liver was so damaged by Hepatitis C that their only chance of survival was a liver transplant? Certain situations help us gain some perspective.

As quoted earlier, Dr. Hall agrees that “the placenta contains a lot of nutrients.” Let us take a closer look at her suggestion of replacing them with “more conventionally accepted means.” Professor Krystal comments in his research that “Placentophagia is observed in nearly 100% of normal rat parturitions…The rats ate the placenta but refused the other meats (emphasis added).”  He adds:

A striking behavior occurs in most non- human mammalian species: the mother consumes the afterbirth…the mother purposefully, laboriously, and usually completely, devours the placenta and fetal membranes…To date, we know almost nothing of the causes or consequences of this behavioral phenomenon.

Krystal’s writing dates from 1980. Since then we know a lot more about the physiology of postpartum hunger in humans. A very specific behavior is common amongst laboring women and observed by midwives: in active labor, women are not hungry; they will sip electrolyte drinks, perhaps eat frozen grapes or drink a cup of miso, but that’s about all.  A few days prior to labor though, they are instructed to eat a lot of complex carbohydrates, just as they would to prepare before a marathon. If the labor lasts longer than usual and the woman spills ketones in the urine, she is running out of fuel; a quick cup of miso usually can remedy this deficiency, and after the delivery, she is ravenous. Even women without ketones in the urine will be starving and demand something to eat. Krystal’s observation of rats refusing anything other than placenta after parturition, indicates “a special physiological state, for a specific ingestible substance.” Did the Chinese know about this 1400 years ago?

Besides China, many cultures around the world have practiced placentophagy or honored the placenta in many different ways. In the western world, Germany has a long tradition of medical treatments with the use of placenta. Enning claims that “The pharmaceutical and homeopathic remedies from placenta tissues are similar to stem cells with their potential healing effects…these products are available in some drugstores even today” (1). Apparently, this practice is legal as long as the product is labeled “polypeptides” and not placenta.  Enning was able to trace back the practice of placentophagy to 16th century Southern Germany, where “a piece of the placenta was added to the mother’s first postpartum meal” (19), and this practice is still common in several eastern European countries.  Many midwives have suggested placentophgy for several purposes, such as milk production, speedy recovery, a sense of well- being, not only for the mother but for the baby as well, or even other family members suffering from arthritis, cardiovascular diseases or other ailments. The general recommendation is to consume the placenta fresh and raw, or have it processed immediately at a temperature below 40 degrees Celsius, in order not to denature the enzymes; when this is not possible, keeping the placenta in the freezer until it can be processed is an acceptable option.

            Traditional healers in many cultures have been mostly women who relied on the bounty of nature to make their concoctions. Many were burned alive in the middle ages, yet today the pharmaceutical industry makes millions of dollars by synthetizing the same herbs for medicinal purposes. In view of all the research done on placental medicinal properties, human placentophagy makes sense. In order to be scientifically validated, a controlled clinical study would have to be conducted and replicated, which has not happened yet, and, for ethical reasons, might not happen for a very long time. In her email to USA Today journalist’ Steve Friess, FDA spokeswoman Kris Meijia, states that “Human placental capsules that make treatment claims must be accompanied by well-designed and controlled clinical studies to support approval/licensure.” In the meantime, many women would disagree and use their right to dispose of their placenta as they see fit, since, as Dr. Hall concludes: “Science does not offer sufficient evidence to either support or reject placentophagy as a health practice.” Many women are not waiting for science to validate placental properties and are either planting a tree or dehydrating their placenta for medicinal purposes.

A warning from Dr. Odent should be taken into consideration, not only for the natural process of birth, but for other instincts that we share with most mammals: “Homo sapiens is the only mammal whose neo cortex is strong enough to inhibit, to repress and even to threaten the instincts that are indispensable for the survival of the species” (62). Placentophagy may not be indispensable for human survival, yet, we might be throwing away a very valuable source of nutrients aimed at facilitating an easy transition for both, mother and baby. Meanwhile, as a practicing midwife for the past 20 years, I have seen the rate of placentophagy in my homebirth practice go from 30% to about 60%. I have personally used raw placenta for postpartum hemorrhage and seen it work. I have also witnessed women with previous postpartum depression have an easier transition with the use of placentophagy, and I have definitely seen it make a difference in milk production.

To conclude, I would have to admit that I was unable to find any clinical studies  on human placentophagy. In their 2010 research paper for the Journal “Ecology of Food and Nutrition” where research articles undergo rigorous peer review, researchers Young & Benyshek come to the same conclusion:

Many avenues of research, including experimental and observational animal studies, ethnographic investigations, and human observational and clinical studies await future research. One particularly fruitful area of study might investigate the potential health benefits and/or risks to a small but growing number of women who currently engage in the practice.

Since most women open to placentophagy have out of hospital births with midwives, many are collecting data and started their own research.  One such consumer, Claire Rembis, started an online Placentophagy Research Study powered by Google Docs. Her website – www.itsyourplacenta.com – has a questionnaire with very specific questions. As no scientist has yet come forward and offered to research human placentophagy, mothers who benefited from it are taking matters in their own hands.  With their determination, we might have more data sooner, rather than later.  Let us hope one of them is a clinical scientist.

Works Cited

Enning, Cornelia. Placenta: The Gift of life: The Role of the Placenta in Different

            Cultures and How to Prepare and Use it as Medicine. Eugene, OR.

            Motherbaby Press, 2007. Print.

 Freiss, Steve. “Ingesting the Placenta: Is it Healthy for New Moms?” 

            http://www.usatoday.com/news/health/2007-07-18-placenta-ingestion...

            USA Today 19 Jul.2007 Web. 5 Jun.2012

Hall, Harriet. “Eating Placentas: Cannibalism, Recycling, or Health Food?”

            http://www.sciencebasedmedicine.org/index/php/eating.placentas

            8 Mar.2011 Web.5 Jun.2012

Kliman, Harvey. “Placental Hormones”.

            http://info.med.yale.edu/obgyn/kliman/placenta/articles/Plac%20Hormones.html

Yale University, School of Medicine. n.d. Web.5 Jun.2012

Kristal, Mark B. “Placentophagia: A Behavioral  Enigma (or De Gustibus non

            Disputandum Est).” Neuroscience & Biobehavioral Reviews, 4 (1980):

           141-150 http://cogprints.org/757/1/gustibus.htm Web. 5 Jun. 2012

Odent, Michel. Birth and Breastfeeding: Rediscovering the Needs of Women During

           Pregnancy and Childbirth. Forest Row, East Sussex. Clairview Press, 2003.

            Print.

 Poloni, Antonella et al. “Characterization and Expansion of Mesenchymal

            Progenitor Cells from First Trimester Chorionic Villi of Human Placenta.”

            Abstract. Cytotherapy 10. 7 (2008): 690-697. Web. 5 Jun. 2012.

 Shin, K.S. et al. “Culture and In Vitro Hepatogenic Differentiation of Placenta-derived

            Stem Cells, Using Placental Extract as an Alternative to Serum.”  Abstract.Cell

            Proliferation. 43.5 (2010): 435-444 Web. 5 Jun. 2012.

Wu, C-H et al. “Wound Healing Effects of Porcine Placental Extracts on Rats with

            Thermal Injury.”  Abstract. British Journal of Dermatology, 148. 2 (2003):

             236-245. Web. 5 Jun.2012.

Young, Sharon & Benyshek, Daniel. “In Search of Human Placentophagy: A Cross

            Cultural Survey of Human Placenta Consumption, Disposal Practice, and

            Cultural Beliefs.”  Ecology of Food and Nutrition 49.6 (2010): 467-484

            Web. 5 Jun. 2012

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