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Steamed, Dehydrated or Raw: Placentas May Help Moms’ Post-Partum Health

UNLV anthropology survey examines why women consume their placentas after childbirth.

Research  |  Feb 27, 2013  |  By Afsha Bawany

UNLV medical anthropologist Daniel Benyshek and doctoral student Sharon Young surveyed women who consumed their placentas after childbirth. (Aaron Mayes / UNLV Photo Services)

Moms-to-be, stay tuned. You may want to add “cook placenta” next to “stock up on diapers and onesies” to your list of things to remember when having a baby.

Placenta eating may seem like a farfetched trend but a growing number of women are doing this across North America and even in Southern Nevada, according to a new survey conducted by UNLV anthropologists.

Daniel Benyshek, a UNLV medical anthropologist, and Sharon Young, a doctoral student of anthropology, asked 189 women who consumed their placentas after childbirth why they did it, how they preferred to have the placenta prepared, and if they would do it again. The results were published online Feb. 27, 2013 in the journal Ecology, Food and Nutrition. 

The survey found most women who participated in the practice, called placentophagy, were American, Caucasian, married, middle class, and college-educated and were more likely to give birth at home.

Overall, 76 percent of participants said they had very positive experiences. The most commonly reported negative aspect of placentophagy was the placenta’s appeal — the taste or smell of it was simply kind of icky. But most reported positive placentophagy experiences.

What these moms are doing very well may be something new for humans, said Benyshek. While nearly all non-human primates and mammal mothers are known to eat the placenta after giving birth, there is very little evidence for it among human mothers. In fact, a published 2010 study by Young and Benyshek did not find any evidence of human maternal placentophagy as a traditional cultural practice among a sample of 179 societies around the globe.

Placenta consumption by humans other than the mother, however, has been recorded among a handful of cultures for various medicinal purposes, and it is used in some traditional Chinese remedies, he said.

Because the placenta transfers essential nutrients from mother to baby, placentophagy advocates suggest that the placenta would have the same benefits to the mother post-childbirth. Participants reported that they believe the benefits include treatment of post-partum symptoms, increased lactation, and a better mood.

While science knows much about the hormonal and nutritional components of the human placenta tissue, almost nothing is known about the biological effects of its consumption. Benyshek notes, however, that there is a hunger for remedies to treat post-partum effects.

Benyshek is now researching the public health implications, the likely course of placentophagy throughout human evolution, whether placentas can treat mood disorders and hormonal imbalances, and any potential risks.

He’s also analyzing the nutritional, hormonal, and chemical components of placenta in its various preparations. Benyshek has partnered with Jodi Selander, a specialist in placenta encapsulation and education in Southern Nevada. She is preparing the placentas for experiments and also helped connect the researchers with survey participants.

The placenta can be consumed cooked or raw, but most women in the survey consumed it in the easier-to-digest capsule form. In this preparation, a cooked or uncooked placenta is dehydrated (it will look like a dried mushroom). It is pulverized (Benyshek’s lab uses a Magic Bullet blender for this) until it resembles cumin powder and encapsulated in a gelatin-coated pill and then consumed daily over a two- or three-week period.

“Our survey participants generally reported some type of perceived benefit from the practice, felt that their postpartum experience with placentophagy was a positive one, and overwhelmingly indicated that they would engage in placentophagy again after subsequent pregnancies,” the authors write.

About the study:

  • 189 females over the age of 18, average participant age was 31
  • Participants were recruited through social media sites and message boards with assistance from Jodi Selander, a placenta encapsulation specialist in Southern Nevada
  • Women who had ingested their placenta after birth of at least one child were included in the survey
  • The survey was conducted between October and November of 2010
  • 91 percent from the U.S.
  • 93 percent Caucasian
  • 90 percent married
  • 58 percent with income over $50,000 a year

According to the survey, the top three positive effects of placentophagy were:

  • Improved mood
  • Increased energy
  • Improved lactation

According to the survey, the top three negative side effects of placentophagy were:

  • Unpleasant burping
  • Headaches
  • Unappealing taste or smell