New mothers who eat their babies' placentas soon after childbirth are part of a growing fad. Web sites offer recipes and services, such as turning the placenta into a pill, to make the experience more palatable. Proponents claim the practice, known as placentophagy, increases their energy and can even ward off postpartum depression. Although the placenta is packed with nutrients and hormones that help the baby develop and survive in the womb, it can also harbor potentially harmful bacteria and waste products. To date no scientific studies have documented the benefits or risks that may come from eating the placenta.
Scientific American asked Rebecca Baergen about the medical evidence on placentophagy. Baergen is a professor of pathology and laboratory medicine and chief of perinatal and obstetric pathology at New York–Presbyterian Hospital/Weill Cornell Medical Center. She has studied the placenta for more than two decades after training with the pioneer of placental pathology, Kurt Benirschke.
[An edited transcript of the interview follows.]
What is the evolutionary basis for placentophagy? Do other animals practice it?
Yes, many mammals that have placentas do this. The mothers do eat the placenta. And that's really part of the justification that people use. They say, "Well, the animals do it, so that's something that we should do." But there are a lot of other things that animals do that we don't do.
It probably has a lot to do with the fact that the animals are out in the wild. If they don't eat the placenta, then scavengers and predators will come around and see or smell the blood. It's kind of an issue of cleanup for those animals, so they don't leave behind a signature for predators that can prey on the young.
Why do some people advocate eating the placenta? What are the demonstrated benefits?
A lot of women have reported a benefit but no studies have been done that really document any kind of beneficial effects. A lot of this could be a placebo effect. We don't know—it's all anecdotal. People give reports saying, "Yes, I've done this and it had a great benefit. Yes it helped me and it was wonderful." So there are a lot of women who are encouraged to do it.
A lot of what's claimed is that the women feel healthier; they feel stronger. It's very subjective.
It's not something that I personally would recommend. But I'm not necessarily going to say, "No, I don't think you should do that," because I don't have any proof saying it's actually harmful to anyone, either.
What are some of the health risks that could occur?
A lot of placentas have infections, bacterial infections. We had one case here where the mother wanted to take the placenta [but] that request was denied. There was infection in the placenta and in addition there was evidence of meconium—that's fetal feces, basically—which is a waste product that maybe is not necessarily a good thing to be ingesting either. You don't really know in a lot of cases whether that's present.
Probably the main thing is infection. That would be much more of a risk if it's somebody else's placenta, but still remains a risk even if the mother eats her baby's placenta. The placenta is a fetal organ; it belongs to the fetus. It consists of fetal tissue, not maternal tissue. There is maternal blood in it but it's fetal tissue.
Is there any evidence that shows eating the placenta can defend against postpartum depression?
It hasn't been documented. But it's thought that at least some of the postpartum depression has to do with the fact that you have all these hormones produced by the placenta during pregnancy, and then after the baby is delivered that source of hormones is gone. It's thought that that drop in the hormones and maybe other things that are produced by the placenta during pregnancy causes postpartum depression in [mothers] who might have a propensity for that. So if you replace that by taking what was in the placenta, that might alleviate the depression. Again, it has not been proven but it does seem reasonable.
If I was concerned about postpartum depression and I had an issue with that, I would get it treated by modern medicine rather than using a method that's not necessarily proved. I would want to see the scientific evidence before I would consider doing that.
Are mothers allowed to take their placenta from the hospital or are there any regulations preventing that?
It is up to the individual hospital’s policy. It's really variable. Some of it has to do with the health statutes. The Joint Commission on accreditation of hospitals says normal placentas from normal deliveries don't have to go to pathology. They do need to be sent when there's a problem with the baby or a problem with the pregnancy or a problem with the delivery because the placenta is actually very important in explaining what happened.
Many hospitals do release placentas to patients at their request, as long as there's not an indication for it to be examined for pathology. It's a complicated issue.
What do you think would be the best ways to ingest it then—encapsulated, raw, incorporated into something?
Some people talk about actually putting the placenta in recipes, cooking and eating it that way. If that's done, you probably are destroying any of the potential benefits that you might be getting, because a lot of the proteins and hormones and blood products are broken down by cooking. It's not like meat. Meat is really muscle, and the placenta is not. From the point of preserving things, if it was not cooked, I think that would probably be better, although it would be safer to have it cooked.
I think when you're dealing with it raw, as long as it's your own placenta, I suppose that would not be [horrible]. You still might be ingesting some potentially unappetizing things. Who would want to ingest feces and infections with inflammatory cells or bacteria? Encapsulation, where they actually take the placental extract and put it into pill form, [has made the practice] popular because it's very palatable without having to actually cook it. I think that makes it a lot easier for people to deal with it. But I personally would not ever want to do it.
What should be done is that the people who strongly believe in it should try to get studies done that will document the effects. If there really is a benefit, then these studies will show that.