Eating the placenta or afterbirth - a practice known as placentophagia - seems to be a trend among some of the young and hip in Hollywood and New York these days. Actress January Jones discussed taking pills made from her placenta with People magazine. In a New York Times blog, author Nancy Redd wrote that even the hospital birth class she took suggested the practice. The hype for placentophagia holds that it can improve breast milk supply, increase energy, ward off fatigue and postpartum blues, replace nutrients lost during pregnancy, and even prevent aging.
There's not a shred of scientific evidence behind any of this. It is true that almost all non-human mammals eat the placenta and amniotic fluid, but regardless of culture, humans don't, according to Mark Kristal, Ph.D., professor of psychology and neuroscience at the University of Buffalo who has been studying placentophagia for more than 20 years. Kristal reports that in non-human mammals, eating the placenta is believed to stimulate an increase in mother-infant interaction, boost the effect of pregnancy-mediated pain killers, and activate circuits in the brain that set in motion caretaking behavior and suppresses postpartum pseudopregnancy, thereby increasing the possibilities for fertilization. More importantly, it gets rid of tissue that might attract predators to the birth site.
Kristal has suggested that eating the placenta might provide human mothers with substances that could help them avoid postpartum depression, failure to bond with their babies or maternal hostility toward the infant. But there's no proof that these substances exist or would work as Dr. Kristal suggests, and no study has tested this theory. Dr. Kristal emphasizes that any benefits claimed by women (and some of their husbands) who have eaten placentas are neither reliable nor valid as scientific evidence of these effects.
The lack of formal clinical investigation hasn't dampened the enthusiasm for placenta-eating. In response to this trend, three states, Hawaii, New York and Nevada have passed laws allowing women to take their placentas home from hospitals. (Otherwise, they're disposed of or kept for research.) And some enterprising women have built flourishing businesses on the preparation of placentas for ingestion by new parents or on "placenta encapsulation" – drying and grinding the placenta into a powder to be put into capsules that mothers can swallow, which is easier than eating a meal of cooked placenta or drinking it blended into smoothies.
In her New York Times article, Nancy Redd writes that taking encapsulated placenta turned out to be "a terrible idea" for her. Shortly after swallowing the first two pills, she reported feeling "jittery and weird." After taking eight placenta pills, she said she was in "tabloid-worthy meltdown mode, a frightening phase filled with tears and rage" that lasted a few days until she stopped taking the pills and immediately felt better. She wrote that she is still not sure what was in the "cleansing herbs" included in her placenta pills and wonders how many women are taking them for postpartum depression "when it very well may be a cause of their mama drama."
Of course, her experience proves no more about placenta-eating than the testimonials of women who say that doing so boosted their moods, relieved fatigue, and otherwise smoothed the sometimes rocky road of new motherhood.
Andrew Weil, M.D.