The human placenta is one of the most miraculous things about the most miraculous thing a human body does. This organ, which is responsible for providing nutrients and oxygen to your growing baby and filtering the baby’s blood, is unlike any other organ in the body because it is transient. It just shows up when you get pregnant, and it goes away (after you birth it) when you no longer need it. It is also the only organ that’s not completely your own, even though it grows inside of you.
“It’s half and half. Half of the placenta is mother’s tissue and half is the fetal tissue,” says Mark Kristal PhD, professor emeritus of psychology at the University of Buffalo. This fact, that it’s not even just self-cannibalism, but also actual cannibalism, makes the trend of human mothers eating their placentas seem even weirder, doesn’t it?
Dr. Kristal, who studies studies placentophagia, or the act of eating the placenta after birth, in nonhuman mammals, has become the go-to expert (read: official naysayer) on the placenta-eating phenomenon since it became A Thing again a few years ago. He says that while almost all mammals have an intense basic drive to eat the afterbirth, humans do not seem to have the same drive. In fact, most human women are grossed out by it, and “there must be a reason why,” he says.
And yet, here we are.
While it's true that small amounts of dried human placenta have been used as an ingredient in various Chinese Medicine remedies for centuries, mothers eating their own afterbirth has not been documented in any other human society, outside of a passing fad among hippies on back-to-nature communes in the late-'60s. Modern proponents of the practice — first documented in the early 2000s among woo woo Brooklynites, and then woo woo mom bloggers as well as doulas and midwives all over the country — say eating the organ during those rough postpartum months helps beat the “baby blues,” boosts breast milk production, balances hormones, and offers sleep-deprived new moms much-needed energy. They also argue that since nearly all mammals do it, it is simply a “natural” (and therefore healthy) thing to do. Medical doctors and scientific researchers disagree.
No research has been done on the practice in humans, aside from a single disputed paper from 1954 that found it might improve milk supply. Also, the argument that it’s “natural” is flawed from the start, Dr. Kristal says. “Women do not report any attraction of the placenta when they’re giving birth, unlike other animals that immediately start licking it and eating it. Humans find it very aversive. Something is different about it for humans.”
Still, in the past few years, we’ve heard about new mothers eating their placentas raw, cooking it into a favorite lasagna or spaghetti recipe, blending it into smoothies (as Gaby Hoffmann did), or the most popular tactic for placenta-averse human mothers, freeze-drying it so the placenta can be ground into powder and encapsulated (as Kim Kardashian did).
Proefssional services for placenta encapsulation are popping up everywhere — states like Florida and Tennessee in addition to the usual suspects, New York and California. Texas passed a law in 2015 that protects a woman’s right to take her placenta home from the hospital with her. This summer a Mississippi woman won the right to take her placenta home in court.
Dr. Kristal blames the amplifying powers of social media for the way the practice has caught on lately. “The thing about placenta eating is that this time around, as opposed to late 60s, is that this time around you have the internet and social media,” he says. “People tend to put a lot of value in anecdotal data, which is probably not even a step up from urban legend. And people tend to believe everything they read on the internet.”
Interestingly, though, simply believing in the practice may indeed lead some people who do it to at least perceive some benefits, especially when it comes to that tricky witch known as your mood. “This is the placebo effect, and it’s very powerful,” Dr. Kristal says, adding that depression and other mood disorders are often extremely susceptible to placebos. When I ask if he thinks the placebo effect alone is reason enough to do it, he replies, “That’s the big ethical issue with all placebos: Whether they work the way people think they work or not, does it matter as long as it doesn’t harm them?”
The problem, he continues, is we don’t know for sure whether placenta eating is harmless. There is a huge potential for contamination, due to mishandling or infection. There are hundreds of compounds in the organ, and we have no idea what effect they have when you ingest them, Dr. Kristal says. There may be long-term effects that may not be seen until years later or until the next pregnancy.
It’s also true, however, that there are so far no documented cases of anything horrible happening among the thousands of women who have done it. But still, Dr. Kristal adds: “I’ve had people after I’ve given lectures come up and say ‘I tried it, it made me sick.’ Or ‘I tried it and it did nothing.’ Again these are anecdotal responses. But those are the responses that never get publicized.”
Well, Dr. Kristal, consider your wish granted. Ahead, an interview with a woman who encapsulated her placenta (it’s actually the one pictured), took her pills dutifully, saw no perceivable benefits, and won’t be doing it again after future births. But, twist, she’s still glad she did it.
“It’s like a mom badge or something,” Ly, 33, from New York, NY explains. If you look at it that way, the placenta-eating phenomenon begins to make a little more sense. Giving birth is one of the most transformative human experiences, and the difficulty of the postpartum period varies depending on the person. Doesn’t it make sense that women would grasp for some way, no matter how wacky, to control and perhaps even honor the experience?
Read on to hear more about Ly’s postpartum adventure in placentophagy, and why she has no regrets about eating her placenta.
(One quick note before you do though: No judgment as to however this story inspires you, but if you do end up encapsulating your placenta, please take care to wear gloves while handling it and to follow all proper safety precautions. These photos are meant as illustration, not as a guide.)