Human placentophagy, or consumption of the placenta, is defined as, “The ingestion of a human placenta postpartum, at any time, by any person, either in raw or altered (e.g., cooked, dried, steeped in liquid) form.” Numerous historical occurrences of placentophagy have been recorded throughout the world, whereas modern occurrences of placentophagy are rare since most contemporary societies do not promote its practice. Since the 1970s, however, consumption of the placenta believing that it has health benefits has been a growing practice among clients of midwives and alternative-health advocates in the U.S. and Mexico. Human placentography is undergoing a small revival in Western cultures, fostered by celebrities like January Jones. Human placentophagy after childbirth is touted by some as a treatment for postpartum depression and fatigue, among other health benefits. However, scientific research provides no evidence that consuming the placenta prevents or treats postpartum depression, and there is inconclusive evidence that it has any health benefits whatsoever. The risks of human placentophagy are also still unclear.
Placentophagy can be divided into two categories, maternal placentophagy and non-maternal placentophagy.
Maternal placentophagy is defined as, “a mother’s ingestion of her own placenta postpartum, in any form, at any time.” Maternal placentophagy most frequently occurs among placental mammals, although it is becoming more common amongst humans in Western cultures. Of the more than 4000 species of placental mammals, there are only a handful that do not regularly engage in maternal placentophagy, including most modern humans.
Non-maternal placentophagy is defined as, “the ingestion of the placenta by any person other than the mother, at any time.” Such instances of placentophagy have been attributed to the following: a shift toward carnivorousness at parturition, specific hunger, and general hunger. With most Eutherian mammals, the placenta is consumed postpartum by the mother. Historically, humans more commonly consume the placenta of another woman under special circumstances.
Historical occurrences of human placentophagy
In a 1979 volume of the Bulletin of the New York Academy of Medicine, William Ober’s article “Notes on Placentophagy,” evaluates the possibility that certain ancient cultures that practiced human sacrifice may also have practiced human placentophagy, including Egyptians, Tasians, Badarians, Amrateans, Gerzeans, Semainians.
Placentophagy might have occurred during the Siege of Jerusalem (587 BC), due to the excessive famine experienced by the Judeans, according to scholar Jack Miles in his Pulitzer Prize-winning God: A Biography. Miles argues that the curse in Deuteronomy 28:56–57, written in the form of prophecy, is far too vivid not to have been seen personally by the author of the verses.
Human placenta has been used traditionally in Chinese medicine, though the mother is not identified as the recipient of these treatments. A sixteenth-century Chinese medical text, the Compendium of Materia Medica, states in a section on medical uses of the placenta that, “when a woman in Liuqiu has a baby, the placenta is eaten,” and that in Bagui, “the placenta of a boy is specially prepared and eaten by the mother’s family and relatives.” Another Chinese medical text, the Great Pharmacopoeia of 1596, recommends placental tissue mixed with human milk to help overcome the effects of Ch’i exhaustion. These include, “anemia, weakness of the extremities, and coldness of the sexual organs with involuntary ejaculation of semen.” Dried, powdered placenta would be stirred into three wine-cups of milk to make a Connected Destiny Elixir. The elixir would be warmed in sunlight, then taken as treatment. It is not known exactly how traditional this remedy was, nor exactly how far back it dates.
Ober also identified many cultures known to have practiced placentophagy for medicinal purposes, and one for its flavor.
The Araucanian Native Americans of Argentina dried and ground a child’s umbilical cord, giving the child a little of the powder when it was sick.
In Jamaica, bits of placental membranes were put into an infant’s tea to prevent convulsions caused by ghosts.
The Chaga of Tanganyika place the placenta in a receptacle for two months to dry. Once dry, it is ground into flour from which a porridge is made. The porridge is served to old women of the family as a way of preserving the child’s life.
In Central India, women of the Kol Tribe eat placenta to aid reproductive function. It is believed that consumption of placenta by a childless woman “may dispel the influences that keep her barren.”
Modern practice of placentophagy is rare, as most contemporary human cultures do not promote its consumption. Placentophagy did receive popular culture attention in 2012, however, when American actress January Jones credited eating her placenta as helping her get back to work on the set of Mad Men after just six weeks.
Despite a general cultural avoidance, however, instances of placentophagy have been recorded among certain modern cultures. In the 1960s “male and female Vietnamese nurses and midwives of Chinese and Thai background consum[ed] the placentas of their young, healthy patients” for reasons unspecified, as reported by a Czechoslovakian medical officer in at the Hospital of Czechoslovak-Vietnamese Friendship in Haiphong. Placentas were stripped of their membranous parts and fried with onions before being eaten.
A more recent cross-cultural ethnographic study by the University of Nevada, Las Vegas Department of Anthropology surveyed over 179 contemporary human societies, and identified only one culture (Chicano, or Mexican-American) that mentioned the practice of maternal placentophagy. This account, centering on Chicano and Anglo midwifery in San Antonio, Texas, stated, "cooking and eating part of the placenta has…been reported by a couple of midwives. One Anglo mother ... was reported to have roasted the placenta." This instance, however, may not be indicative of any larger cultural trends, as no other records of placentophagy were found in the Chicano culture. This same study also recorded three references of non-maternal placentophagy:
- Gullah medicine dictates that when a baby is born with a caul, with amniotic membranes over the face at birth, the placenta is made into a tea and then consumed by the child to “prevent them from seeing spirits that would otherwise haunt [them].”
- Practice of paternal placentophagy was identified in the Malekula of Melanesia. “In Espiritu Santo, the new father [eats] a pudding made from the cooked placenta and blood.”
- Oral administration of the placenta was reported in Sino-Vietnamese medicine to aid the recovery of those suffering from tuberculosis.
In a follow-up study, the UNLV researchers were joined by colleagues at the University of South Florida, who surveyed new mothers, and found that about 3/4 had positive subjective experiences from eating their own placenta, citing beliefs of "improved mood", "increased energy", and "improved lactation".  The authors themselves, however, do state that "exceedingly little research has been conducted to assess these claims and no systematic analysis has been performed to evaluate the experiences of women who engage in this behavior."
Current beliefs among placentophagists
The placenta transports nutrients to the fetus during gestation, as well as producing and regulating hormones and opioids. Proponents of modern placentophagy argue that the placenta retains some of these substances after delivery, and that consumption of the placenta by the mother will help her recover more quickly following childbirth by replenishing nutrients and hormones lost during parturition. One birthing website run by two Minnesota doulas lists possible health benefits including replenishing lost nutrients, increasing milk production, curbing postpartum depression and slowing postpartum hemorrhage. However, scientific study has found very limited and inconclusive evidence for any health benefits of placentophagy. A 2012 study by Michaelle Beacock out of Edge Hill University found that evidence to support midwives' and mothers' reported experiences of placentophagy is limited, dated, and ultimately inconclusive. A 2015 review of placentophagy research since 1950 again found limited and inconclusive evidence for placentophagy's health benefits, while also stating that its potential risks are yet unclear.
In addition to protein and various vitamins, placenta contains high levels of CRH (corticotropin-releasing hormone), known to reduce stress. Though CRH is normally secreted by the hypothalamus, during pregnancy production of CRH by the placenta dramatically increases levels of CRH in the blood stream, which peak at delivery. Even postpartum, the placenta still contains very high levels of CRH, and some believe eating it can bring the mother’s CRH levels back to a healthy range.
Consumption of the placenta is also believed to cause the release of the chemical oxytocin in the brain. Oxytocin stimulates uterine contractions leading to the onset of labor, and after childbirth can also cause the uterus to contract and sooner reach its pre-pregnancy size.
In many areas a placenta encapsulationist can be found to professionally prepare the placenta for consumption. Also, many online alternative health sources give instructions for preparing it personally. One common method of preparation is encapsulation. An encapsulated placenta is steamed, dehydrated, and ground before being put into pills. Less commonly the placenta is drunk raw in a smoothie. Other recipes include lasagna, spaghetti, stew, and pizza.
Many researchers remain skeptical of whether the practice of placentophagy is of value to humans. A 2015 review of the last 64 years of placentophagy research found that while a minority of women in western countries perceive placentophagy as reducing the risk of postpartum depression and enhancing recovery, there is really no evidence that this is the case. The same study also found inconclusive evidence that placentophagy was of any benefit to facilitating urine contraction, resumption of normal cyclic estrogen cycle, and milk production. As well, the authors stated that the risks of placentophagy also warrant more investigation. Professor Mark Kristal of the State University of New York at Buffalo, wrote his doctoral dissertation in 1971 on why animals eat their placentas. He stated, “People can believe what they want, but there’s no research to substantiate claims of human benefit. The cooking process will destroy all the protein and hormones. Drying it out or freezing it would destroy other things.”
It is also worth noting that placenta encapsulation is a somewhat pricey endeavour, at roughly $200.
Nevertheless, a number of midwives, doulas, and mothers who practice placentophagy claim that consuming their placentas has helped recover from childbirth in a variety of ways.
There is a risk of spreading blood-borne illness, only present in cases of non-maternal placentophagy, where the mother’s blood is shared with another human. As a meat, proper storage and preparation procedures must be followed to prevent bacterial infection in the placenta. Researchers assert that the risks of placenta consumption still warrant further investigation.
- Young, Sharon; Benyshek, Daniel (2010). "In Search of Human Placentophagy: A Cross-Cultural Survey of Human Placenta Consumption, Disposal Practices, and Cultural Beliefs". Ecology of Food and Nutrition (Taylor & Francis Online) 49 (6): 467–84. doi:10.1080/03670244.2010.524106.
- Beacock, Michelle (2012-07-01). "Does eating placenta offer postpartum health benefits?". British Journal of Midwifery 20 (7): 464–469. doi:10.12968/bjom.2012.20.7.464. ISSN 0969-4900.
- "January Jones Eats Her Own Placenta". ABC News. https://plus.google.com/108686021205441482363. Retrieved 2015-11-08.
- "Placentophagy: therapeutic miracle or myth?". Archives of Women's Mental Health. October 2015. doi:10.1007/s00737-015-0538-8.
- Ober, William B. (1979). "Notes on Placentophagy". Journal of Urban Health 55 (6): 591–99. PMC 1807646. PMID 111747.
- Miles, Jack (2011). God: A Biography. Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group. p. 146. ISBN 9780307789136.
The sickening image of a woman fighting with her husband and children over who will eat her afterbirth is just the kind of unimaginable detail that only the actual experience can provide a writer.
- Bawany, Afsha (February 27, 2013). "Steamed, Dehydrated or Raw: Placentas May Help Moms’ Post-Partum Health. UNLV anthropology survey examines why women consume their placentas after childbirth.". UNLV News Center. Retrieved March 25, 2013.
- J. Selender, A. Cantor, S. Young, and D. Benyshek. "Human Maternal Placentophagy: A Survey of Self-Reported Motivations and Experiences Associated with Placenta Consumption" (PDF). Ecology of Food and Nutrition. Retrieved March 25, 2013.
- Stein, Joel (3 July 2009). "Afterbirth: It's What's For Dinner". Time Magazine. Retrieved 5 December 2011.
- Freiss, Steve (19 July 2007). "Ingesting the Placenta: Is It Healthy for New Moms?". USA Today. Retrieved 5 December 2011.
- Apari P, Rózsa L (2006), "Deal in the womb: fetal opiates, parent-offspring conflict, and the future of midwifery" (PDF), Medical Hypotheses 67 (5): 1189–1194, doi:10.1016/j.mehy.2006.03.053, PMID 16893611
- Biermeier, Sarah. "The Placenta-an Unappreciated Organ". Geneabirth. Retrieved 5 December 2011.
- Thomson, Murray (2008). "The Effects of Placental Corticotrophin Releasing Hormone on the Physiology and Psychology of the Pregnant Woman". Current Women's Health Reviews (Bentham Science) 4 (4): 270–279. doi:10.2174/157340408786848197.
- Hall, Harriet. Eating Placentas: Cannibalism, Recycling, or Health Food? Science-Based Medicine, March 8, 2011
- Watson-Smyth, Kate. Placenta chef accused of cannibalism. The Independent, 22 January 1998
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