Eating Placentas

Laura Curtis of Placentawise in Lindon, Utah, prepares a placenta for a client that will be turned into capsules as a supplement for new mothers. Women really don't know what they are ingesting, researchers say. (Francisco Kjolseth/Associated Press/The Salt Lake Tribune)

Women who eat the placenta after the birth of their baby should know that despite celebrity claims of benefits, a review of the evidence couldn't find any.

Psychiatrist Dr. Crystal Clark's interest in the topic of placenta eating, or placentophagy, began when pregnant and postpartum women in her practice started to ask her about it. Most patients were interested in it for postpartum depression or mood.

To find out about the risks and benefits, she and her Chicago-based team at Northwestern University medical school reviewed four human and six animal studies on placenta consumption.

"Women should know that no matter what they see on TV or even what some of the claims are …currently we have no evidence based on animal or human data that is consistent with these [beneficial] claims," Clark said Friday.

The review, published in the June issue of Archives of Women's Mental Health, found no convincing data to support eating the placenta in either raw, cooked or in pill form boosts milk production, reduces pain in labour or postpartum or prevents or treats postpartum depression.

Other benefits cited by online proponents include more energy, better bonding between mom and baby, an immune system boost, reduced inflammation and anti-aging.

"Celebrities who are choosing to engage in this practice should be clear about the facts and hopefully let the public know it's their choice. But they can't claim medical benefits because they don't know that to be true yet," Clark said.

People should also be aware that placenta pills aren't regulated to ensure they are sterile, she said. 

'Other species may eat their placentas, but this doesn't mean humans should follow suit' - Dr. Jill Rabin 

Dr. Jill Rabin, co-chief of the division of ambulatory care at Women's Health Programs in New Hyde Park, N.Y., does not recommend the practice to her patients.

"Other species may eat their placentas, but this doesn't mean humans should follow suit," Rabin said.

The placenta can contain heavy metals such as cadmium and lead as well as bacteria that could be a concern,  Clark said.

"We have to remember that the placenta is there to nourish the baby during pregnancy and filters toxins so the baby isn't exposed to substances it shouldn't be," Rabin explained. "The risks of eating it are probably small, but we simply don't know."

Clark said she was struck by how much awareness there was about the placenta eating among the general public. While not all midwives advocate placentophagy  or believe in it, Clark said there seemed to be a bias toward the practice among midwives and doulas compared with obstretricians, gynecologists and psychiatrists.  

The review referenced an internet survey of 189 women, including seven per cent from Canada, who said they engaged in the practice. Almost half reported a previous postnatal mood disorder such as depression as their motivation.

Clark hopes the review will open a conversation among advocates, physicians, patients and their families about the need for more data on the risks and benefits of placenta eating. 

With files from HealthDay News