Health professionals are warning new moms that consuming placenta capsules can carry health risks, and there's a lack of oversight in how they're made.
While there is no evidence of any benefit to placentophagy — ingesting the placenta after delivery — many women say it makes them feel better. But the process for regulating the capsules is murky, and they could contribute to spreading infection from mother back to baby.
"We don't really know how it's safe to eat," says Dr. Amanda Selk, a staff obstetrician and gynecologist at Mount Sinai Hospital in Toronto. "We have no way to know what temperature it needs to be heated."
Selk said women who've used placenta told her it improved their mood, energy and hormonal balance and reduced their milk supply if there was too much.
But, as in many areas of medicine, the placebo effect associated with placenta pills can be powerful, in her opinion.
"I think that's what's striking is when people believe something will help them," Selk said. "If you think this will make you feel better or get rid of your pain, having that belief is very important."
Selk also tells patients there are questions about the safety of placenta capsules.
Last week, the American Medical Association tweeted a report published by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that warned about the risk of infection associated with placenta consumption.
An infant in Oregon developed an infection of Group B Streptococcus (GBS) — bacteria his mother had carried without symptoms during her pregnancy. The baby developed signs of respiratory distress and remained in hospital for 11 days.
"The placenta travels the same pathway as the infant, so it is probable that the placenta also became colonized with GBS," Dr. Genevieve Buser, a pediatric infectious disease physician in Providence, Oregon, who published the CDC report, said in an email.
"We don't know for sure, but when mother handled and consumed the pills, she may have unwittingly maintained a high level of GBS.… Perhaps this increased the opportunity for the infant to be reinfected with GBS."
Scientists tested the placenta capsules three weeks after they were prepared and found living bacteria that genetically matched what was growing in the infant's bloodstream.
The researchers couldn't rule out the possibility that other family members contributed to the baby's infection.
Buser called it concerning that placental tissue may be a vector for an infection that can be so serious in infants.
"I would recommend mothers who have this as part of their birth plan to speak with their health care providers regarding the risks," she said. "In fact, there could be other risks such as impeding breastfeeding because the placenta does contain a lot of hormones."
Meaghan Grant, of Toronto Family Doulas, said the Oregon infant's illness highlights the lack of guarantees on temperature and other standards for preparing placentas outside of a client's home.
"The government isn't regulating us, by any means," Grant said. If an issue arises, she said, "It comes down to dissatisfied clients to find out the certifying organization and report the encaspulator, which is a pretty complicated process for people who just had a baby."
Health Canada said a product that contains human placenta meets the definition of a drug under the U.S. Food and Drugs Act if it is manufactured, sold or represented to diagnose, treat or prevent "a disease, disorder or abnormal physical state or its symptoms," or for "restoring, correcting or modifying organic functions."
A spokesperson for Health Canada said the agency encourages anyone who wishes to process human placenta to contact them "to discuss regulatory requirements for obtaining the necessary market authorization," adding it hasn't received any applications.
Susan Stewart of Calgary said she did contact Health Canada. "I've spoken with Health Canada and they weren't really interested in regulating it," she told CBC News.
Stewart said she's been encapsulating placentas for eight years and charges $230 to $260 to make tinctures, salves and pills. Stewart's aim is to improve the bond between mother and child.
"It's a service to a client," she said. "I'm not selling placenta products to the general public. I'm being hired privately by a woman to turn her placenta into pills."
Buser isn't sure it's worth the risk.
"We don't know that this practice is safe," she said, "and could, in fact, endanger mothers and their babies at an important transition."
Health Canada said people who use unauthorized health products do so at their own risk.