Placentophagy. Eating your baby’s placenta. Whaaaat?! In a move that is just a tiny step away from cannibalism, some midwives and natural heath advocates recommend that a new mother consume her baby’s placenta to facilitate a faster and easier recovery, increase milk production, decrease bleeding and decrease the incidence of Postpartum Depression (PPD). While many traditional cultures revere the placenta as sacred, there are very few, if any, modern cultures that promote cooking it up for dinner. However, placenta encapsulation (making pills of dried, ground placenta) is gaining popularity with the natural birth crowd. Does placenta encapsulation (and ingestion) help a mama beat the baby blues? How does it work, and is it worth it?
- Better for you – research has shown placenta contains tons of iron and important hormones that have been shown to increase energy, decrease pain, and fight postpartum depression in new mothers (source and source 2).
- Better for baby – research shows placenta ingestion promotes milk production (source)
- Comes from a trusted source – YOU! No added chemicals, fillers, etc.
- Actually works! – 75% of mothers who take placenta pills had positive experiences, citing “improved mood”, “increased energy”, and “improved lactation” (source)
- The “ick” factor – placenta pills are not for the faint of heart!
- Takes planning to make the pills: you either need have all the materials to do it yourself (one day after giving birth), have a REALLY good friend do it for you, or hire a professional ahead of time
- Can be expensive – plan on spending between $150 and $350 to have someone else do it, depending on the part of the country you live in.
- If not having a homebirth, it can be difficult to get your placenta from the hospital (tips for getting your placenta home here)
- Pills tend to have a “meaty” flavor that will turn your stomach if you think about it too much
- You can’t tell ANYONE!! Seriously. People will judge you, and never forget you’re that crazy lady who ate her placenta. (Before this post, no one in my entire family knew about me doing this…)
In my review of homebirthing (part 1 and part 2), I talked about the reasons that my husband and I decided that home birth delivery of our children was the right choice for us. What I didn’t talk about was what happens to the placenta…
About a month before my first baby was born, the midwife stopped by for a home visit. This was her chance to make sure everything was set at our home for the birth: house generally clean, and all birth supplies in order. As I was giving her the tour of our apartment I casually said, “I’ve been meaning to ask… what happens to the placenta? Do you take it with you?”
“No”, she answered. “I’ll leave the placenta in your freezer”
“…. and what the HECK am I supposed to do with it?!!”, I sputtered. I was in shock. I had assumed she would put it in the dumpster, or take it with her for special bio-hazard disposal. Placentas are good on the inside, but scary and gross once they no longer have a baby attached, right? Right?!
“Well, some people like to plant it under a special tree, or use it to make placenta prints. Others have it made into placenta pills.”
“Hmmm”, I said, rolling my eyes internally about those crazy ladies who eat their placentas.
After she left, I started thinking more about my placenta-in-freezer conundrum. I would have to do something with it. Planting it under a tree wouldn’t really work as we were living in an apartment at the time. Placenta prints involve handling the bloody placenta just to make keepsake artwork. I’m not a very sentimental person, so that didn’t seem worth it. Then I started digging into any info I could find about placenta pills.
Placenta encapsulation is the official term for making pills out of your placenta. Basically, you cook your placenta, usually by steaming or boiling. Often it is cooked along with ginger, lemon, and jalapeno – some kind of Traditional Chinese Medicine influence there. Then the placenta is sliced into strips, dehydrated, ground to a powder and placed into gelatin capsules.
There is a lot of information about the good stuff contained in a placenta, including:
- Gonadotrophin: the precursor to estrogen, progesterone and testosterone,
- Prolactin: promotes lactation,
- Oxytocin: for pain and bonding; produced during breastfeeding to facilitate bonding of mother and infant. In pharmaceutical form this is a very addictive drug because it promotes a feeling of connectedness with others,
- Thyroid stimulating hormone: boosts energy and helps recovery from stressful events,
- Cortisone: combats stress and unlocks energy stores,
- Interferon: stimulates the immune system to protect against infections,
- Prostaglandins: anti-inflammatory,
- Hemoglobin: replenishes iron deficiency and anemia, a common postpartum condition,
- Urokinase inhibiting factor and factor XIII: stops bleeding and enhances wound healing,
- Gammaglobulin: immune booster that helps protect against postpartum infections.
And those who promote placenta encapsulation report that the benefits are many:
- contain your own natural hormones
- be perfectly made for you
- balance your system
- replenish depleted iron
- give you more energy
- lessen bleeding postnatally
- been shown to increase milk production
- help you have a happier postpartum period
- hasten return of uterus to pre-pregnancy state
- be helpful during menopause
All these things started to really make sense to me. I’ve known that mammals almost always eat the placentas of their young shortly after birth. But the picture was starting to become clearer: perhaps the placenta really did contain tons of extra nourishment which was meant to help the new mama through the postpartum period! While I couldn’t stomach the idea of eating placenta raw, or in some other meaty dish, placenta powder in pill form seemed doable. And even if it didn’t work, there was no evidence anywhere to suggest it could be harmful.
And just like that, I became one of those crazy ladies who eats their placenta. (In restrospect, this was probably the true turning point in my crunchy journey, when I officially left the mainstream). Before you judge me too much, I’d like to share the anecdotes of my three placentas.
Placenta #1: Showing Off
For my first birth, I decided that I could totally save $300 and do the encapsulation myself. I watched a couple videos on YouTube, and made sure I had all the needed supplies on hand (lemon, ginger, jalapeno, gelatin capsules, parchment paper, mini food processor). I had a friend come over to help in case I needed it, but she mostly just chatted with me, and stirred the pot while I nursed the newborn.
I used my oven to dry the placenta, because I don’t have a dehydrator, and ground up the placenta with a mini food processor. (You could also use a spice mill or an old school mortar and pestle). Then I scooped the powder into gelatin capsules. This part took the longest. Overall, it was really easy to make the capsules. Here’s a quick video that shows you a time lapse of placenta encapsulation. Note that almost all of this can be done sitting down, which is of vital importance in those first days after delivery.
Starting on the second day postpartum, I took 2 pills with every meal for the first couple of weeks, then 1 pill with every meal, then slowly stopped as they ran out around the six week mark.
I felt AMAZING! Within a few days I was out and about with my husband picking up new baby things. When the babe was a week old I spent the day baking cookies for a friend’s baby shower, and drove myself over to the party. There was plenty of milk for the baby. I had more energy than I’d had in months. I never, not once, felt a moment of blueness or overwhelm. I felt so great! So great, in fact, that I was too active, and ripped out a couple stitches and had to be re-stitched 10 days postpartum. That wasn’t great. “It’s a six week recovery!” my midwife fussed at me, as she grounded me to my apartment for the next couple weeks. “But I feel so great…” I lamely protested.
During that time I had two other friends in our close community who delivered their first babies as well. Everyone continually commented to me how well I seemed to be doing. Not that the other mamas were having any significant problems. It was just noticeable to others how exceptionally quickly I had recovered. As one very blunt friend who knew my secret put it: “You’re doing so much better! I don’t care what anyone says. That sh*# works!!”
I was so pleased with the results that I not only convinced two close friends to take placenta pills, but I actually cooked their placentas for them! I was a believer!
Placenta #2: Placenta Encapsulation Fail
After my second was born, I had a friend come over to help me again. As my newborn insisted on being held every second she was awake, my (super awesome) friend did most of the work. She left the placenta drying in the oven for me to grind and encapsulate the next day. Then I forgot about it until my husband pre-heated the oven for dinner. I remembered when I smelled the burning meat. Nooooooo! Almost all of the placenta had burned up: only a few pieces were salvageable.
I was really upset. I had experienced a traumatic birth, was having trouble breastfeeding, my toddler was clinging to me more than ever, the baby wouldn’t ever let us put her down and now my happy pills were lost. I made about about two dozen pills with what was left, but didn’t really take them regularly. I kindof didn’t “trust” them to work as the placenta had been mishandled. As more baby woes came (fight with pediatrician about treatment, unnecessary family drama, serious postpartum hemorrhage, continued breastfeeding trouble) I spiraled into Postpartum Depression.
Postpartum depression is a topic for another day, but the short story is that I was sick. It was not a mind over matter thing. It was not a lack of faith as some in the Christian community have been taught. I was really sick in the head. And on those few days when I remembered to take the placenta pills, the sun came out. I was a different person inside and out. I could do life again!
As I slowly began recovering from EVERYTHING, the dark fog around me started to clear. I was deliberate in taking the pills I had left, and I feel they were a good jump start to recovery. Unfortunately, they ran out all too soon. I felt the lingering effects of PPD well through the first year of the new baby’s life. I’ve always wondered if things would have been different if the placenta had not been lost.
(Note: If you are interested, my postpartum depression story is profiled in the book Spirit-Led Parenting: From Fear to Freedom in Baby’s First Year. I highly recommend this book for all first time mamas!)
Placenta #3: Making it All Look So Easy
When my third was on the way I made the executive decision that I would have someone else prepare my placenta pills. Since it’s not really the kind of thing you ask friends to do, I found a local herbalist who would do it for $300. Really expensive, but we decided it was worth it because 1) I was going to do everything possible to not get PPD this time, 2) I didn’t want to risk losing the placenta again, and 3) I couldn’t participate in preparing the placenta at all because part of our “Keep Victoria Healthy” plan included me not leaving the bedroom for the first week. Amazingly, a dear friend offered to pay for the encapsulation, noting that I had prepared one of her placentas and she wanted to return the favor. What a blessing!!
The herbalist, or “placenta girl” as my preschooler called her, picked up the placenta from my home the day after I delivered and returned with a bag full of pills two days later. I started taking them immediately with every meal, as I had after my first delivery. And once again, I felt GREAT!!
Now that my new baby is 2 months old, I can say that this recovery was by far the easiest! Life has carried on as usual with little interruption. As part of the “Keep Victoria Healthy” plan mentioned above, I’ve been taking lots of extra real food supplements, been deliberate in taking it easy and getting lots of rest, and faithfully took the placenta pills for the first few weeks before slowly tapering off. I took them for a shorter time, because honestly, I didn’t feel as if I needed them for as long. That being said, I’ve been blessed with the world’s easiest baby. She’s a great nurser, and an even better sleeper. Having a baby as easy as this one has gone a long way in speeding my recovery.
I think placenta pills are very valuable and effective. However, I now consider them to be one tool of many on the road to optimal postpartum healing. When I reflect on all that happened after my second birth, I don’t think the addition of placenta pills would have turned everything into sunshine and rainbows. There were many struggles happening all at the same time, and while placenta would likely have helped in the severity of my feelings, I don’t think I would have been just fine. And with my third, I’ve been feeling amazing, but I am also getting almost a full night sleep every night. That goes a long way toward helping my body and mind heal.
If you are considering placenta encapsulation, you can do it yourself, or find a specialist to do it for you. (Make sure anyone else preparing your placenta doesn’t add any special goodies or you could regret it like this lady). Google will be a big help in giving you all the information you need. If you are even a little bit interested, I encourage you to learn more. You will be glad that you did!!
Have you ever heard of or considered placenta encapsulation? How do You feel about the idea?
PS – You know I’m not a doctor, right? This information is based on my experience only and is not intended to diagnose, prevent or treat any medical condition. Your experience may vary. Please remember to speak with your healthcare professional about any medical concerns you have, and follow their recommended course of treatment. You can read additional fine print details here.