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Placenta Encapsulation: Why not?

August 29, 2011

(A note of caution: this post is not for the faint of heart or stomach.)

I am glad that I have a long time before I have to make any actual decisions about Baby. If, when, how (birth plan) and what (stuff, stuff and more stuff) can all be decided much later. Including a good year to decide how I feel about little suggestion that shocked the heck out of me:

Eat the placenta. Or, rather, swallow it in pill form. It could prevent postpartum depression.

WHAT? Oh, wait, don’t most mammals actually do this? Where did I learn that? I don’t know. But I don’t remember hearing about human women doing this until yesterday, and it’s already cropped up in about four places since then. So I thought I’d post it here and see what you all think. (The placenta, by the way, is basically what feeds and protects the fetus during gestation. In some cases, it can even protect a fetus from contracting things like HIV from an infected mom. It’s a seriously awe-inspiring organ. And it is “birthed” a few minutes after the baby is born. It’s considered biohazardous waste in the US and hospitals dispose of it as such.) New York Magazine talked about monkeys and other mammals eating the “after birth” and described the process of “placenta encapsulation” in this pretty fantastic article. They also describe burying it and planting a tree over it, which sounds kind of awesome, actually. The “encapsulation” part is the only resin, I’m even considering ingesting a bodily organ that *I* will produce, by the way. I am soooo not brave enough to do what woman in the article says she did–make it into a smoothie and drink it down with some banana mixed in.

Ok, grossed out yet? I am! But if you choose the encapsulation, you don’t do it yourself. You find someone, usually through a midwife, doula or an organization called Placenta Benefits, to take away the after-birth in a safe container. That person then gives it back in pill form. You can read the NYMag article if you want more details. According to that same article, scientists aren’t sure why mammals do this, but they have a few theories. Giving birth is hard. Pregnancy is tough on the female body. The placenta, it turns out, has a lot of the same nutrients that get depleted during pregnancy and childbirth.

But here’s the piece from Bamboo Family Magazine that really convinced me to take this seriously:

“Powdered placenta has been used in traditional Chinese medicine for centuries.  In the postpartum period, placenta capsules can be used to

  • Balance hormones
  • Increase energy
  • Increase and enrich breast milk.
  • Decrease the baby blues and postpartum depression.
  • Decrease in lochia, postpartum bleeding.
  • Decrease iron deficiency.
  • Decrease insomnia or sleep disorders.”

And here is what my nutritionist, Jan Katzen-Luchenta, had to say about it when I emailed her:

“Fe, Cu and Zn [Iron, Copper and Zinc] elements appear to have interactive connections in human placenta. The primary essential fatty acid in the placenta is Arachidonic Acid – brain growth. So with Mom being a bit depleted from childbirth – not a bad thing to eat the placenta for extra nutrients. All trace minerals are essential.”

Placenta Benefits.info (PBi) sells this a little too hard, in my opinion, and it’s a bit off-putting. But if this claim is true, I’m listening anyway:

Eighty percent of women experience some sort of postnatal mood disorder, the mildest of which is called the “baby blues”. Symptoms of the baby blues include weepiness, sadness and anxiety, and these negative emotions can last for the first several weeks of the new baby’s life. With proper preparation, the majority of women can avoid the baby blues.”

How do they know this? Why, they have research. Scientific research, of course. Here are just some of the articles their site links to:

  Placenta Increases Milk Production
  Placenta ingestion for pain relief
  Placentophagy alters hormone levels
  Postpartum Depression attributed to low levels of CRH
  Maternal iron deficiency affects postpartum emotions
  Fatigue linked to Postpartum Depression
  Iron supplementation helps fatigue
  The significance of postpartum iron deficiency

Low milk production, pain (yes, it hurts after you give birth, sometimes, a lot, and breast-feeding can hurt, too), the crazy drop in pregnancy hormones and fatigue might all contribute to a low mood. It makes sense that if taking placenta capsules can increase the minerals my nutritionist mentioned and increase milk while decreasing pain, it would help with PPD. And in case it’s not super obvious, I am at REALLY high risk for PPD, PPOCD and quite a few other acronyms.

According to the NYMag article the science out there is pretty small-scale and inconclusive. Ask any woman who has done this, however, and her anecdotal evidence might convince you. And you know what? “It’s just a placebo effect” is not a convincing argument against doing this, because if it’s all in my head, who cares? My mood changes drastically because of what’s in my head all the time! I got stressed out because I put my underwear on inside-out one day last week. The knowledge that no one could possibly know this did not keep me from feeling anxious about what they might think if they did know that I was paying no attention that morning. That is the kind of thing that can throw off my whole day. If taking a happy pill only makes me happy because I think it will, then sign me up anyway. Seriously, though, thinking happy thoughts is an over-simplified way of stating it, but positivity has some serious benefits when it comes to treating mood disorders. I have seen it. Optimistic people overcome serious mental illness a lot better than pessimistic people.

In fact, there is no convincing argument against placenta encapsulation at all. The people who take your money to do it are performing a service I certainly don’t want to do myself, and they tend to be really passionate believers. So I don’t feel like that’s a scam at all. And despite sounding really gross and “akin to cannibalism” it’s something that’s just going to get thrown out if you don’t want to use it. So here’s the analogy I’ve come up with:

If I were in the desert and dying of dehydration, would I drink my own urine to survive? You bet. (Doesn’t the British survival show guy do that in like every other episode?) If I’m dying inside and feeling hopeless and these pills can be taken safely, help me breastfeed AND help with hormone changes, two major factors for new moms at risk for PPD… why wouldn’t I? It’s an odor-less, tasteless pill no bigger than a vitamin supplement. The Pill (the kind that’s meant to prevent pregnancy) used to contain hormones from the urine of pregnant horses. Do you know what’s in your medicine cabinet? I’m just saying.

The question that keeps banging around inside my head is this: do I have a good reason not to do this? If there is any small chance it could help?

Now do you understand why I’m glad I’ve got plenty of time to get used to the idea?

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9 Comments leave one →
  1. August 30, 2011 1:08 am

    Sorry – the only way I eat organs is after plenty of scotch and in the form of haggis. Somehow, I don’t think these sites would get behind that idea… And the scotch would probably cancel out the effects of the placenta…

    • August 30, 2011 9:28 am

      Well, it would at least cancel out the benefits of any milk produced!

  2. judy permalink
    August 30, 2011 10:59 am

    I found this article very interesting! After growing up on a farm and watching many births I never thought about it, but you are right, animals do eat the afterbirth. It was so natural it was not in my consciousness. I know in the hospital after a human birth the doctors are very concerned with checking the placenta, it tells a lot about the health of the baby. The placenta is extremely important for the mother/baby bond before birth so why not after. Hence it being called the afterbirth for a reason, you may need it after the birth! So I don’t think it is so unreasonable to believe it contains vital nutrients. How to make them palpable that is the question! What is the process? How long does it take? How many capsules do you take? How do you store them? How long are they good for? How long should you take them? How many do you get out of your placenta? Very important -Who is regulating this process- is it state licensed / accredited? What is the cost for this? It is good you have lots of time to research this very interesting idea, one worthy of your time.

    • August 30, 2011 3:24 pm

      Basically, the placentabenefits.info people certify someone, meaning that if you choose a member of that org to do it, they know how. That nymag piece goes into detail, but it is essentially cooked and then freeze dried. The lady in the article uses a magic bullet blender to grind the powder and a home pill kit to fill and seal the capsules. If stored properly, I get the impression they last for a very long time-a year? Longer? A lady in northern CT does it, so I guess I’ll call her to get more questions answered when it’s time!

    • August 30, 2011 3:26 pm

      Oh and I read somewhere you take one three times a week or something like that.

  3. Alyce permalink
    August 30, 2011 3:13 pm

    I heard about placenta eating years ago on NPR, and frankly, I think it’s a great idea. I don’t think it’s gross, especially if you’re taking it in pill form.

    Also, I love your blog. I appreciate the fact that you are so candid. Miss you sweet pea.

    • August 30, 2011 3:19 pm

      Thank you for reading, Lycee! Seriously, if I am holding your attention I must be doing something right. As for candid-I was complaining that no one was writing or talking about the anxiety stuff as a PRE-pregnancy issue. Might as well start the conversation myself! And now that I’ve written those posts, nothing makes me shy!

  4. Margaret Garte permalink
    August 31, 2011 8:05 am

    I have been hearing more and more about this over the last year, from a few Doulas that I am acquainted with, all of whom I really respect. My decidedly left-brain nature (coupled with Jeff’s) dictates that I give birth in a hospital, under the supervision of a medical doctor and with every possible emergency resource nearby, just incase. Nonetheless, I believe Doulas and Midwives have a tremendous amount of wisdom and value to add to the birthing process. It becomes pretty clear how vital the placenta is, pretty early on (I have no idea how to grow or sustain a fetus, so good thing the good ‘ole placenta took care of that for me!), so this whole notion makes a lot of sense to me. It also seems that the cost of encapsulation is well worth it for anyone concerned about any of the above-mentioned postpartum issues. As a separate, but somewhat related analysis, we decided with both of our children, to invest in banking their cord blood. We are fairly confident in the research, and decided for us, the high cost is worth it. If consuming the placenta can eliminate some postpartum issues, or even some concern about the possibility, it would consequently allow you to redirect that energy to your newborn. Priceless!

    • August 31, 2011 9:55 am

      You are the sweetest! Just FYI, the specific placenta I read about in NYMag was from a hospital birth. You can make the hospital sign something saying they will give it back to you, and then you sign something saying you won’t do something unsafe with the “biohazard” and unless they break the contract (which has happened) they’ll hand it over to the doula or whoever in a cooler! Cord blood banking is hugely related (it did seem like a separate post, though) because if you’ve thought about cord blood enough to bank it, you’re more likely consider placenta encapsulation, so the two movements are growing together. You are right–it is allllll about how to give more to the newborn! So that’s why I titled this “Why Not?” If it might help just maybe I have to do it just in case it does help just a little.
      And I could totally end up in a hospital bed with (gasp!) an epidural. I don’t know yet, and I’m not even pregnant, so who knows what I’ll feel like having around me to give me peace of mind? That is what it’s all about, I think, if you’re not “high risk”, when you’re choosing a birth plan. Home birth sounds good to me, partly because I was born at home and everyone who was there just says it was the most beautiful, loving experience (except my sister who says that before it was loving it was GROSS). But that’s a looonnggg way off.

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