Eating placenta: ritual and science
The human placenta is a remarkable organ. Derived entirely from the developing foetus it acts as substitute lungs, stomach, liver and bladder throughout a woman’s pregnancy. Foetal cells (trophoblasts) invade the lining of the woman’s womb, hijacking the maternal blood system to provide her growing baby with oxygen and a means of obtaining food for development as well as a method of waste disposal. After the birth of the baby the placenta is expelled from the mother’s body. It is the only disposable organ ever made.
Following the baby’s birth, the placenta is born and the midwife inspects it, to make sure the membranes are complete and nothing has been left behind. In most instances, she will take it away for incineration, since in the majority of births it is regarded as no more than clinical waste. However, this does not always happen.
Tribes in the Ural Mountains in Russia considered the placenta a caretaker for the baby and provided a warm welcome for it in the shape of a tiny shirt along with the carefully knitted garments for the newborn. Some Maori women in New Zealand believe the placenta must be buried immediately, and that disposing of it in any other way will bring harm on the baby. In Norway, there were mothers who believed the placenta to be a terrible monster that had to be killed by stabbing it, while in Siberia there is a story that when a baby laughs in its sleep it is being visited by the placenta’s soul. In the Old Testament the placenta was thought to be the external soul. Today, a familiar idea in the West is the practice of burying the placenta and later planting a tree which will be nourished by it to celebrate the blossoming of new life.
Food for thought
In 1559 Realdus Columbus named the afterbirth ‘placenta’ after the Latin word for ‘circular cake’ (Williams Obstetrics). And this is where Central European pancakes derive their name: plăcintă (Romanian), Palatschinken (Austrian), palacsinta (Hungarian) and palačinka (Slavic). The German word for placenta is Mutterkuchen, the Dutch moederkoek and the Swedish moderkaka, all of which translate as ‘mother-cake’ and certainly the name suggests they are food?
Placentophagy, or eating the placenta, is, historically and culturally, carried out in order to yield a variety of benefits, nutritious or otherwise. The Chinese respected the placenta as a great life force and in both China and Vietnam mothers customarily consumed their placenta for its medicinal benefits. Rich in nutrients, they believed that it would aid recovery following childbirth.
First it was dried in the oven, then ground up using a mortar and pestle, mixed with food or made into capsules, then ingested.
In Italy, eating parts of the placenta was believed to help mothers produce more breast milk. In Hungary, mothers bit into raw placenta to help stop hemorrhaging, which possibly helped because of the high oxytocin levels. When an Italian mother decided her family was complete, she believed she could render her husband infertile by burning her placenta and mixing the ashes in her husband’s drink. While in parts of Indonesia, the Czech Republic and Morocco, new mothers once believed that eating the placenta guaranteed future fertility.
Eating the placenta was certainly not a universal practice.
Leaving a nasty taste
When Hollywood star Tom Cruise announced to the press his intention of eating his newborn’s placenta it caused a media frenzy. He told a U.S. magazine that he expected it would be ‘very nutritious’. American actress Eva Longoria is rumored to keep her baby face by using an expensive placental face cream containing placenta protein extract.
Chef Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall cooked a placenta on his TV Channel 4 program and served it to guests at a dinner party to celebrate the birth of a baby daughter. He fried the placenta with shallots and garlic, flambéed, puréed and served as a pate on focaccia bread. While there was nothing illegal about what he did, Channel 4 was severely reprimanded by the Broadcasting Standards Commission for showing the program, illustrating that while the practice is revered by some it is still taboo in mainstream Britain.
In Cornelia Enning’s Placenta: The Gift of Life, one mother describes how she decided to eat her placenta because she thought it would help her to be able to breastfeed. She says that on seeing the placenta it ‘smelled tasty and I couldn’t imagine how in the world it could have been something disgusting to me up until then … I tested a small piece after it was rinsed off with salt water … put it straight into my mouth and was surprised to find it tasted like Tartare.’ The mother’s friend reveals that she too had found her own placenta appetizing but had not dared to admit it at the time. The book includes 15 recipes for the use of placenta ointments and essences.
Potential benefits of eating your placenta?
The placenta contains vitamins, such as B6, and minerals that may help fight depression symptoms. It is also rich in iron and protein, stores of which may require replenishing following childbirth due to blood loss. Presumably the many other animals that also eat their placenta do so for its nutritious value.
Research suggests the placenta is rich in chemicals that can help mitigate fluctuations in hormones, which are believed to cause postnatal depression. It appears that the baby blues are directly related to hormone levels and that eating the placenta may raise a mother’s CRH (a stress-reducing hormone) levels, reducing symptoms of postpartum depression.
It has been suggested by those recommending placentophagy that eating the placenta triggers the release of the hormone oxytocin into the bloodstream, enabling the uterus to heal and tone itself quickly after childbirth.
Placenta and amniotic fluid contain a molecule, (placental opioid-enhancing factor) that modifies the activity of internally derived opiate-like substances to suppress pain shortly after and during delivery.
Yet many (count me among them) remain sceptical about the potential benefits of eating one’s own placenta. Consultant obstetrician Maggie Blott, a spokeswoman for the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists dismissed the postnatal depression theory out of hand. In fact, she claimed there’s no medical justification for it at all. ‘Animals eat their placenta to get nutrition—but when people are already well nourished, there is no benefit, there is no reason to do it,’ she said. (BBC 2OO7).
Mark Kristal, a professor at State University of New York-Buffalo—whose 1971 doctoral dissertation focused on why animals eat their placentas—said there was no research to substantiate claims of human benefit and that the cooking process would destroy all the protein and hormones. Drying it out or freezing it would destroy other things. (Friess 2007)
Consumption of uncooked human placenta certainly carries risks associated with other human blood products, primarily risk of hepatitis B, C and HIV infection. However, eating one’s own placenta does not carry such risks and may even appeal to those with an ethical objection to eating animal products since there is no cruelty or slaughter involved.
I can’t confess to having eaten any of my three placentas. I did find them fascinating in a way that surprised me—I am normally squeamish and I did examine them fairly closely—but as a vegetarian the thought of eating anything bloody isn’t appealing to me.
Katherine Robertson, a PhD student in the department of obstetrics and gynaecology at the University of Cambridge School of Clinical Medicine, in an article that appeared in 2008 in New Scientist ‘Placentas—do you like yours rare or well-done?’ wrote that there is evidence that the diseases of adult life, such as heart disease and diabetes, originate from the initial success or failure of the placenta, which holds the key to our good health from the time of conception.
Doesn’t this unique organ deserve to be both celebrated and investigated?
This was first published in Pract Midwife. 2009 Nov;12(10):33-5.