Should you or shouldn’t you? (Photo: Getty Images)
It’s a controversial practice that isn’t for the squeamish: Eating your own placenta.
Despite the ick factor, placentophagy, i.e. ingesting placenta postpartum in either raw, cooked, dried, or steeped in liquid form, has found a following among some women, including celebrity moms. “Mad Men” star January Jones says taking capsules made from her own placenta helped her postpartum energy levels, and “Girls” actress Gaby Hoffmann swears her placenta smoothies increased her milk supply. Alicia Silverstone, Mayim Bialk, and Tamera Mowry are also fans.
Proponents of the practice point out that it just makes sense, given that most mammals eat their placenta after giving birth. And there seem to be mental benefits: A 2013 survey of 189 women published in the journal Ecology of Food and Nutrition found that women who eat their own placenta feel that it’s beneficial.
But feeling like placentophagy helps and actually experiencing true health benefits from it are two different things. There has historically been little scientific evidence to back up the practice.
Now, new research published in the journal Archives of Women’s Mental Health has found that there is no evidence that eating placenta is good for your health. For the study, researchers reviewed 10 studies (four human and six animal) and found that the link between placentophagy and better lactation, pain relief, and postpartum depression relief is inconclusive.
This isn’t the only research that sheds doubt on the benefits of eating placenta. A study published last year in the journal Science Translational Medicine also found that the placenta is not as sterile as doctors once thought, containing E. coli and other bacteria, viruses, and fungi. Not only that, but placenta contains levels of mercury, cadmium, and lead, according to a 2012 study published in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives.
While plenty of research exists that questions placentophagy, there may be some nutritional value in eating placenta, certified dietitian-nutritionist Gina Keatley tells Yahoo Health, adding that a dried placenta may contain more than 80 percent protein.
She expresses concern about the heavy metals found in placenta, but notes that placenta contains a “fair amount” of the hormones progestin and estrogen — even though the stomach’s ability to break them down in the digestive tract is unknown.
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Despite placentophagy’s popularity with some new moms, Melissa Goist, MD, an assistant professor and ob/gyn at The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center says she doesn’t recommend it to her patients simply because there isn’t enough literature to back it up.
Many women eat their placenta in an effort to stave off postpartum depression, but Goist says it’s probably not the best way to go. “The key to postpartum depression is to understand and be aware of the risk factors for women,” she tells Yahoo Health, citing poor social support and difficulty with a new mom’s own mother among them. She also says it’s especially important for pregnant women to feel confident in their parenting abilities before they deliver.
While counseling and social support is often the best treatment for women suffering from postpartum depression, Goist says that many will need pharmacological support as well.
As for increasing a new mom’s milk supply, Goist says it’s better to eat plenty of healthy calories (that don’t come from placenta), get good sleep whenever possible, and drink lots of fluids.
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There is currently no published research on randomized, placebo-controlled trials of eating placenta, but there will be in the future: Researchers at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas are currently working on what they say is the first double-blind, placebo-controlled trial on the practice. Their results are expected to be released next year.