The term Placenta Encapsulation refers to a form of placentophagy. Placentophagy is human consumption of the placenta (i.e., eating the afterbirth), which may be raw, dried, or cooked. In some cases the placenta may even be steeped in boiling water to make tea. This practice has existed in human societies throughout human history, and placenta encapsulation is a modern method of placenta preparation in which the placenta is steamed, dried, ground up, and “encapsulated” — formed into pills or placed inside edible capsules. It is also not unheard of for the afterbirth to be prepared and drunk as a smoothie, rather than encapsulated.
History of Placenta Encapsulation and Placentophagy
While placentophagy has been with us for as long as humans have been giving birth (and even since before our primate ancestors evolved into human beings), the practice has become less widespread over the last few centuries, and has almost vanished in the modern world. In the 1970s, however, placentophagy began to make something of a comeback, and the practice is sometimes recommended by midwives and by advocates of alternative medicine.
Maternal vs. Non-Maternal Placentophagy
Consumption of the placenta by the mother is, not surprisingly, common among all mammals except marsupials (e.g., kangaroos, opossums) and monotremes (egg-laying mammals such as platypuses and hedgehogs). Nearly all of the more than 4,000 species of mammals that are not marsupials or monotremes engage in maternal placentophagy; humans are one of only a handful of exceptions to this rule.
Consumption of the placenta by other family members or by members of the community, however, is more common to humans than to other species. Numerous ancient cultures, including the ancient Egyptians, are known to have engaged in this practice. Human placenta was also a component of traditional Chinese folk medicine, although the mother was usually not the beneficiary. The placenta was dried, powdered, and stirred into cups of milk in order to combat anemia, weakness, and “Chi exhaustion.” This careful preparation in preference to eating the placenta raw can be considered a forerunner to modern placenta encapsulation.
Benefits of Placenta Encapsulation
Proponents of placenta encapsulation claim that it provides the following benefits:
- Eases postpartum depression and insomnia
- Increases production of breast milk
- Enriches nutritional value of breast milk
- Helps to fight iron deficiency
- Decreases postpartum bleeding
Advocates of placenta encapsulation also claim that the placenta is rich in nutrients, since its function is to transport nutrients to the gestating fetus.
Controversy Over Placenta Encapsulation
Many medical experts dispute the value of placenta encapsulation, however, and point out that research supporting the practice is scarce. In 1971, Professor Mark Kristal of the State University of New York (Buffalo), wrote that, “People can believe what they want, but there’s no research to substantiate claims of human benefit … the cooking process will destroy all the protein and the hormones … [and] Drying it out or freezing it would destroy other things.”
Those who advocate placenta encapsulation — mostly midwives and doulas, many of whom offer paid services to assist with placenta encapsulation — respond to such skepticism by pointing to mountains of anecdotal evidence — claims made by mothers who have eaten their afterbirth and report improvement in their mood, physical health, and general sense of well-being. Many of these women say they have experienced terrible postpartum depression after previous pregnancies, and that placenta encapsulation has spared them from a recurrence of this terrible depression.
Some scientists who have researched this phenomenon say that this is most likely a manifestation of the placebo effect; the faith these women have placed in placenta encapsulation has directly produced the expected result, and the fact that the subjects feel better can be discounted as subjective reporting. That is, they want to believe they feel better, so they convince themselves that they do feel better, and by definition, someone who thinks they feel better does feel better.
The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is looking into the practice of placenta encapsulation now that it is becoming more widespread. The FDA says that those who make claims for the health benefits of placenta encapsulation need to provide well-designed, controlled, and peer-reviewed clinical studies to back those claims.
Risks of Placenta Encapsulation
There are no significant risks involved in maternal consumption of the placenta, and eating the afterbirth is only slightly riskier for others besides the mother, provided the placenta is stored and prepared properly. As with any meat product, the placenta should be refrigerated as quickly as possible and kept refrigerated—or better yet, frozen—until it is consumed, in order to prevent bacterial infection. To minimize health risks to the person eating the afterbirth, it should be cooked thoroughly before it is encapsulated.
While placenta encapsulation and placentophagy do not appear to be dangerous, some hospitals make it their policy not to take any chances, treating the afterbirth as hazardous medical waste and dealing with it accordingly by throwing it out. One hospital in Las Vegas was sued in 2007 after it refused to release the afterbirth to the mother following her emergency C-section (she had planned to have a home delivery). The court ordered the hospital to release the placenta to the mother.
Questions to Ask Your Doctor About Placenta Encapsulation
- Do you believe there is any benefit to eating my baby’s afterbirth? Do you know of any better ways for me to meet my postpartum nutritional needs?
- Will eating the placenta help me avoid postpartum depression?
- Do you believe it is dangerous to eat the afterbirth?