When I was pregnant with my first child, I experienced many new and strange things.
Of course there was the usual strangeness of my body transforming as a small human took form inside of me. Fluctuating hormones had me craving bone broth and raw butter – two new foods for me at the time. Then the kicking and rolling and hiccups began as the little one grew. Midwives, birth plans, strollers, diapers, slings, and perineal massage all brought their own novelties and wonder.
Then there was the the idea of eating my placenta. As a practitioner of Chinese medicine, I didn't find the idea of eating your placenta as foreign as you might imagine. In Chinese ‘herbal' medicine, human placenta or “zi he che” was first recorded for medicinal use in 741 A.D. and has been used through the centuries to treat infertility, postpartum weakness, hormone imbalance, insufficient lactation, congenital deficiencies, and recovery from chronic illness. (source)
But still, the idea of eating my own placenta? I wasn't so sure.
What is a placenta, anyway?
The placenta is an organ that begins to form at conception in a woman's uterus and connects to baby via the umbilical cord. The placenta serves to deliver nutrition, exchange blood supply, and share immunity between a mother's body and the fetus.
“The composition of [placenta] is extremely complex. The main components include protein, amino acids, enzymes, and hormones (HCG, prolactin, oxytocin, thyroid-stimulting hormone, and sex hormones” (Chen 917).
After a baby is born, the placenta (or after-birth) detaches from the mother's uterus and, with a few contractions, usually follows the baby out of the birth canal. In western hospital settings, placentas are typically incinerated. In some cultures, it is tradition to bury the placenta in the earth and plant a tree in its place. And then there's eating it…
The benefits of eating your placenta
Most mammals in nature consume their own placenta for replenishment of nutrients after birthing their young, and possibly for protection from predators or for pain relief compounds. While humans don't need to prevent themselves from becoming prey, the nutritional demands during the postpartum period are high, even for a well-nourished mother. Postpartum depression, fatigue, and low milk supply can come on fast and strong.
Reported benefits of consuming placenta include:
- Reduced postpartum bleeding
- Faster, more efficient healing
- More energy to care for new baby
- Prevention and treatment of postpartum depression and other emotional imbalances
- Healthy and strong skin, hair and nails
- Increases milk supply
While some experts claim that there is no reason for humans to consume their own placentas (source), more and more mothers today are opting to revive this ancient tradition in the name of postpartum wellness.
Sort of gross, no?
Well, actually, a placenta is a pretty beautiful thing. Symbolically it represents the bond between mother and child. And a healthy placenta is stunning too – deep red, purple and white intermeshed with a network of blood vessels. (I promise, internet snapshots do placentas no visual justice). But we're not talking about looks… what about eating one?
To be fair, there are plenty of foods that can seem disgusting taken out of context. I once dined at a raw vegan restaurant that included a long-winded anti-meat diatribe in their menu, demonizing eggs as the menstruation of birds. While this doesn't make much sense since birds simply do not menstruate, nonetheless, it still rocked my relationship to eggs for a brief time.
It stands to reason that the ick-factor is really all in perception, and luckily, a new mom need not sit down with a knife and fork with her raw placenta on a plate to benefit from its consumption…
How to prepare placenta
There are several preparations for placenta, each with it's own benefits and drawbacks:
Probably the most common and user-friendly way to consume placenta is through encapsulation, and there are two main methods used. In the Traditional Chinese Medicine method the organ is sliced, steamed with herbs, dehydrated, ground into powder, and packed into capsules (as pictured above with my first born's heart shaped umbilical cord). This preparation creates a ‘warming' and ‘tonifying' medicine that nourishes blood and restores energy.
Alternatively, the placenta is sliced and dried at a temperature not to exceed 118 degrees Fahrenheit. Some prefer the raw dehydration because all of the enzymes and nutrients are preserved with this method, and women who have consumed the raw capsules often report a rush of energy when taking them. Because of this, it is advised to take the raw placenta capsules at a low dosage – one per day in the morning if a mama is feeling weepy or low energy.
Even with the steamed method, it is advisable to start of with a small dose of placenta pills – no more than 1-3 capsules per day, possibly working up to 6 capsules throughout the day if necessary. After my first birth, I did not heed this warning, swallowed about twelve caps in one day, proceeded to have an emotional meltdown (like this woman) and then refused to take any more. But after my second birth, I cautiously followed instructions and found that one pill up to three times per day helped me to feel emotionally stable as well as counteract the fatigue caused from birthing, nursing, and many mounting nights of staccato sleep.
Many midwives, doulas, and other birth practitioners offer placenta encapsulation as a service. While not free of charge, I highly recommend seeking out someone to do this for you, not only for their expertise, but also because the last thing a new mom needs to do is stand in the kitchen preparing her placenta.
Some believe that consuming placenta raw, soon after birth (like our other mammal friends), will yield the most benefits. Recently I had a patient who, despite her long-term commitment to a vegan diet, opted to drink raw placenta smoothies to prevent the severe postpartum depression she experienced after her first pregnancy. Now with a six week old newborn, her energy and mood have been far better than this time around than with her first pregnancy. Her milk production is abundant, and the baby is thriving.
Apparently strong berry flavors and deep colors can go a long way in disguising the ‘meaty' component of a placenta smoothie and there are many recipes online if you choose to go this route to eat your placenta.
While I have some concern about the intensity of consuming the entire raw placenta in one go, still, I might opt for this preparation if I had lost a larger than normal amount of blood during labor, I had reason to suspect I may need super-powered postpartum support, or placenta encapsulation was not an affordable or practical option. Even so, it might be nice to also have some placenta capsules for that inevitable dip a month or so after baby is born.
For those who cannot stomach the idea of raw organ meat, and encapsulation is not an option, incorporating the placenta into a meat dish is a third possibility. Awhile back, Mothering Magazine did an article on recipes ranging from Placenta Cocktail to Placenta lasagna or Pizza – you can find them here.
Beyond the capsules, smoothies, and food recipes, you can also have your placenta made into a tincture, essence, or homeopathic remedy as discussed at Placenta Apothocary.
Regardless of what you decide, be sure to let your birth team know in advance if you want to keep your placenta. Most hospitals will allow for this if you sign a waiver, but make sure someone (other than the birthing mom) is in charge of advocating for this choice when the time comes.
Would you consider eating your placenta, or have you done so? What was your experience?
Chen, John K. and Tina T. Chen. Chinese Medical Herbology & Pharmacology. Art of Medicine Press, City of Industry, CA: 2004.
Mothering Magazine, September 1983, Vol. 28, pg 76
Why Eat Placenta? BBC News.com