Are Placenta Pills Safe? The Research on Benefits + Risks
What are placenta pills and why do some women take them? Today, we’re talking all about the safety of placenta consumption and the research on the benefits and risks of consuming it.
What Does the Placenta Do?
If you’re familiar with the ins and outs of pregnancy (or at least with the ins…) you probably know what the placenta is. For those of you that don’t, the placenta is an organ that develops in the uterus during pregnancy and attaches to the umbilical cord. The placenta’s job is to carry out important prenatal functions such as providing baby with oxygen and vital nutrients, filtering waste, fighting infection, and providing hormones needed during pregnancy.
After birth, the placenta is shed from the uterus and released from the body in what is often called the third stage of labor. In the event of a C-section, the placenta is removed along with the baby. In some cultures, women choose to bury their placenta. While this might sound weird, it sure sounds normal compared to the fact that some women eat their placenta. Yep, there’s even a name for it – placentophagy.
After learning about this somewhat disturbing yet intriguing topic, I had to dig into the research to determine whether or not I missed out by not consuming my placenta on my first birth experience and whether I should whip it up into a stir fry this time.
So, are there any benefits to placenta pills, or is this just a cannibalistic craze? Let’s dive in and see what the science has to say.
Is Placentology Common? Do Animals Eat their Placenta?
Although some animals practice placentophagy, the practice is very rare among humans. Despite what proponents would have you believe, consuming the placenta is not a common practice in any society worldwide, currently or historically. The rise in popularity of this practice has been among a minority of American, European, and Australian women. Since 2009, Google searches for “placenta encapsulation” increased 100-fold.
What are placenta pills?
The placenta can be eaten raw, cooked, or even blended into smoothies, but the most common form of placentophagy is in pill form. While placenta pills are typically consumed only by the new mother, they have also been used in Chinese medicine with claims to nourish the blood, improve lactation, and even treat anemia and infertility.
How are placenta pills made?
Placenta pills are made by steaming, drying, pulverizing, and encapsulating the pills. New mothers typically contact a placenta encapsulation provider to have their placenta turned into pills.
Does Research Support the benefits of placenta pills?
Placenta consumption is often touted by midwives or alternative health practitioners who claim that the placenta contains essential nutrients and can help combat postpartum depression. Other claims include increased energy and decreased postpartum vaginal bleeding.
Unfortunately, research does not support these claims.
The belief that placenta pills can increase energy stems from the claim that consuming the placenta increases iron stores. However, while the placenta does contain iron, it is unknown how much is actually absorbed and evidence for using the placenta to treat postpartum anemia is lacking. The safest and most reliable treatment for iron deficiency is supplementation.
Another claim is that the placenta serves as a mood-enhancer due to the B vitamins it contains. Like with iron though, we don’t know if the placenta contains enough B vitamins to have a mood-enhancing effect. And since there is uncertainty regarding both the amount of B vitamins contained in the processed placenta and their role in the treatment of postpartum depression, there is currently not enough evidence to support the claim that the placenta has mood-altering effects.
What are the risks of eating the placenta?
Because human placentophagy is a relatively new practice and there is no conclusive evidence regarding the benefits, there is also not enough to research to confirm the risks. However, there are many potential concerns that come with placenta consumption, one of which is a risk of bacterial infection in the infant. Recently, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued a statement regarding a case in which a newborn developed group B Streptococcus infection after the mother ingested placenta pills contaminated with the bacteria Streptococcus agalactiae.
Other risks of placenta pills include excess estrogen which can lead to thromboembolism and, ironically, decreased milk production from prolactin suppression. Additionally, the placenta has been shown to accumulate toxins like heavy metals, and placenta pills may simply reintroduce what the body is trying to get rid of.
The Bottom line on placenta pills
Because bacteria and other contaminants are not fully eliminated during the encapsulation process, the CDC recommends avoiding placenta pills and placenta consumption in general. And despite the purported benefits, studies show that the recommended dosage of placenta pills (6-12 pills/day) is unlikely to have any biological or clinical benefit, given that the majority of the nutrients are lost during processing.
Ways to Optimize Postpartum Nutrition (Instead of Eating Your Placenta)
Luckily, there are many ways to optimize postpartum nutrition without eating your organs! During lactation, certain nutrient needs increase significantly, so it’s important to make sure you’re eating enough and maximizing nutrient-density.
Here are the basics for nutrition while breastfeeding:
- Consume an extra 500 calories a day and don’t eat less than 1800 calories a day.
- Take a prenatal or postnatal multivitamin (with at least 150 mcg B12 for plant-based mamas – or take a separate supplement)
- Take an algae oil supplement with at least 300 mg of DHA per day (if you’re not eating 2-3 servings of fish a week)
- Stay hydrated! Breastfeeding moms need about 16 cups of fluid a day.
I also recommend consuming a variety of plants, always keeping healthy snacks on hand, and meal prepping to make things a bit easier. For more tips, head here! >> Postpartum Nutrition + Fitness Tips
And for a comprehensive guide to pre and postnatal nutrition, check out Plant-Based Juniors’ Predominantly Plant-Based Pregnancy Guide, which contains everything you need to know to have a healthy pregnancy and postpartum journey, plus 50+ plant-based recipes!
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Weigh-in: Have you heard of placenta pills? What other risks and benefits have you heard about placenta consumption?