Scientists, however, tend to be skeptical about the benefits of placentophagia to humans.
“Most of the assumptions [about human placenta consumption] come from extrapolations from animal work, anecdotes and suppositions. But none of it comes from scientific data,” said Mark Kristal, a behavioral neuroscientist at the State University of New York at Buffalo who researches placentophagia in animals. (Humans are among the few mammals that don’t routinely eat their own placentas.)
The main benefit of the practice for animals, Kristal said, is that substances in the afterbirth appear to enhance pain relief during delivery, especially in the case of multiple births. (Amniotic fluid, available early in labor, also helps in pain relief.) But Kristal points out that cooking the placenta would destroy some of the beneficial aspects of the protein in the placenta, and that any positive outcomes mothers experience are likely to be a result of the placebo effect.
Part of the reason why there are no scientific data on the matter, Kristal explained, is that it is difficult to find women who haven’t already formed an opinion about the matter which would affect their perception. And even if the practice is found to have benefits, Kristal believes it would be better to analyze the healthful components of the placenta and then synthesize them into pharmacological products rather than eat the unprocessed organ.
“Periodically you get this back-to-nature feeling. People say, ‘Animals do it; we’re animals, so it’s got to be good for you.’ Well, animals do a lot of things we don’t do; not all of them would be good for us.”
‘Like Wonder Woman’
“Personally, I don’t think moms are drawn to this because of scientific research,” said Depaep. “This helps them feel they’ve done something to avoid the baby blues and to help milk production. Part of [avoiding] postpartum depression is that it requires vigilance. I think moms like to know they’ve done what they can about it instead of feeling helpless.”
Depaep said the number of women wanting placenta encapulation services is on the rise, with about 20 percent of her clients of late asking for it as opposed to about 10 percent who maybe were interested it a few years ago. “It’s still a small number, but it’s growing,” she said.
Amanda Baerwaldt, a Frederick mother, wasn’t worried about the lack of evidence when she opted to have her placenta encapsulated after giving birth a few months ago.
“I wanted to avoid the baby blues if I could, and I wanted to stay away from conventional medicine,” she said. She felt joyful after giving birth, but a few days later, the what-ifs began to flood her. She started taking her placenta pills, and within 24 to 48 hours she felt better. “I felt a lot of energy,” she said, “like Wonder Woman. If I took it at 5 p.m. I couldn’t sleep all night.”
“Even if it is a placebo effect,” she added, “it still works. It’s the perfect balance for just you. You can freeze the pills, and they’ll last even up to menopause.”
I spent an entire childhood eating such Chinese delicacies as duck tongue, pigs’ blood and chicken feet, so most strange foods do not faze me. But I have to admit I felt queasy looking at those placenta recipes online, and I just wasn’t enthusiastic enough to spend money on encapsulation.
I suppose there’s always next time.
Wan is a freelance writer in Washington.