The time has come, it seems, for the placenta to get its due.
For too long, the lowly organ has been simply an afterthought. Er, afterbirth.
For 40 weeks, it diligently nourishes and protects an unborn infant, only to be cast off the moment its work is finished — quickly labeled a biohazard, while everyone gazes adoringly at its former tenant. You gotta see the baaaaaby.
Well, no longer.
At least, not if the Placenta Advocates of the world have anything to say about it. They’ve developed all sorts of new ways to honor the mass of maternal tissue — and eating it is just the start.
Over the past several years, there has been a dramatic rise in women choosing to ingest their placentas after giving birth, often with the support of doulas or midwives who promote the healing benefits of a practice scientifically known as placentophagy.
Some women make placenta smoothies, slicing off a chunk of raw placenta and blending it with fruit and yogurt for a refreshing beverage. Others brown it on the stovetop to make placenta tacos, spaghetti or lasagna. Under its “Entertaining and Holidays” section, Amazon offers an E-book called “25 Placenta Recipes” that includes instructions for whipping up placenta paté and placenta kebabs. (Reviewers had a field day with this one. “The next best thing to eating actual baby.” “I was highly disappointed to find that placenta delivery was not included. I had to deliver my own. Practically gave myself contractions from all that hard work.”)
But most women who want to consume their placenta choose to take it in pill form.
Claudia Booker, a midwife and birth coach who lives in the District, has been offering placenta encapsulation services for six years. She’s a 65-year-old former government contracts lawyer with an Earth Mother energy, small tattoos on her earlobes and a bumper sticker on her car that says, “Support Midwives, Make Love.”
She was looking for a way to help women ease the sometimes difficult transition to motherhood after birth. Booker had studied acupuncture and remembered that placentas were a component in traditional Chinese medicine, so she began offering the service herself, touting its benefits to all her clients.
“What I tell women is that the placenta is an endocrine organ, and endocrine organs, among other things, trigger the body’s production of hormones,” says Booker. “It can help make your breast milk come in. It can also trigger the production of estrogen,” mitigating the baby blues and perhaps helping ward off post-partum depression.
That’s why Kea Dupree-Alfred signed up for her services. After the birth of her first child, James, five years ago, Dupree-Alfred was hit with a crippling case of depression. When she became pregnant again, she wanted to do anything she could to avoid a repeat of that dark period. So after her daughter, Lillian, was born 19 months ago, she had her placenta put in a cooler on ice until Booker came to retrieve it.
At home on the counter of her small kitchen, Booker has a basket full of her placenta prep materials. First she cleans the organ, then she steams it in a metal steamer from Ikea. After about an hour, when her house is filled with a pungent odor that reminds Booker of the times her grandmother used to cook tongue and other organ meats, she cuts the placenta into tenders and places it on a dehydrator that others might use to make jerky. Half a day later, she mills the strips in a coffee grinder and spoons the brownish-red dust into capsules.
Dupree-Alfred started taking two pills, twice a day. Her milk came in quickly, and she felt as if she had a little more energy than she’d had the first time around.
“I would say it had a positive effect on my post-partum healing and emotions,” says Dupree-Alfred, who did suffer from a mild depression several months after giving birth to her second child, but it was significantly less severe than the first case.
In the 1960s and ’70s, placentophagy gained some traction on communes, but it wasn’t until recent years that the practice began attracting widespread attention. Doctors, meanwhile, warn that there have been no scientific studies proving the benefits of placentophagy in humans.
Katherine Himes, a doctor of maternal fetal medicine at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center, has had so many patients come to her with questions about placentas that the hospital developed a protocol for those who wish to take their placentas home. But Himes doesn’t recommend eating it.
“When I’m in the office with the patients, what I usually discuss is that the placenta can be infected with infectious agents, bacteria, viruses that may not make it food safe,” she says. “And that’s particularly concerning when we’re talking about consuming raw placenta.”
Jenny Corbett, a doula in Silver Spring, hadn’t heard of placenta encapsulation when she had her two children. She thought she might bury the placentas in her yard but never got around to it, so they’re both still in the freezer.
In the years since her children were born, she has heard so many reports of women having positive experiences with placenta encapsulation that she also began providing the service seven months ago. In addition to the pills, she offers placenta tinctures made with high-quality brandy. Most women, she says, save that for consumption at menopause.
Corbett has also taken her services in a more creative direction. Her clients can opt for an umbilical cord keepsake, usually wrapped in a spiral or shaped like a heart, although once she had one long enough that she was able to spell out the child’s name. And she makes placenta art, using food coloring and white paper to generate an imprint of the placenta that looks vaguely like a tree.
“Some people are like, ‘That’s disgusting!’ ” says Corbett. “But it’s just so pretty.”
Other women have devised ceremonies around the placenta — burying it in a favorite spot or planting a tree on top of it. And perhaps the most radical of the placenta trends is a practice known as lotus birth, which leaves the organ attached to the baby for several days until it naturally falls off. (Or the kid yanks it away.)
The crafting Web site Etsy offers lotus-birth placenta bags in a variety of fabrics and colors so that women can tote their placentas around in style.
All this placenta love has come as a surprise to Mark Kristal, a psychology professor at the University of Buffalo who has been studying placenta practices in humans and animals for more than 30 years.
While pursuing his PhD, Kristal studied maternal behavior in mammals, almost all of which consume their placentas after giving birth — a fact that placenta advocates routinely cite to promote the practice.
But Kristal could find no human cultures that regularly engage in placentophagy. “Cannibalism is more common than placenta-eating in humans,” he says.
Even in China, Kristal says, women don’t consume their placentas after birth. “Dried human placenta is a component of Chinese herbal medicine, but it’s very rarely used,” he says. “It’s used for things like incontinence and various infections. And it’s never used alone.”
Kristal suspects that there may have been some reason that humans evolved away from eating placentas. “There was probably something maladaptive about it that caused it to be filtered out,” he says, speculating that it might have had to do with a negative immune response or contamination. So the argument that placentophagy is natural because animals do it carries no weight with him. “There are a lot of things that animals do that we shouldn’t do. That’s not a justification for human behavior.”
Kristal is not entirely sure why the practice has seen such a rise in popularity, but he thinks that misinformation on the Internet has a lot to do with it. “There’s a bandwagon effect and probably a placebo effect. People will say, ‘Well, as long as it doesn’t do any harm, what’s the problem?’ And the problem is that we don’t know it isn’t doing any harm.”
One survey conducted by anthropologists at the University of Las Vegas found that of 189 women who engaged in placentophagy, 95 percent reported having a positive or very positive experience. Of course, Kristal points out, these women presumably expected to have a good experience — that’s why they opted to do it.
In his decades of research, Kristal found one placenta tradition practiced almost universally throughout the world.
“It’s most common,” he says, “to discard it.”