The Current Evidence on Human Placentophagy

By
Shannon M. Clark, MD
|
March 11, 2022
The Current Evidence on Human Placentophagy

Have you heard of placentophagy?

In the last several years, this practice has skyrocketed in popularity because of celebrities and others saying they have done it. Today, we’ll take a closer look at what the evidence says.

What Is human placenthophagy?

Placentophagy is the practice of ingesting your placenta postpartum in one of the following ways:

  • Consumed raw or frozen immediately after delivery
  • Cooked and used in dishes
  • Dried and then pulverized
  • Consumed via placenta encapsulation: raw or cooked placenta is cut into strips and dehydrated in a food dehydrator, heated in an oven, ground into powder, and placed into capsules (Traditional Chinese Medicine: Capsules of steamed, dried placenta or Classic use: Capsules of raw, dried placenta)

The various placental formulations are considered a nutritional supplement.

The proposed benefits of placentophagy

After fertilization, the placenta develops from the trophoblast and syncytiotrophoblast, which anchor to the endometrium and perform both metabolic (supply of nutrients and elimination of waste) and secretory functions. The placenta is an endocrine organ and produces hormones important for successful maintenance of the pregnancy and growth of the fetus. These hormones include estrogen and progesterone, human placental lactogen (hPL), oxytocin, thyroid-stimulating hormone, adrenocorticotropic hormone, corticotropin-releasing hormone. This is the basis for the proposed benefits of placentophagy, which include the prevention of postpartum depression, increased milk production for lactating persons, reduced bleeding/accelerated recovery because of the hormone, oxytocin, and improved mood and energy.

Placental tissue contains various hormones that are detected both in raw placenta and dehydrated powder. Unfortunately, the hormone concentrations are drastically reduced by steaming and dehydration methods utilized in preparing the placenta for consumption. The theories concerning the hormonal activity of placenta preparations have not yet been adequately explored by clinical studies.

The potential benefits of placentophagy

Dehydrated placenta powder contains the essential trace element iron. Because of the iron contained in the placenta, its consumption in the postpartum period has been theorized to help prevent anemia and improve energy levels. However, the intake of placenta capsules does not adequately treat postpartum anemia. In one randomized, placebo-controlled, double-blind clinical study there was no significant change in maternal iron status.

The acute withdrawal of the increased amounts of circulating hormones after delivery and the sudden cessation of hormone synthesis by the placenta is suggested as a cause for PPD and baby blues. As small quantities of progesterone are detectable in both raw and dried placenta, ingestion could affect the mental health of the patient in the postpartum period. In fact, the postpartum consumption of the placenta as a hormonal substitute is more common in those who have experienced postpartum depression after a prior delivery. Despite this, it is debatable whether the hormones in the placenta become biologically available after intake as steroid hormones are poorly absorbed orally. In fact, distinct effects on maternal bonding, fatigue and mood postpartum were not demonstrated in one randomized, placebo-controlled, double-blind clinical pilot study (n = 27) after steamed and dehydrated placental tissue was consumed. However, the intake of placenta capsules in this study led to a minor yet significant change in the maternal hormonal status.

It has also been theorized that since much higher concentration of hPL is found in raw placenta, a stimulatory effect on milk production and early onset of primary lactogenesis could occur. However, a small, randomized placebo-controlled blinded study of subjects who ingested placenta compared with subjects who did not showed no difference in maternal prolactin levels or neonatal weight gain. In fact, estrogen antagonizes prolactin via hypothalamic suppression and may have an opposite effect on improved lactation and milk production.

No well-designed studies have been able to demonstrate any significant difference or clinical benefit attributed to placentophagy. Most of the proposed benefits have been based on anecdotal reports with an inability to account for placebo effects or to substantiate these claims. Further studies focusing on the bioavailability of the hormones after oral ingestion and their potential physiological effect are necessary to evaluate the use of placental preparations.

The potential risks of placentophagy

There has been no formal research conducted to assess potential harms from human consumption of the placenta. Based on other studies, theoretical risks may be related to transmission of pathogens, thrombotic activity, and environmental toxins present in placental tissue, as well as risks associated with inappropriate handling or preparation of the placenta. Some examples are given below:

  • In one case study, a 3-month-old breastfed infant was reported to have breast budding and vaginal bleeding. The parent was consuming the placenta, and the infant's symptoms resolved after the parent discontinued consumption. These case studies reveal a potential connection between placenta encapsulation and possible harmful effects on breastfed infants, and additional investigations on placenta consumption must include potential impacts on breastfed infants.
  • In a case reported by the CDC, a term infant was readmitted with late-onset group B streptococcus (GBS) sepsis 5 days after completion of treatment for early-onset GBS sepsis. Upon investigation, the parent had been ingesting placenta capsules. Breast milk samples did not yield GBS, but dried placenta inside capsules tested positive for GBS. The CDC hypothesized that this infection was due to inadequate eradication of infectious pathogens during the encapsulation process.
  • As placental tissue is not sterile, contamination from potentially pathogenic microorganisms cannot be ruled out. There are no state or federal regulations in the U.S. about placenta consumption, and there are few regulations that address food safety and handling for placenta preparation services. Some placenta encapsulation providers adhere to federal safety guidelines and are trained in food safety handling; however, a certification is not required or accredited by any governing agency.
  • The placenta is a major source of estrogen during pregnancy, and exogenous estrogen is contraindicated in the immediate postpartum period because of increased risk of thrombotic events. If placental consumption increases estrogen levels, as proponents of placentophagy speculate, this could cause an increased risk of thrombotic events.

*Patients should be aware that the processing and use of the placenta is their responsibility and transmission of infections cannot be ruled out

Conclusion

Just because you hear about celebrities or others doing something does not automatically make it the right thing to do. Both providers and patients should be informed of the evidence regarding the risks and absence of clinical benefits of human placentophagy, understand how placentas are being prepared and consumed, and be familiar with the hospital policies and regulations affecting placenta release.

Resources:

Shannon M. Clark, MD

Shannon M. Clark, MD

Shannon M. Clark, MD, MMS is a double board certified ObGyn and Maternal-Fetal Medicine Specialist, and founder of Babies After 35. In her roles as a clinician, educator and researcher at UTMB-Galveston, she focuses on the care of people with maternal and/or fetal complications of pregnancy. Dr. Clark has taken a special interest in pregnancy after the age of 35, which according to age alone, is considered a high-risk pregnancy.

Follow Shannon on TikTok @tiktokbabydoc, Facebook @babiesafter35, and Instagram @babiesafter35.

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