Moms, please don’t eat your placentas: Obstetricians say ‘placentophagy’ carries risks, with no proven benefits

By | April 6, 2019

After reviewing what scientific data exist on the subject, Canada’s pregnancy specialists are encouraging any woman considering eating or drinking her placenta to please refrain from doing so.

The Society of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists of Canada has found no evidence of benefit from human maternal “placentophagy,” but potential risks of harm, including the transfer of serious bacterial infections from mother to newborn.

A recent survey of more than 1,000 mothers in the U.S. and Canada found a quarter said they had consumed their placentas. In November, actress Hilary Duff revealed in a parenting podcast that, although she was a “little wigged out” by the idea at first, she drank a berry-and-raw-placenta blended smoothie hours after her at-home water birth in October.

The rest of her placenta, she said, was made into ice cubes.

The human placenta is a disc-shaped, blood rich organ that develops in the uterus during pregnancy, through which the baby receives nutrition and oxygen. It weighs roughly 500 grams and contains protein, fat, minerals, and hormones. Once common mostly among home-birthers, the practice of ingesting one’s own placenta postpartum has spread to hospital births. The placenta can be consumed raw, or rinsed, heated, dried and pulverized into capsules.

“We were getting lots of questions about it,” said Dr. Chelsea Elwood, a reproductive infectious diseases specialist at the University of B.C. and a member of the society of obstetricians’ infectious diseases committee. “Women usually ask me if I’ve heard of this ‘eating your placenta’ thing, and whether I think there’s any benefit to it.”

Advocates — including private placenta preparers, who, often working in their own kitchens, charge upwards of $ 400 to prepare supplement capsules for “easy ingestion” — claim eating raw or dehydrated placenta can improve mood, energy, mother-child bonding, hormonal crashes, postpartum bleeding and milk flow.

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However, despite the testimonials and celebrity endorsements, “there is no trial that shows a significant benefit for women for consumption of the placenta after delivery,” Elwood said.

“It’s very clear that there is no clear-cut benefit at this point.”

The new Canadian position statement, endorsed by the society of obstetricians board of directors, will be formally published next month in the Journal of Obstetrics and Gynaecology Canada.

According to a recent review article, more than 4,000 species of mammals consume their placenta, but researchers have argued that any benefit from placentophagy are likely “species specific,” and not translatable to humans.

It’s very clear that there is no clear-cut benefit at this point

Nonetheless, the practice is growing in popularity: When University of Toronto researchers placed messages on Facebook and other social media recruiting women who were pregnant or who had given birth in the past 12 months for a study on placentophagy, there were more than 5,000 clicks to access the survey within one month. Overall, of 1,088 respondents who consented to participate, 25 per cent consumed their placentas after childbirth.

Of those who consumed their placentas, the vast majority (92 per cent) indicated they would consume them again. “Improved mood was the most common cited benefit,” the authors reported, even though a 2017 study found no significant difference in symptoms of depression between women who self-dosed with placenta capsules and those who took placebo.

Most hospitals consider placentas human medical waste. Some women reported that hospitals refused to let them take their placentas home, ”which upset them because they felt their placentas were their property and taking them was their right,” the authors wrote in the Journal of Obstetric, Gynecologic & Neonatal Nursing.

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Some women have planted their placentas under trees. Last November, police found a human placenta in an Ontario park, planted behind bushes by a 27-year-old woman who had preserved the organ in her freezer for a year for “holistic” purposes, before returning it to nature.

When it comes to eating, and not burying, placentas, “there’s not a tonne of literature out there,” Elwood said. “There is no large, randomized trials to look at the things that are being talked about as being beneficial.”

A midwife uses a sieve while grinding dehydrated human placenta. Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty Images

Health Canada has warned that while the practice is fundamentally a matter of personal choice, the agency has not authorized a single product containing human placenta for human consumption.

In an email to the Post, Health Canada said it has followed up on more than 90 cases involving human placenta encapsulation service providers since an alert was issued last November, “the majority of which were proactively identified by Health Canada.”

“Health Canada has taken action to address non-compliance with the Food and Drugs Act or its regulations, including issuing compliance letters and verifying that misleading health claims related to placenta pills have been removed from websites and other advertisements,” the department said.

The agency has received one formal adverse reaction report (allergy, rash, fever and cough) following consumption of human placenta, “which was provided to the patient as a placenta tincture.”

A placenta can contain bacteria, viruses, fungi and other infectious diseases, Elwood, of UBC said. The commercial preparation process itself can also introduce infections. There’s also the risk of someone ingesting the placenta of another person if the organs are accidentally switched.

Women usually ask me if I’ve heard of this ‘eating your placenta’ thing

Elwood said none of the hormones extracted through the encapsulation process have been shown to reach a level at which they would be potentially of any benefit to the mother.

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More alarming is a report published by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention two years ago of an Oregon newborn who spent 11 days in intensive care after developing sepsis, a blood infection, from group B strep. The baby’s mother had been swallowing commercially prepared, dehydrated placenta capsules three times a day. The dried placenta was contaminated with strep B.

Infections could also be transmitted from mom to child if the mother is handling the placenta herself at home and it hasn’t been properly sterilized, Elwood said.

Despite the new recommendation against placenta consumption, “we support maternal choice,” Elwood said. “So, if women choose to consume their placenta, what I ask them to do is to tell us, so that we can talk about signs and symptoms of infection, the potential risks and what they should watch out for.”

However, it’s important women know that “you’re taking on a risk of harm, in a context where you don’t actually have any benefit for consuming your placenta,” she said.

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