Placentophagia: Douglas Woelkers answers questions about the health benefits of ingesting human placenta
A recent paper by neuroscientists at the University of Buffalo and Buffalo State College asked why the practice of placentophagia – the ingestion of components of the placenta or afterbirth – was not more widely practiced among humans.
After all, it’s common practice among many other eutherian or placental mammals, where it’s believed to provide significant nutritional or health benefits to the mother. Why not human mothers too?
The scientists weren’t advocating the practice, only asking questions. Others, though, are already in the act. On the Internet, you can find businesses marketing human placentophagia for new mothers as a kind of post-natal health benefit. Typically, they offer to retrieve, process and encapsulate bits of the afterbirth – placenta-in-a-pill. Occasionally, the idea gets a boost from a celebrity endorser. In March, for example, the actress January Jones touted encapsulated placenta as her way to re-energize after giving birth.
Douglas Woelkers, MD, is an associate clinical professor in the Department of Reproductive Medicine at the UC San Diego School of Medicine and director of the UC San Diego Placenta Clinic, which assesses maternal and fetal health during pregnancy when there are risk factors for placental dysfunction. We asked him to assess placentophagia.
Question: First, the obvious biology question: What is the placenta? What does it do?
Answer: It’s a large, fast-growing, accessory organ that interfaces between the fetus and mother. It’s entirely derived from the conceptus, being genetically identical to the baby – not the mom. It has a short life-span, and naturally begins to regress by the end of pregnancy.
During pregnancy, it is connected to the baby by the umbilical cord and attaches loosely to the mother inside the uterus. Baby’s blood flows into the placenta through umbilical arteries, travels through a network of capillaries and returns, carrying back oxygen and nutrients delivered to the placenta by the mother’s blood.
The placenta is absolutely necessary for growth, development and birth of a healthy human baby. It’s sort of a life-support device that acts as the “lungs” for the baby. It delivers nutrients and removes wastes. It produces and regulates hormones involved in pregnancy and birth. It protects the baby from blood-borne pathogens. And it maintains an immunologically inactive interface with the mother to prevent rejection. In this way, the mother’s immune system becomes “tolerant” of the pregnancy.
Q: Why do many mammalian species practice placentophagy?
A: Biologists have proposed several reasons: cleaning the nest, eliminating bait for predators, carnivorous behavior reinforcement, hunger. For humans, the concept of eating or otherwise ingesting placenta is relatively new. A recent study of 179 human cultures did not find a single instance of accepted, ritualized maternal ingestion of placenta. The only historical references seemed to rise in the context of extreme starvation and deprivation, and even then only rarely.
Q: So why the interest now?
A: The practice seems to have originated in the 1970s in the U.S. and Mexico, where it was promoted for maternal rejuvenation and offered a health benefit based on nutritive speculation.
The placenta is made of structural support cells called cytotrophoblasts, which organize into small cavities that accommodate the mother’s blood. Overlying the structural cells is a metabolically active tissue layer that makes the hormones and such. There are also fetal capillaries and blood cells in the placenta. So, at delivery, the placenta contains quite a large mix of cell types, especially trapped maternal and fetal red blood cells. I am sure it would be rich in iron, but not particularly enriched with any other specific nutrient.
Q: What about those health claims, which range from boosting mother’s milk production to providing a psychological lift against postpartum depression?
A: There is no empirical evidence to support the claims of nutritional or psychological benefit. That’s not to say there can’t be some benefit, but to date, the data is sparse. I would argue that in a culture of sufficient nutrition such as ours, that there would be no benefit provided above and beyond that obtained by a normal balanced diet. It is improbable that women would gain any direct hormonal effect from placenta, as the protein hormones would be digested similarly to all other animal food products we consume. Eating chicken does not make you feel like a chicken.
Q: What about health risks of placentophagy?
A: The placenta serves as an intrauterine barrier to infection, and so it can and does get colonized by several types of human infectious agents. HIV, Hepatitis B and C, syphilis, chlamydia, gonorrhea and other bacteria can be identified in the placentas of women with these infections. At UC San Diego, we recently finalized a policy to address these issues, which prohibits retrieval of placental specimens once they have been processed by the pathology laboratory, or if the patient has tested positive for the above infectious agents during pregnancy. There are no laws to regulate retrieval or consumption of placentas; our policies seek to balance patient autonomy with public health risks.