The medical term for this is placentophagy and it is a real thing. If you follow the lay press you may have seen that originally this was promoted by Kourtney Kardashian who did this herself and then by Kim who planned on doing the same after delivery. See Did Kourtney Kardashian Eat Her Placenta?
This is not completely without basis as many readers will be thinking already that they have heard about the health benefits of doing the same. Reports of improved mood and reductions in the baby blues following ingestion of placenta as well as improvements in breast milk production have led to this growing practice. The evidence for this up until recently though was quite old and fraught with poorly design of such studies. The bigger driver however has been word of mouth as many women having heard about the promises of better mood at the very least have thought “why not? Can’t hurt.”
What I will do in this post is run through a little background and a few recent studies that have shed some light on how likely this is to actually work.
Where did the idea come from?
Animals eat their placentas after delivery. It turns out that unprocessed placenta is quite high in the hormone prolactin which is instrumental for breastfeeding. Given the large amount of this hormone as well as the number of other hormones present in such tissue it was thought that the same benefits would be found in humans. Eating unprocessed human tissue whether it is put in a capsule or not is unwise as unwanted bacteria can be consumed. In fact, a case of GBS sepsis has been linked to such a practice in which the source of the GBS was thought to be due to contaminated unprocessed maternal placenta that had been ingested. Buser GL, Mat´o S, Zhang AY, Metcalf BJ, Beall B, Thomas AR. Notes from the field: Late-onset infant group B streptococcus infection associated
with maternal consumption of capsules containing dehydrated placenta.
What happens when you process placenta by steaming and drying?
This would be the most common way of getting it into capsules. This process which renders it safe to consume may have significant effects on reducing hormonal levels.This was found in a recent study that measured oxytocin and human placental lactogen (both involved positively in lactation) and found reductions in both of 99.5% and 89.2%, respectively compared versus raw placenta. I would assume that other hormones would be similarly affected so how much prolactin might actually wind up in these capsules after all?
Clinical Randomized Double Blind Controlled Trial
Twenty seven women from Las Vegas were recruited into a pilot trial (12 beef placebo vs 15 steamed and dried placenta) with the authors examining three different outcomes across three studies. The first study Effects of placentophagy on maternal salivary hormones: A pilot trial, part 1 looked at a large number of salivary hormones at four time points. Plasma samples were taken as well to determine the volume of distribution of the same. First samples were at week 36 of gestation then within 4 days (96 h) of birth followed by days 5–7 (120–168 h) postpartum and finally Days 21–27 (504–648 h) postpartum. All consumption of capsules was done in the home as was collection of samples. As per the authors in terms of consumption it was as follows “two 550 mg capsules three times daily for the first 4 days; two 550 mg capsules twice daily on days 5 through 12, and then to decrease the dose to two 550 mg capsules once daily for the remainder of the study (days 13 through approximately day 20 of supplementation).
No difference was found between salivary concentrations of hormones at any time point other than that with time they declined following birth. Curiously the volume of distribution of the hormones in serum was slightly higher in the placenta capsule groups but not enough to influence the salivary concentrations. It was felt moreover that the amount of incremental hormone level found in the serum was unlikely to lead to any clinical response.
The second study was on mood Placentophagy’s effects on mood, bonding, and fatigue: A pilot trial, part 2. Overall there were no differences for the groups but they did find “some evidence of a decrease in depressive symptoms within the placenta group but not the placebo group, and reduced fatigue in placenta group participants at the end of the study compared to the placebo group.”
The last paper published from the same cohort is Ingestion of Steamed and Dehydrated Placenta Capsules Does Not Affect Postpartum Plasma Prolactin Levels or Neonatal Weight Gain: Results from a Randomized, Double-Bind, Placebo-Controlled Pilot Study. This study specifically addressed the issue of prolactin levels and found no difference between the groups. Neonatal weight gain was used as a proxy for breastmilk production as it was thought that if there was an effect on breastmilk you would see better weight gain. About 80% in both groups exclusively breastfed so the influence of formula one can’t take out of the equation. In the end weight gain was no different between groups although a trend to better weight gain was seen in the placebo group.
To eat or not to eat that is the question?
What is clear to me is that the answer to this question remains unclear! What is clear is that I don’t think it is wise to consume raw placenta due to the risks of bacterial contamination. Secondly, the levels of hormones left in the placental preparation and the most common preparation of steaming and drying leave hormone levels that are unlikely to influence much at all from a biochemical standpoint. It also seems that breastmilk production and neonatal weight gain aren’t influenced much by consumption of these pills.
The issue though in all of this is that while the previous research was of low quality, the current research while of better quality is at a low volume. These were pilot trials and not powered to find a difference likely. The finding in the subgroup of some effect on mood at the end of the study does leave some hope to those that believe in the power of the placenta to help. Would a larger study find benefit to this practice? My suspicion from a biochemical standpoint is not but that one may feel a benefit from a placebo response.
Should you go out and have your placenta prepared for consumption? If you have Kardashian like wealth then go for it if you think it will help. If you don’t then I would suggest waiting for something more definitive before spending your money on placentophagy.