Celebrity socialite Kim Kardashian West says it boosted her energy level. Mad Men’s January Jones touts it as a cure for postpartum depression. But does eating one’s placenta after birth—an apparently growing practice around the globe—actually confer any health benefits? Not really, according to the first in-depth analyses of the practice.
In two new studies, researchers conclude that new moms who consume their placentas experience no significant changes in their moods, energy levels, hormone levels, or in bonding with their new infant, when compared with moms ingesting a placebo. “It really does show that most of what’s going on, if not all, is a placebo effect,” says Mark Kristal, a behavioral neuroscientist at the State University of New York in Buffalo who has studied the practice—known as placentophagy—in other animals for more than 40 years.
Humans aren’t the only species that eat their placentas. In fact, nearly all mammals do. In rats, placentophagy spurs moms to start taking care of their pups and relieves birthing pain; both amniotic fluid and placentas contain a factor that acts as a morphine-related analgesic. But whether placentophagy confers such benefits in humans has been unclear. What is clear is that the practice is gaining in popularity. Before the 1970s, it was used occasionally in traditional Chinese medicine to treat a host of ailments in men and women. Now, there are cookbooks that offer guidelines for the storage and preparation of placenta-based smoothies and meals. Most contemporary consumers first steam and dehydrate the placenta before pulverizing it and fashioning it into a vitaminlike pill.
To find out whether placentophagy actually does anything for people, Sharon Young, a medical anthropologist at the University of Nevada in Las Vegas, and her team enlisted 27 healthy, pregnant adults who had decided they wanted to consume their placenta before enrolling in the study. The women met with researchers four times between their 36th week of pregnancy and the third week after childbirth. During the meetings, the women provided saliva samples for hormone analysis and completed a battery of questionnaires. In the studies, some took pills containing their own placentas daily for 3 weeks, while others got pills filled with a placebo supplement made from beef or vegetarian mock beef. The women weren’t told which pill they took.
The placenta pills made no difference to women’s hormone levels—which could potentially influence everything from a mom’s energy to her mood, the researchers report this week in Women and Birth. And indeed, the placenta pills had no significant overall impact on fatigue and postpartum depression, they conclude in a second paper in the same issue of the journal.
The only real correlations between groups had nothing to do with placentophagy: Depression, anxiety, and stress were linked to fatigue, as were poor sleep quality, low social support from family and friends, and decreased marital satisfaction.
Still, Young and her colleagues acknowledge a number of caveats. Their sample size was small and self-selected, which could mask differences between treatment and control groups. And Kristal says he would have liked to have seen an additional group that did not receive the placenta or placebo supplement. He also says the team didn’t look at other potential beneficial effects of placentophagy—such as pain relief—which could be the basis for future studies.
So should mothers eat their placentas? Melissa Cheyney, a midwife and medical anthropologist at Oregon State University in Corvallis, doesn’t see the harm, especially if moms feel it helps them. “As long as women are acquiring it safely, it doesn’t matter.”