Placentophagy aka The practice of consuming your placenta after birth.

I first read about placentophagy, the practice of ingesting one’s placenta, in Sayward Rebhal’s book “Vegan Pregnancy Survival Guide”. At first I found it rather odd. Then I googled it and came across quite a few videos of people preparing placentas for consumption: they dried them, stewed them, froze them, turned them into smoothies. I also read that in many countries you are not allowed to take your placenta home with you, as it is regarded a “bio-hazard” of some sort. Then, I forgot about it.

A month ago I visited a friend who recently gave a birth to a gorgeous baby and I saw a jar made of dark glass on her desk, with a nice label. And then I read the label: “Placenta Pills”. So, do people actually eat their placentas in Europe too? In the Netherlands? Isn’t it the newest US craze or something people do in third World countries? Apparently not.

Placenta pills, ready for consumptions. All pictures in this article are courtesy of Gerry.

Placenta pills, ready for consumptions. All pictures in this article are courtesy of Gerry.

During our Confident Birth courses, we were told about the option to keep the placenta. In many countries around the Mediterranean people used to bury the placenta and plant a tree on top, to honor the “tree of life”. We were also told that placentophagy can be performed in various ways and has various benefits. As I am no specialist on the subject but very curious to find out more about it, I decided to interview Gerry, a Queensland expat living in the Netherlands. And a placenta expert!

-Hi Gerry! I guess when people asked you what you want to be when you grow up, you didn’t answer “Placenta Encapsulator!”, right? Can you tell me a bit about the life path that led to to what you are doing today?

Perhaps if I knew there was such a profession when I was a kid it might have been my answer, it does sound pretty cool. I’m actually a teacher/community arts worker/mother but I’ve always been interested in health. I have suffered from extremely bad eczema since I was a kid so I look for anything that can give me a natural boost to help fight the symptoms and to be able to deal with it both physically and mentally. When I fell pregnant the last thing I wanted was for my bub, Genavieve, to also have eczema or for me to be rundown, my skin to flair up and for me not to be able to enjoy those first few months after she was born. I believe that consuming my placenta after giving birth gave me a boost and whether or not you believe it is directly linked I felt great the weeks after giving birth and my skin managed to stay clear despite the sleepless nights.

I actually laughed at the idea of consuming my placenta when it was mentioned, very briefly, in our birthing class. I labelled it without much thought as a “hippie” thing to do and didn’t look into it again. A few weeks before I was due we heard of a friend who had her placenta encapsulated and wrote a blog about the experience claiming it helped her beat the baby blues and made her feel like superwoman- http://www.foodmatters.tv/articles-1/we-had-a-baby-and-here-is-our-unusual-story. I was intrigued and thought it wouldn’t hurt to try it out. My partner and I contacted IPEN, the Placenta Specialist Network based in England, to see if there was a specialist in Holland who we could contact. We couldn’t get in touch with a local specialist but the director, Lynnea Shief, just happened to be near Rotterdam on holidays with her family. She came to our house with her equipment, sterilized a work space in our kitchen (according to health and safely criteria) and was able to make the capsules for us over a 24 hour period.

I contacted Lynnea a short time after, having felt the benefits of consuming my placenta, and signed up to do the training in London so that I could then provide the service for other women in Holland. My first placenta encapsulation was for my sister when I visited Australia. My mum (a mother of 8 children!) assisted me. Afterward she said that she wished she had have known there was an option to do the same when she gave birth. I understand not all women want to consume their placenta but I would at least like to provide the option for those who do.

-I read somewhere that most mammals consume their placenta and there are two reasons for that, one being that they want to hide the signs of birth, before predators find them, and the other being that the placenta is rich in nutrients and helps recovery. Do you know if there is any proof that humans used to consume their placenta or if they still do in other cultures?

A friend in Australia is a vet and made the same comment. I guess there will always be arguments for and against, and there probably is a lot of truth in it. Although why do some animals only eat a small part after giving birth and often not the whole placenta? Surely if they were trying to ward off predators they would eat the whole placenta. Perhaps there is actually something good in it to help them!

There is a lot of very interesting information out there about how various cultures over time have viewed and treated the placenta after birth. Whether that be consuming it for nutritional benefits or performing a ceremony  such as burying or burning it for spiritual benefits. One of my favourite ceremonies is that performed in the Philippines where the mothers are known to bury the placenta with books, in hopes of an intelligent child. I didn’t have any of my placenta left over to bury so I hope reading with my bub is enough to spark her interest in books

In Korea the placenta is often burned and the ashes kept. During periods of illness the ashen powder is given in a liquid to help heal the child. In some cultures such as Vietnam and China, the placenta is viewed as a life-giving force. Therefore, it is dried and added to certain recipes in order to increase a person’s energy and vitality . In some cultures the placenta is made into a remedy to give to the elderly in the community. Whilst it is easy to decrease our qi,  by not following a healthy lifestyle and through aging, it is impossible to increase it. However it is claimed in these cultures that consuming the placenta is the only way of increasing a person’s qi or constitution. Search for the holy grail no more.

Placenta (both human and animal) extract has been used in cosmetics, such as facial cream for years. In fact in 1994 Britain banned the practice of collecting placentas in hospitals from unsuspecting mothers. It was discovered that over 360 tons per year was being bought by a French company to make the RoC facial cream sold back to the Brits in the high end retail store Harrods.

-Is there any scientific research conducted in relation to the benefits of placentophagy?

Although there have been studies done there is currently no conclusive scientific evidence to suggest the placenta pills are or are not beneficial.  Myself and other placenta specialist mostly rely on personal experiences, anecdotal evidence and testimonials from new mothers who claim placenta encapsulation was the key to their speedy recovery following birth.

Currently there is a research project on the way at the University of Nevada Las Vegas by a team in the Metabolism, Anthropometry and Nutrition Lab. They will be conducting a randomized double-blind placebo trial for placenta encapsulation will hopefully have the results published sometime in 2015. Watch this space.

Reports and trials have been found dating back as far as the 1500’s. Li Shizhen first wrote about placenta as a medicine in the 1500′s when he compiled the first Materia Medica on Traditional Chinese Medicine.  Dried placenta has been used widely ever since for many different symptoms. Clinical research has been conducted to try and decipher if consuming placenta has any effect as an antibiotic for influenza and measles, as a  preventive for bleeding and to enhance healing of wounds, to enhance the immune system, for the treatment of pulmonary disease, as a treatment for dermatological disorders and  to increase stamina and endurance.  All tests had positive results with little or no side effects noted. Studies have also been conducted using powdered placenta to improve lactation for women. In one study powdered placenta was used for 57 cases of insufficient lactation. Within 4 days 48 women showed  obvious signs of improvement with the remainder following showing positive signs over the following 3 days.

Placenta is packed with vitamins and nutrients as well as stem cells and growth factors. It is a great sources of Iron, vitamin B6 and E, oxytocin, corticotrophin (helps to reduce stress levels) and cytokines (helps with cell and tissue renewal). Sounds like a pretty good superfood to me.

We are continuing to gather anecdotal evidence and testimonials from mums.  Dads have also made comment on the benefits consuming the placenta has on their partners moods. I was cautiously asked by my partner on a few occasions, after a particularly tiring day and when my mood was not so peachy, if I had taken my happy pills that day.

-What are the benefits that mothers who consume their placentas report? Does it have benefits for everyone or are there people who experience negative symptoms or no change at all?

There are many testimonials on the IPEN website from mothers claiming the benefits. I find the most interesting are from those who didn’t have the opportunity to consume their placenta with their first child but were able to with the second. They are able to compare the two experiences. Claims of boosted energy despite sleepless nights or running after multiple children, post-partum bleeding ceasing early as well as more positive and stable moods are some of the usual benefits reported.

It is important that mothers do not take the capsules if they have any infections, such as the flu or mastitis and should not be taken alongside iron supplements as this can cause negative side effects.

I made capsules and a smoothie for a mum recently who has very low iron levels. During her first pregnancy she had trouble with producing enough milk and was constantly exhausted due to being anemic.  She now has a newborn and a very active 3 year old. She has had no issues with her milk supply this time around and says that she is feeling none of the fatigue that was felt after the birth of her first child. Was it because of the capsules and smoothie? There are too many positive claims from mums to disregard the idea that it helps. Funnily enough she was very against the idea of consuming the capsules when I first mentioned it. After doing a bit of research she decided to try it. Recently she sent me pictures of the empty capsule jar wanting more! They would be another 9 months in the making.

-I know that there are various ways to consume a placenta. Can you tell us which ones are the most popular and why? Which one do you recommend?

I’ve heard of people making placenta lasagna! I struggle with making edible lasagna at the best of times so I’m sticking with smoothies and capsules.

The capsules are the most popular. They are clean and easy to consume without the icky feeling of eating raw meat. Just another vitamin tablet! I made capsules recently for a vegan, who interestingly enough had the largest and healthiest placenta I have seen. I guess for her it was easier to take a capsule of dried powder than it would have been to eat a raw piece of flesh.

The capsules can be made raw or by using the Traditional Chinese Method (TCM). They both go through a similar process although the TCM capsules are steamed using Chinese herbs.

I would recommend taking some of the placenta raw or in a smoothie soon after giving birth to give the body a boost and help with immediate repair. The rest can be made into capsules to assist the new mother in the following weeks. The capsules can also be frozen for later use, such as when the mother stops breastfeeding, when experiencing signs of PMS and during menopause. Personally, I was a little greedy and gobbled mine down in the first few months. I have to admit I was sad seeing the last few capsules disappear.

Tinctures and essences are beneficial because they last longer and can be used to support the immune system and can work as a substitute remedy when capsules cannot be taken due to having an infection such as the flu or mastitis.

For those new mums who are not getting enough beauty sleep to ward off the wrinkles? Perhaps the placenta cream is worth a try!

These are the encapsulation supplies. Clear pills are filled with the dried and powdered placenta, so you don't taste anything.

These are the encapsulation supplies. Clear pills are filled with the dried and powdered placenta, so you don’t taste anything.

-Is it hard to preserve the placenta from birth until the time it will be processed, to be consumed? What hygiene and safety precautions need to be taken?

Specialists, trained through IPEN, have to follow very strict health and safety criteria. IPEN has gone to great lengths to make sure the processes used keep both the mother and the specialists safe. All specialists are expected to hold a Pro Infection Control Certificate and HSE Blood borne Pathogens Standard, Food Hygiene Certificate as well as complete the IPEN training.

The process from birth to when the placenta is made into capsules is not a difficult one if the correct steps are followed. As a specialist I provide the guidelines to both the mother and the midwife plenty of time before the birth so that there isn’t any confusion. There is a checklist as well as labels to be put on containers to make sure all steps are easy to follow amongst the adrenaline high of child birth.

It is recommend that the placenta is put in a cool box on ice or refrigerated within 30minutes of cord cutting and no longer than 4 hours after. The specialist is contacted as soon after the birth as possible and will come to the hospital or home to pick up the placenta. I usually have the capsules back to the mother within 36 hours, depending on where they have to be delivered to. You would recognize me by the IPEN labelled esky or cool box I carry with me. I have had some curious looks from people, probably wondering if I’m stealing kidneys or other valuable organs from the hospital.

If by chance the placenta isn’t handled correctly (not put in a clean container straight after birth) or kept at the right temperature for the correct time it is recommended that an IPEN specialist doesn’t go ahead with encapsulation.

The placenta can be refrigerated up to 3 days then frozen if capsules, remedies or smoothies are to be made at a later date. This is sometimes necessary if the specialist isn’t available within the 3 day time frame or if the mother is undecided what she would like done with the placenta.

-Can the placenta be consumed, no matter how the birth happened? Can women who have been induced or had a caesarian section safely consume their placenta?

We ask that the midwife examine the placenta and indicate on a form if it is intact and/or if there is meconium present. If there is meconium on the placenta we take certain steps to clean and disinfect the placenta. Raw capsules are not an option in this case however TCM capsules are as the steaming process helps to further  disinfect the placenta and make it fit for consumption.

We also ask mothers before they give birth to fill in a form. One question is in regards to HIV/aids, if this is ticked we are unable to go ahead with encapsulation. It is also not recommended to encapsulate placentas from smoking mothers as there are toxins from smoke held in the placenta that could be harmful to the mother if consumed.

We rely on the midwives inspection of the placenta and our own judgement of the placenta’s health before we decide to proceed with each client.

-After years of seeking pain relief, women seem to be now seeking more and more to experience birth as naturally as possible. It is viewed once again as an empowering experience by many. Do you think that placentophagy is part of this “going natural” movement or do you see it as an independent practice?

Personally, I think it is an independent practice as there are many women out there who do have pain relief or caesarians, by choice or due to an emergency, and I would like to think that they don’t avoid using their placenta because they didn’t choose or have the option of a “natural” birth.

Many women just don’t know it’s an option and often it is “sold” as an option only taken on by “alternative” types. It might not be everyone’s cup of tea, I respect that, but at least if the information is out there and a safe service is available then women have the option of choosing.

As I mentioned earlier my mum had no idea consuming her placenta was an option and now is kicking herself that she let 8 perfectly healthy placentas go to waste. Just imagine how many remedies she could have made, how many wrinkles avoided, and possibly had some left over to bury alongside some intellectual books. Forget placenta specialist, I could have gone on to be the next Einstein!

-If the partner wishes to share the experience of consuming the placenta with the new mother, are there any benefits for them as well, other than the experience itself?

As I mentioned earlier, in some Chinese cultures they give the dried placenta to the elderly in the community to increase their qi. As for a partner consuming it, often it’s a case of them being able to stomach the idea of it. The minerals and nutrients found in the placenta can assist with more than just lactation, baby blues and post-partum bleeding. However, I shouldn’t be promoting this as something for partners, leave it for the mum! There never seems to be enough to go around.

I know one woman who gave some of her smoothie to her 3 year old when he asked for a taste. He loved it!

-Finally, can you give us your contact details, in case someone wants to try out placentophagy, but is to squeamish to prepare their own placenta? And could you please give us a short description of your services?

I would love to.

I’m currently working on a website but until then you can find me via the IPEN website http://placentanetwork.com/specialist/gerry-stacey/ or gerrystacey@hotmail.com

I live in Rotterdam and can collect the placenta from your home or hospital. I am happy to drive within 2 hours of my home (travel costs to be negotiated) and can deliver the capsules or remedy in person or I can arrange special delivery by post usually within 36 hours. There are different price options depending on your budget and personal preference of consuming the placenta. The range is from 30euros for a smoothie up to 200 euros. I am happy to discuss other options and payment plans if necessary.

THANK YOU 🙂

Thank you for allowing me to banter about placenta! I could have gone on for days.

-Thank You Gerry!

P.S.: Following you will find some really fascinating placenta pictures.  They might not be for the squeamish, so I have added some blank space to avoid ruining your appetite, in case you are eating your lunch. Just scroll down.

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PLACENTA PICS!!!! Thank you Gerry for providing them!

A human placenta with the umbilical cord.

A human placenta with the umbilical cord.

One more placenta. Quite big, huh?

One more placenta. Quite big, huh?

Umbilical cord and placenta, ready to get dehydrated.

Umbilical cord and placenta, ready to get dehydrated.

Dehydrated placenta slices.

Steamed placenta slices.

And more dehydrated slices, ready to be turned into powder and later get encapsulated.

And more dehydrated slices, ready to be turned into powder and later get encapsulated.

*You can check out all the “Family and Parenting” posts here*

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One response to “Placentophagy aka The practice of consuming your placenta after birth.

  1. Pingback: DIY Placenta Smoothie | The non-hip hippies·

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