By Hayley Oakes LM, CPM ~
As a midwife, I often am asked the question, “What do you think about placenta encapsulation?” Although, it’s reported that placentas have been used in traditional Chinese medicine since the 1500s, consuming the placenta (aka placentophagy) in the postpartum period has become a recent trend in the last 15-20 years. (1,2)
For those of you who don’t know about this phenomenon, placenta encapsulation is the process of steaming and/or dehydrating the placenta and pressing it into capsules to be consumed after the birth.
Why would a mother want to consume her placenta, you may ask? Firstly, some would argue that humans are one of the few mammals who do not consume the placenta, so there must be some nutritional benefit to the postpartum period. Plus, it is thought that there are iron stores (as it is technically an organ) and hormones in the placenta that can be potentially beneficial during this time. It has become a popular method to help prevent postpartum depression and increase milk supply, especially if a woman has risk factors for these issues.
Postpartum depression is one of the most common complications in the perinatal period and that’s only what’s reported (apparently only half of all cases are reported). (3) A postpartum mood disorder (depression, anxiety, obsessive compulsive disorder and/or psychosis) can happen ‘out of the blue’ or there can be risk factors that increase one’s odds in developing it. These risk factors include a history of postpartum depression experienced after previous births and/or anxiety or depression experienced prior to pregnancy. Other risk factors include, but is not limited to: high stress, lack of social support, a traumatic pregnancy or birth experience, and recent stressful life events i.e. moving, changing jobs or a death of a family member or friend. (4) Feelings of anxiety and depression can be triggered by the hormonal fluctuations experienced in the immediate postpartum period and negatively affect a woman, her breastfeeding experience and bonding with her new baby.
Until very recently, I believed the purported benefits of placenta encapsulation were enough to sway my decision in favor of it. Also, from what I had heard the only ‘risk’ was feeling no difference in mood or energy and if anything it was simply a placebo effect. But then there was a recent article that came out by Sarah Hollister RN, PHN, IBCLC, who found that most of her clients with low milk supply issues were also consuming their placentas. While there are a lot of hormones in the placenta that could be beneficial in smoothing out the emotional ups and downs after the birth, there are also a lot of pregnancy hormones that could inhibit the milk let down hormone, causing low supply issues.
Some risk factors for low milk supply include having a history of this complication with previous children, previous breast surgery, premature birth, maternal obesity, pregnancy-induced high blood pressure as well as simply not breastfeeding enough or right away. (5)
So, now, what do I advise? Full informed consent of benefits, risks and alternatives of this therapeutic remedy.
Going back to the idea that we are one of the few mammals who don’t consume our placentas – the reasoning could be more to do with survival rather than a nutritional factor. In the wild, it’s important for animals to hide the smell of childbirth to protect their young from predators. If there is a nutritional benefit, we have to take into account that animals’ guts process foods differently than humans. Also, animals consume their placentas in the raw and immediately after the birth, whereas humans ingest it in small doses over weeks and months after the birth. We might be missing the nutritional benefit when we consume it after being processed and consumed over a longer period of time.
To help prevent milk supply issues, one option is to wait until at least 2 weeks after the birth. This is when your milk supply is better established and the risk of it being negatively affected by the placenta is potentially lower.
Another option is to make your placenta into a tincture. This is made from a piece of the placenta steeped in high grade alcohol for 6 weeks. This method is believed to increase the potency, length and benefits of the placenta. This would be helpful for future hormonal shifts i.e. weaning, PMS, menopause or even for your child entering puberty. The latter may seem like a stretch (and again no current long-term studies on this) but since the placenta also consists of the child’s tissues, it technically can be used for him or her as well. Who knows – this could be the future for hormone replacement therapy!
Then an alternative to ingesting the placenta altogether is to bury the placenta. In our Western culture, we think of the placenta as a medical waste product and after the birth it’s disposed of in a biohazard bag. However, in many other cultures around the world, the placenta bears a great significance to the pregnancy and baby and this is honored by having a proper burial for it.
In New Zealand, the Maori people bury the placenta on tribal land to help the child establish a personal and spiritual connection to their native roots. In Indonesia, a family may bury a paintbrush or a pen with the placenta to bring artistic talent to the child. (6)
It’s also a really good fertilizer given that it’s a life source for making a baby it will help make a beautiful rose bush too!
So, clearly there is not a ‘one size fits all’ answer to this question. It’s very individual to the woman’s needs and experience. As always with the midwifery model of care, we want you to have true informed consent in order to make a sound decision for you, your body and family.
For more information about the who, what, where and why of placenta encapsulation, please visit: Find Placenta Encapsulation
1. “Placenta Encapsulation Methods.” Find Placenta Encapsulation, findplacentaencapsulation.com/.
2. Savadove, Bill. “Eating Placenta, an Age-Old Practice in China.” Inquirer Lifestyle Eating Placenta an Ageold Practice in China Comments, 25 June 2012, lifestyle.inquirer.net/54285/eating-placenta-an-age-old-practice-in-china/.
3. “Women’s Health Care Physicians.” Screening for Perinatal Depression – ACOG, 1 May 2015, www.acog.org/Clinical-Guidance-and-Publications/Committee-Opinions/Committee-on-Obstetric-Practice/Screening-for-Perinatal-Depression.
4. Mogielnicki, Juliana. “Postpartum Depression: Who Is at Risk?” MGH Center for Women’s Mental Health, 20 June 2005, womensmentalhealth.org/posts/postpartum-depression-who-is-at-risk/?doing_wp_cron=1524515167.9608330726623535156250.
5. LaFleur, Elizabeth. “Low Milk Supply: What Causes It?” Mayo Clinic, Mayo Foundation for Medical Education and Research, 22 Sept. 2015, www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-lifestyle/infant-and-toddler-health/expert-answers/low-milk-supply/faq-20058148.
6. Holburn, Kirrah. “Placenta Traditions and Beliefs.” Placenta Wisdom, 4 May 2016, placentawisdom.com.au/blog/2015/08/10/placenta-traditions-and-beliefs/.