Individual women — such as the actresses January Jones and Gaby Hoffmann and the reality TV star Kourtney Kardashian — may “rave” about the health benefits of eating their placentas after childbirth, but a new scientific review of 50-plus years of studies has found no evidence of any such advantages.
On the other hand, the review didn’t find any evidence of harm from the practice (known as placentophagy), either. But then, as the Northwestern University researchers who conducted the review emphasize in their paper, no research has been done on the potential health risks of eating the placenta, which can become contaminated with bacteria during the birthing process.
Leaping to conclusions
Why would new mothers — and, sometimes, new fathers — want to consume, say, a fresh placenta smoothie after giving birth? And why would they or anybody else take dehydrated placenta pills at other times in their lives?
Part of the answer lies in the fact that the placenta contains certain hormones and nutrients, including progesterone, oxytocin and iron. Some (mostly alternative) health practitioners have made the giant leap from that fact to the assumption that eating the placenta, either raw, cooked or encapsulated, will transfer those substances in some healthful way to the consumer.
Those same practitioners also point to the fact that eating the placenta is common among non-human mammals, and thus must have a purpose that will benefit humans as well. Indeed, placentophagy’s advocates claim, usually by pointing to references in a 16th-century Chinese medical text known as the Compendium of Materia Medica, that the placenta’s medical usefulness was once widely acknowledged before the advent of modern medicine.
But the new review debunks those claims one by one.
Very few studies
For the review, the Northwestern University researchers conducted a literature search for the period between 1950 and 2015. They identified only 10 empirical, peer-reviewed studies that focused specifically on aspects of human placentophagy, including people’s attitudes about it. Six of those studies actually involved animals, but were included in this review because their authors discussed the implications of the findings for human practice.
The list of placentophagy’s purported health benefits is quite long. Eating the placenta right after birth is said, for example, to reduce the new mother’s post-delivery pain and bleeding and to increase her milk production and energy. Placentophagy advocates also claim that the practice will help with maternal bonding and reduce the risk of post-partum depression.
In addition, dried placenta, encapsulated and taken as pills, has been declared useful for the treatment of insomnia, the production of healthier skin and hair, and the regulation of hormones during menstruation and menopause.
The review found no evidence to support any of these claims. The animal studies did suggest some possible benefits, but, as the researchers stress, “statistically significant findings in animal data do not translate into meaningful benefits for humans.”
The placebo effect
Reports of human benefits from eating placenta have almost all come from women who were predisposed to believing in those benefits in the first place, the researchers point out. In such situations, any reported effects are highly likely to be the result of the placebo effect. Only rigorous studies — which have not yet been done — would be able to determine if placentophagy actually contributes to human health.
As for the claim that women in ancient societies routinely practiced placentophagy, the review found little evidence for that as well. Old Chinese medical texts do recommend dried human placenta for impotence, infertility, low energy and a handful of other problems, but “there is no clear evidence of postpartum women ingesting placenta,” the researchers write.
The first documented accounts of women practicing placentophagy after giving birth can be traced back to North America in the 1970s, they add.
The researchers cite a 2010 review of the placental beliefs and practices of 179 ancient and contemporary societies, which found no anthropological evidence to support the idea that human placentophagy is or has been common practice.
In fact, a dozen of those societies believe (or believed) that the placenta is unclean and/or contaminated with potentially contagious matter. But many societies did hold (or held) health-related superstitious beliefs about the disposal of the placenta, specifically that if the placenta is buried in the right location, good health will come to the family and to the surrounding community.
If only today’s health-related superstitions were so easy to bury.