A few weeks ago, I shared a two-part article that I had written about the practice of consuming the placenta (you can read part one here and part two here) and the lively discussion that followed highlighted one key thing: there really isn’t that much evidence out there on this topic, and there is a lot that we don’t know about this area. Which is great for stimulating conversation and debate among midwives and birth folk, but not so helpful for those wanting to get to grips with the possible pros and cons of this practice.
Since I wrote those articles though, I spotted a really interesting literature review written by a midwife and published in the Journal of Obstetric, Gynecologic & Neonatal Nursing. In Consumption of the Placenta in the Postpartum Period, Emily Hart Hayes looked at this area in depth and included articles and research on this topic that I hadn’t previously seen. Here’s the abstract:
Postpartum women are consuming their placentas to achieve claimed health benefits, including improved mood, energy, and lactation. Strong scientific evidence to substantiate these claims is lacking. Self-reported benefits from some women include improved mood and lactation; animal models suggest there may be an analgesic effect. Possible risks include infection, thromboembolism from estrogens in placental tissue, and accumulation of environmental toxins. Women’s health care providers should be aware of this practice to help women make informed decisions. (Hayes 2016: 78)
One of the things that I found really interesting in here was a summary of the research looking at what animals and humans do:
Almost all mammalian species consume their placentas. Exceptions to this rule include humans, marine mammals, and possibly camels (Kristal et al., 2012; Young & Benyshek, 2010). Theories about why mammals consume the placenta include efforts to keep the nest area clean and reduce odors that may attract predators, to replenish nutrients and hormones in the mother, to satiate hunger in the mother after not eating during labor and birth, and because of temporary carnivorous behavior (Kristal et al.2012). Although placentophagy is common among nonhuman mammals, the practice has not been common in humans (Kristal et al., 2012). Young and Benyshek (2010) conducted a systematic review of the ethnographic literature of 179 cultures across the globe to document human practices dealing with consumption, disposal rituals and practices, and cultural beliefs associated with the placenta. They identified only one account in which a White woman in the U.S.–Mexico border region consumed her placenta. (Hayes 2016: 79)
I recall that Nadine Edwards and I went looking for this kind of data when we were writing Birthing Your Placenta, but we finished that book just before these papers were published, so it was fascinating to read about the systematic review. It goes to show how useful it is that people from different disciplines (including, in this case, biochemistry, ecology and anthropology) are interested in these issues, as they bring a different perspective and often the ability to access and analyse different kinds of knowledge.