I don’t mean to be contrarian. It’s not really my nature to try and push back on things or choose the opposite argument for the sake of arguing. Maybe it’s because I’m a Libra, maybe it’s because I’m an INTJ personality type, but I am a strong questioner. Question everything, feel everything, remain open…that’s me.
So it was interesting to have a common situation amongst my prenatal client meetings this past winter — apparent giddy anticipation for what I was going to say about placental ingestion.
Three different sets of clients informed me that they had discussed amongst themselves whether or not to keep and consume their placentas and had mused between them that I likely had a whirlwind opinion on the matter with an outcome they couldn’t guess. I found this amusing. I kinda like that my personality is strong enough and my relationship with my clients deep enough that they’re talking about me like this. Being a bit of a nutty professor type doula is something I’m comfortable with as a brand I guess.
And they were correct. I do have a somewhat tumultuous view of the question of what to do with a placenta that’s best delivered in an uninterrupted tirade, usually delivered at the outset of the third prenatal appointment. They ask the question and off I go! At the end of the maybe five minute schpeel, there are no answers, only more questions. That’s just the nature of many things to do with the human body, especially in postpartum, so I’m comfortable with giving a ramble instead of a supposed answer to what to do with this incredible organ at the end of birth.
What is the placental jaunt, you didn’t ask? Join me…
There is no compelling evidence to suggest that ingesting a human placenta — however processed — is to the benefit to the person who has birthed it or the fetus who created it.
However, there isn’t compelling evidence for many things that are of benefit to us, in part because of the political nature of funding high-level research. Placentophagy, as it’s formally called, is still seen as “gross” and pushed off into the realm of hippie-dippie, homebirthy, crunchy and thus unrigorous and unfounded territory Western (and primarily American) research bodies typically feel isn’t worth researching thoroughly.
Coupled with the fact that organ meat of any kind is no longer cusine de rigueur, the gross out factor alone has largely kept this occurrence — something common within the mammal class and still practiced within many contemporary cultures — in a mental filing cabinet for the likes of Andrew Zimmerman and snow foxes, not sane, rational, middle-class, non-hippie parents. The loudness of the “NO!”s heard in labor rooms all over when asked “Will you be keeping your placenta?” can be deafening for this reason alone.
So let’s talk about the mammal part a little. Truth : All mammals apart from humans routinely eat their placentas after birth. For many, that is compelling enough evidence that we should consume our’s. It was for me for a while, too, till I did more digging. Yes, all mammals eat their placentas after birth, however, the further up the food chain you go, the less likely it is that a mammal will consume their entire placenta. A friend of mine posted one of the most stunning photographs I’ve ever seen of a whale placenta floating along, still partly in an enormous amniotic sac, pierced by morning rays of sunshine and undulating exquisitely in the waves. Someone responded to this post asking why the full placenta wasn’t consumed. I chimed in (I can’t help myself) that because whales are high on the food chain and don’t need to hide the evidence of their recent births, it’s likely that this mama whale ate what she needed to in order to replenish herself after birth and just went about swimming along with her calf to tend to it in other ways. If this whale were not a whale but a guinea pig trying not to be eaten by a coyote or a coyote trying not to be eaten by a cougar, she would have likely have eaten her full placenta and set about removing herself and her new young one from the scene as disguise.
Humans, like whales, are apex predators. We don’t need to hide our afterbirths for fear that the scent will attract anything other than predatory formula salesmen consuming our thoughts of a broken maternal body. So, naturally (if we want to co-opt the argument that placentophagy is “natural”) we don’t need to consume our entire placentas for safety.
We also have adapted to a system of grocery stores, which starts to break down the need for placental ingestion at all. One argument for the benefits of consuming a placenta (and these are argumentative points based off the very reasonable and likely assumption that the placenta has high levels of macronutrients like iron and magnesium similar to other organ meats) is that like other mammals we need to have an immediate resupply of blood-enriching nutrients we lost during birth. We do. That’s real life true facts. Do we need it necessarily from a placenta, OUR placenta? Likely not. Floradix will do the trick. Black strap molasses in some apple juice works wonders, too. Dates with ghee, almond butter, cacao, and goji berries — also a sexy, nourishing thing to shove in the face of a recently transformed birthing person. The next time you see a New Jersey black bear walk into an Acme for a date smoothie to replenish their postpartum bod, you let me know, otherwise, I think they’ll stick to a placenta snack in their hibernation spots (don’t think Uber Eats is up on cave delivery yet, anyhow. It’s barely in the suburbs.). Humans, however, have a choice in what they stick in their gullets, though, and choosing NOT to suck down their 8lb, bloody baby buddy meat, if that’s how they see it, is a-okay.
How about the claims that it replenishes much needed hormones after birth? We legitimately have no idea if that’s true. Sorry. We don’t. This is where the super ultra high level primary tier research would be nice and Buddha willing, it will exist someday, but it’s not here now. We quite frankly, don’t know shit about hormones. Some research is pumping along on that front and there’s certainly the beautiful and rich history of midwives and healers sensitive as a tuning fork to the primal changes in hormones within pregnant, birthing, and postpartum folks, and where anecdote and oral history is a critical element in this profession, it’s not a mere semantical distinction to say that we don’t have quality research on the hormonal profile of placentas. We especially have no idea if processing human placentas into milkshakes or lasagnas or dried up bits to shove into pills preserves any of that supposed hormone profile. I’m not giving a valued statement here, this is just a fact of our unknowing that needs to be talked about frankly with parents curious about this topic.
In regards to what birth workers world over and since time immemorial have noticed, there is also controversy. This, like so much of what’s broken within our health care system and the often knee-jerk counter “wellness” community is due to a lack of nuance more than a lack of correctness.
Take for example the question of whether or not placental ingestion hinders or increases breastmilk supply. There is a schism in the birth community on whether the uptick in placenta eating has done more to benefit or harm breastfeeding success, with lactation counselors and midwives and doulas on both sides of the debate. Well, yeah, duh. Considering that this practice doesn’t have a standard of dosage, processing, monitoring, or individual screening for some bajillion different inherent factors, it is reasonable to assume there would be a variety of reported experiences and biases. It doesn’t help that the aforementioned political dynamics of research on this topic are seemingly much more compelled to shut down the potential of placentophagy doing any good has brought about more articles against it than for it from outside the realm of birth work. For some, that triggers an even less nuanced lens of this debate out of protectionism, as I see in my own birth community fairly often on this issue. For some, the idea that eating a placenta would ever do any harm is off limits to even bring up! It doesn’t matter that like any supplement and any biological system, what may work for someone may have completely opposite results in another. Without seeing the potential for adjustment or unsuitability of a practice, it is likely that an issue will be pushed aside as unworthy of exploration one way or another by a wider set of interlocutors. Beware, the circular firing squad.
Another important part of this puzzle is the reported incidents of mothers/birth parents feeling “high” after consuming their placentas. This is also an area where the degree and mechanism of consumption need to be considered, but usually aren’t. The reported feelings of euphoria in some women/persons is a welcome counter to the “baby blues” experienced universally in the early postpartum period as hormones oscillate through to a once again non-pregnant state. This has been enough to create a frenzy of birth workers and parents taught that the placenta is a miracle worker, and for those it helps, it most certainly is. Dope. In other women/new parents, the feeling that comes from consuming their placentas leaves them feeling a lack of control — something really not beneficial to having to heal, process, and take care of an entirely dependent new little person. We don’t want parents drinking to the point of buzzed or drunk and then handling their infants, why would we advocate for them to consume something that would make them feel similarly, even if it is “natural?”
In these two examples, again, I’m not saying that anyone is “right” or “wrong.” I’m not attempting to dismantle the notion that there are benefits to eating one’s placenta, but rather to express my disappointment in that this topic sometimes leads to yet another area to box the postpartum period into a time when outside influence reigns supreme, leading to feelings of guilt around not being good enough/natural enough/connected enough/intuitive enough/and so on. In some sort of perfect obstetrical dynamic where there is strong continuity of care, community support, 24/7 monitoring, history and nuance and stillness, yeah, maybe placental consumption would benefit everyone. But that’s still a maybe, and it’s also not the reality of the postpartum experience through most of contemporary society. Certainly not here in our’s. For this reason, I want to urge birth care providers to check themselves around how this topic is presented and managed amongst their clients and colleagues. Support the clients who are seeing positive results from ingestion, but allow space for those who aren’t to question if it’s right for them, that’s all.
At the end of the day, I feel that this topic offers an organic and gorgeous place to talk about informed care and personal decision making with our clients. I have a schpeel, yes, but it offers intentional gaps that I want them to fill in for themselves. It’s exciting to watch my clients start to connect their gut instincts with what anecdotal and research-driven information is floating around. It’s something they’re going to be forced to do each and every day as parents. Opening this space for humor, analysis, discovery — THAT’S OUR DIVINE CALLING AND PRIVILEGE. This is the essence of being a guide for parents in pregnancy, birth, and postpartum. This is the core of our work. This is the “it.” It literally doesn’t make a difference at all if they eat their placentas on your watch or not since it’s not your job to save them from what would happen if they didn’t. You don’t get a gold star for helping someone be more animalistic. You haven’t won anything by saying there’s no evidence and galloping onward on your high horse. I would cordially invite you to get off your high horse starting with this discussion if you’re tempted to prance all over it. This topic sometimes encourages off the rails in fighting that’s super unhelpful to our profession.
Instead, let’s let this heated debate offer a Miriana Trench to explore together — one more of process and intuition than what “side” you’re on. This dark, wet, unknown is scarier than public health data or National Geographic interest pieces, sure, but that’s the work. To fully know more about what this magical organ can and cannot do for their creators and keepers, we need to sit with all the questions individually and repeatedly and allow for our biases to be proven wrong or right uniquely with each person tasked with making their own decisions. I urge you to keep an open heart and level head when responding to the questions around the topic on social media and in learning spaces, too.
And, you know…Bon appetite.