Oh, those crazy birth junkies! What will they think of next? Placentophagy is the act of consuming the placenta... yup, that beautiful regenerative organ - the tree of life - your baby's life force for the 10 months within the womb. This organ, so often discarded as a biohazard is thought to have many health benefits postpartum, considering consumption is a part of many family's research during the prenatal period.
Research into placentophagy is in the baby stages, so there isn't a lot of factual data available; however, most feedback from mothers who've consumed their placenta report positive feedback - especially regarding milk supply and avoiding depression or baby blues. After 3rd stage (birth of the placenta), a small portion can be cut off and used to stop or simply prevent a postpartum hemorrhage. Simply placed under the tongue, or between the gums and cheek, oxytocin, and other hormones, quickly seep into the bloodstream and stop excessive bleeding almost immediately. Even when swallowed, we see the same effects. (Note, mama doesn't want to start chewing the chunk of placenta - just close your eyes and swallow). Some midwives will mix up a smoothie to make the placenta more palatable, and mimic what many other mammals do after birth - consume the entire placenta. Oxytocin is not only the "love hormone" but is also the hormone that strengthens your contractions throughout labor (regulated by beta-endorphins). Oxytocin in its synthetic form is known as pitocin or syntocinon (depending where you live) and is routinely used to induce or augment labor, and also used in an injection form during a managed 3rd stage or to stop a postpartum hemorrhage. Synthetic oxytocin, however, does not cross the maternal blood-brain barrier, and as a result does not have the same effects on milk supply and positive mood as the natural forms of oxytocin.
My midwife for my 2nd birth recently told me a story about her milk cow. She had birthed many calves before, and after each one (cows being vegetarian, keep in mind) her cow would "gobble up the whole thing" and would produce about 5 gallons of milk a day. During one particular birth, some dogs came near her, fighting, and scared her. Being the sensitive mammal that she is (just like humans), the cow tensed up, and ended up retaining her placenta. After a few days and no placenta, the midwife went in to obtain the placenta - which the cow did not consume. She noted that this was the only time the cow ever struggled with milk supply issues, hardly producing any milk at all, and acted sort of depressed and different after this birth. Was it the birth experience or the retained placenta? Likely the birth experience which obviously reduced the oxytocin levels during and after birth, but the cow also didn't have that backup plan. Something to think about.
Something else to think about is the high amounts of adrenaline in the placenta. Remember that "get up and push" overwhelming feeling you had right before the baby emerged earthside? That's noradrenaline; the fetal ejection reflex. This is also part of the "fight or flight" response that in continuous amounts can really tax the adrenals making you feel angry, fatigued, and on high alert (even more than the normal levels that prolactin and oxytocin create in us mama bears). Consuming the placenta in a smoothie right after the birth is thought by many to be the best, and only positive, method of consumption. Continuously supplying adrenaline over the weeks postpartum - especially when considering the withdrawal symptoms many mothers feel when stopping their placenta pills - may not outweigh the possible benefits. Considering raw consumption, herbal blends, and tinctures (which can last indefinitely) in addition to or instead of dehydrating or using the prevention and alternatives listed at the bottom of this post should be a part of your discussion.
A great site for information on placentophagy is Placenta Benefits.info. However, let's list some of the theorized benefits here of the hormones, vitamins, and minerals that benefit the mother through consumption:
- Vitamins B6 (Energy, Reduces Depression Symptoms)
- Iron (Builds blood, Reduces Fatigue)
- Protein (Builds blood, Body's Building Block)
- Corticotropin-Releasing Hormone (Reduces Depression Symptoms)
- Oxytocin (Milk Ejection Reflex, Relaxation/Love/Bonding Hormone)
- Rh-negative mothers eat to prevent desensitization for future pregnancies
Preparing the placenta for consumption is very easy. You can see my services and prices here for MOV Placenta Preparation: http://esalibirth.com/professionals/danielle-bergum/ or if you're outside of the mid-ohio valley, you can hire a Certified Placenta Encapsulation Specialist, your doula may provide this service, or you can even just do it yourself (Click Here to order a kit). The main thing is, just like meat you'd buy from the store - a raw placenta can go bad and needs to be cared for with this in mind. It needs to be double bagged, and refrigerated as soon as possible after birth, and the closer to birth it is "processed" for consumption, the better. If it is not being processed within 24 hours, you may want to freeze it, and then thaw it until you have time.
In its raw form, the placenta - just like any other food - will retain more of its nutrients. Some moms choose to eat it raw, like oysters. If eating small portions over a long period of time, the placenta can be frozen and thawed in little sections. The main thing when "processing" is to not think of it, really, like a "placenta" but any food or meat that you would prepare. Sometimes it seems so foreign that we don't think it can be such an easy process.
How to Process a Placenta
When processing, you'll thoroughly rinse the placenta - typically removing all the membranes - and discard the umbilical cord (the membranes and umbilical cord hold the same properties, so it is really up to you).
Many moms like to make art prints of the "Tree of Life" with the umbilical cord. However, during my birth, my midwife removed all the membranes and umbilical cord after the birth to help speed up the processing - so we have more of a "Bush of Life" - still beautiful nonetheless.
This is where placenta prep differs between encapsulation and tincturing. After rinsing, you'll cook it up - steaming is best, just like with retaining the nutrients in vegetables, and will look like a small roast when it is done... or if you're disgusted of the process like my husband, you'll likely describe it similar to a brain.
Of course, you can simply eat it like a steak at this point - but if you can't quite stomach that, then go on to the next step. For me, the smell is the odd thing about the whole process. It isn't horrible - but has that strong hamburger smell that seems to be a little "off" because you know it isn't hamburger...
Then, slice it into half-inch slivers and dehydrate for about 8-10 hours (until crunchy). If you don't have a dehydrator, just put it in your oven on the lowest temperature. Some moms choose to skip the steaming/cooking and go straight to the dehydrator - although the steaming does help to thoroughly cook the placenta and ensure any bacteria...etc. isn't present though drying typically achieves the same results. If you don't cook it - it will take much longer to dehydrate.
After dehydrating, use a mortar and pestle, food processor, coffee grinder, or blender and blend into a fine powder. It is common for a coffee grinder to not be able to be thoroughly cleaned so be aware of cleaning and contamination-prevention practices if someone else is doing this for you. Some pieces will remain big if they were a little over-cooked, and you can chop these up by hand or just throw them out. Then, you can put the powder (with any medicinal herb powders) in a jar and use it just like a smoothie addititve or protein powder in drinks or over food - but most choose to encapsulate them for easier consumption. Most moms will get somewhere around 100 capsules without any added herbal powders - just depends on the size of your placenta and the size of the capsules you use (these would be size 00).
If tincturing, which is more potent than dehydrated with a longer shelf life, you'll need:
- Glass jars with lids
- 80 to 100 Proof Brandy (Less than this can result in spoilage from moisture content, especially when using raw placenta. Vodka or other alcohol works, but brandy is distilled wine and tends to be gentler on the stomach when making tinctures than clear liquors so it is the ideal choice).
- Dark colored glass dropper bottles
Cut the placenta into tiny dices. Fill your glass jars 3/4 of the way with placenta dices (and herbs if you're blending) and pour brandy over filling to the top of the jar. Shake daily for at least 4 weeks. Strain and bottle in dropper bottles.
Note: If you only have dried placenta and want to extend the shelf life, tincturing is a great option and is processed the same way.
The placenta is best consumed within the first weeks following birth, but can be saved to counteract other depression or low-energy times, and even stored until menopause to naturally balance the hormones during this transitional stage (tincture is best for this). Typically, you'll start with 1-2 capsules and work up to 3-6 daily (1-2 capsules, 3times a day), and monitor how you feel. If using a tincture, 1-3 dropper fulls daily, adjusting as needed.
For me, personally, I felt better taking a very small amount as taking more than 3 daily seemed to provide me with too much adrenaline, progesterone and oxytocin and caused me to be engorged with milk and very emotional. Granted, there are a lot of other factors that could have played into is - but after going down to one a day and then none at all to avoid withdrawal was ideal. My lifestyle choices were much more beneficial than placentophagy. I didn't process or consume my placenta until 3-4 days postpartum so my hormones had already started leveling off naturally and adding them back into my system really didn't help me. I ate balanced whole foods and wasn't really lacking in nutrition. Not all placentas have the same nutritional or hormonal contents because they are directly related to the individual mother, her hormone levels during pregnancy, and her nutritional intake during pregnancy and postpartum as well as medications during birth. So, with this in mind - understand that you may need to adjust your daily dose - which may actually mean taking less rather than more or not at all. Just remember - when you decide to stop consuming the placenta, slowly "wean" yourself - or the dramatic shift in hormones will produce the opposite result - such as fatigue, irritability, or migraines. Although, I also know of moms who will deal with the headaches...etc., so that they can save the pills for a really low day. Either way, the point is to understand that quitting "cold turkey" can result in some less than desirable outcomes.
I have yet to find any information on placentophagy after a medicated birth. However, a mother after a medicated birth will have lower levels of oxytocin and there may be benefits to consuming even when medications may be present. You may, however, want to be sure your placenta is in a healthy state before consuming - which is easily done by asking your care provider. What is equally important to consider is other hormones, such as adrenaline and progesterone, that are present in varying levels in the placenta that can affect a mother - and we don't yet have a significant amount of information to understand just what affects placentophagy as a routine will have.
Placenta Encapsulation Alternatives (and preventatives)
Not into placentophagy but still want to counterbalance postpartum changes? Remember that rest, good nutrition, and adequate hydration help the body to naturally function well - including balancing hormones. Dark greens, adequate protein, and a balanced diet that helps build blood levels is very effective at preventing depression and fatigue, not to mention is a diet that we should be eating anyway that would already lead us to feeling better and making adequate milk. Preparing for your postpartum with freezer meals can reduce unnecessary stress - as can a babymoon or limiting visitors and phone calls. There is nothing like putting your baby to the breast often and unlimited for increasing milk supply. Get rid of the pacifiers, clocks, and fears that you can't make milk - and just nurse your baby. Consider the help of a postpartum doula to provide emotional support and help with things around the house (especially after a cesarean birth). Some mothers choose to take Omega-3 Fish Oils (a high quality brand) for prevention & treatment of depression. Likewise, treating depression with Lavender essential oils or St. John's Wort can also be very effective - especially when avoiding traditional depression medications (please thoroughly research herbs before consuming - especially during pregnancy and if breastfeeding).
The way I see it – having the option to consume the placenta is probably worth it. My honest opinion – it is useful as a PPH prevention and remedy and is best consumed raw within the first day after birth. I don’t believe it helps everyone, and the body can naturally balance the hormones without placentophagy; though, I think they help a lot of moms in a variety of ways - most often those without a lot of help, those that could improve nutrition and those that are struggling with supply issues due to poor breastfeeding support, nursing limitations, pacifier use, tongue tie and other breastfeeding issues of our culture. Simply discarding or just planting under a tree felt like such a waste to me, and I would much rather have the option to consume than wish I had encapsulated and not had the chance. Because most moms report positive effects, and so many moms have such immediate results regarding baby blues and milk supply, it seems crazy to just let this wonderful organ go to waste. I didn't take mine very long and found that I felt much better when I stopped and just let things progress naturally and keep my leftovers in my freezer for future use. Many moms who process their placenta immediately after the birth (which is easier in a home birth, and many home birth midwives provide this as part of the package), find the immediate consumption beneficial because they don't have those days of transition before introducing the higher hormones again.
What was your experience with your placenta postpartum?