Placental consumption is a traditional Chinese practice that dates back hundreds of years. Traditional Chinese medical texts from 1596 document the use of the placenta for conditions such as infertility, as well as problems with the liver or kidneys.
This practice has become increasingly popular in Western countries since around the 1970s with women eating the placenta either raw or cooked. However, nowadays, most women eat it in the form of capsules after it has been dehydrated and ground up into a powder. More and more healthcare providers, such as midwives and doulas, are offering this as an additional service.
Consumption of the placenta is not only practiced by humans but is common amongst many mammals who eat it straight after birth. It is thought that they do this to protect themselves from predators which would be attracted by the smell, as well as for nutrition, in a nutrient-scarce environment.
Proponents of eating the placenta believe that the benefits include:
- Boosted energy
- Reduced postpartum depression
- Facilitation of lactation
- Enhancement of maternal bonding
- Replenishing of iron
But what does the evidence say? Unfortunately, there are very few studies published that address this topic and the ones that have been published tend to be of a low quality. However, a Northwestern University review of 10 articles (four in human and six in animals), published in the Archives of Maternal Health in 2015, found that the evidence supporting placenta consumption was limited and inclusive, with the potential risks being unclear. The most likely benefit of placenta consumption is that it provides iron to women who might otherwise have experienced blood loss while giving birth. However, in this situation, a supplement may be an easier and cheaper solution. Additionally, as well as accumulating iron, the placenta is known to accumulate other heavy metals too since one of its functions is to act like a filter in order to prevent toxic substances from reaching the fetus. In a systematic review of 79 studies, the majority of studies found that mercury was present at higher levels in the placenta, compared with the maternal or cord blood. Additionally, in all of the studies except for one, cadmium levels were much higher in the placenta. However, in many studies, lead was found at lower levels in the placenta compared with maternal or cord blood. In contrast, another study found that 9.3% of women had a level of lead in the placenta which is considered to be potentially toxic (0.83 – 78 μg/dL). Overall, the evidence is somewhat sparse in this area and no firm conclusions can be drawn.
In conclusion, it seems that there is currently no strong evidence for or against eating your placenta following birth; however, eating a nice big juicy steak would probably be just as beneficial, without the possibility of ingesting accumulated heavy metals!