There is no significant nutritional benefit in new mothers consuming their own placenta, according to research published in the Journal of Midwifery and Women’s Health.
The practice, which is known as placentophagy, has become increasingly common in the last 10 years. Those who recommend it say it increases milk production, limits postpartum depression and increases energy levels.
The researchers, from the University of Nevada Las Vegas, are the first academics to study the phenomenon, which they say was started as part of the home birth movement in the US in the 1960s.
During the three week study, ten women took placenta capsules three times a day for four days, followed by two times a day for the next eight days, and once a day for the next nine days. Thirteen women followed the same schedule, but were given a placebo pill containing dehydrated beef.
Blood tests were taken before and after childbirth and at roughly one and three weeks postpartum. The tests revealed no significant differences in the iron status of the women in the two groups over the three-week postpartum period.
The study authors said: ‘Human placentophagy appears to be an increasingly popular practice in the US and abroad, and yet almost no clinical studies have been conducted to assess its possible health benefits or risks. While there may indeed be other benefits for women who eat their placenta after birth, the common practice of consuming the placenta in capsule form in the first few weeks after delivery does not appear to significantly improve iron levels for new mothers.
‘The current study suggests that encapsulated placenta supplementation neither significantly improves, nor impairs, postpartum maternal iron status for women consuming the recommended daily allowance of dietary iron during pregnancy/lactation, compared to a beef placebo.’
Placentophagy is the maternal animal practice of eating the placenta of the newborn shortly after childbirth. While most placental mammals engage in the habit for nutrients, there is certainly no medical reason for humans to do it despite what Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall or Tom Cruise may have us believe. On a more serious note, the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists do not recommend the practice, for mothers or indeed fathers. However, there have been anecdotal reports that mood improves and energy increases according to surveys of women who had ingested their own placenta.
This particular trial was a well designed but small double-blind, placebo-controlled pilot study, which means neither the investigator nor the participants knew what substance the participants were eating, a placebo or human placenta. That being said, the placebo was a beef placenta, which, I would imagine, is an excellent substitute.
About 78 per cent of the participants had healthy iron stores before starting the trial, a level that does reflect how common the disease is among pregnant women in the real world. This means that only five participants could realistically expect to benefit from ingesting their placenta, which is a very small number. Indeed, as expected, there was no significant difference in markers of iron stores three weeks after placentophagy, when one would really expect to see an increase in, for example, haemoglobin, ferritin or transferrin.
This is the first study of its kind to investigate the ingestion of human placenta and it is scientifically sound. However, it is also part of a much larger study, the results of which should be reviewed (hopefully with a much larger number of participants) before any firm conclusions can be made.
Research score 4/5