The first time I heard women talk about eating their own placentas, I thought they were kidding.
You know the placenta—that tangled blood vessel pancake that sustains the life of your unborn baby? It’s a beautiful marvel of the human body in its design, nourishing life for nine months inside the womb like a silent workhorse. It’s something that makes most people squirm just thinking about (I’m looking at you, husbands), and one of those things most women take for granted during routine pregnancies. Ideally, the placenta does its job until delivery, quietly exits shortly after the baby, and is discreetly disposed of with most mothers none the wiser.
Why on earth would women ever want to eat them?
Turns out placenta encapsulation is a growing trend. Celebrities including January Jones and Kim Kardashian—and plenty of other mothers—subscribe to the notion that taking pills filled with processed placenta has health and mood benefits in the postpartum weeks. While there is no scientific or medical proof of measured benefits, many women say taking the pills soon after childbirth can ward off postpartum depression, increase breastmilk supply, and provide an energy boost.
The methodology of encapsulation is pretty straightforward: shortly after delivery, the placenta is washed, dehydrated, and ground into a fine powder, which is then placed inside empty gel caps. Some women do the processing themselves at home (a quick Google search will walk you through exactly how to do it); there are also numerous companies that will handle the encapsulation for a fee.
But the Centers for Disease Control is warning against the practice because of potential health risks to the babies who were once sustained by those organs.
In a report published June 30th, the CDC cites the case of an unnamed newborn in Oregon who developed a GBS bacterial infection (despite the mother testing negative for the organism prior to delivery). The baby was treated with a course of antibiotics and his condition improved. Five days later, the same infant was admitted for a second GBS infection that initially puzzled doctors as to its origin. The infant’s mother was taking two or three capsules of placenta daily, and when the substance was tested on the hunch of a physician, it came back positive for the same GBS bacteria that had sickened the baby.
The CDC notes that no standards exist for the processing of placenta for consumption—and that’s cause for real concern. Because the practice is done in an unregulated manner, with no guidelines for procedure or safety standards, it’s possible for the finished product to harbor unwanted organisms.
Shorter: it could make your baby sick.
Are most babies of women who encapsulate and eat their placentas absolutely fine? Very possibly. And many proponents argue that in the animal kingdom, plenty of mammals consume their own placentas raw.
But humans aren’t, say, tigers—and there’s no way to know for certain that the practice is being done in a manner that would eliminate dangerous pathogens. And I bet contaminated placenta probably sickens a fair number of tigers.
For me, the takeaway from the CDC report is clear: take a pass on eating placenta. The health and well-being of your vulnerable newborn hangs in the balance, and unproven benefits don’t outweigh the risks.