Well & Good
"Do you want to keep your placenta?" the midwife asked me pointing to a container with my pregnancy afterbirth inside.
"Some people take it home and do something with it like eat it or bury it in the garden" she went on.
It was eight years ago and I had just given birth to my first child by emergency caesarean section in a London hospital. I wondered if the cocktail of drugs in my system was affecting my hearing.
I politely turned down the midwife's offer. Back then keeping your placenta and taking it home for dinner was a practice associated mostly with hippies and the home-birth brigade. My only experience of the organ until then had been in the late 1990s watching British celebrity television chef Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall shock viewers when he served placenta paté at a dinner party on his show and found himself in trouble with the Broadcasting Standards Commission for breaking a taboo.
How times have changed. Consuming your placenta, or placentophagy as it is known, is becoming the new birth trend in many countries. Many women see it as a vital post-birth health supplement, helping to combat postnatal depression as well as improving milk supply and providing a range of nutrients.
Placentas can be consumed in a variety of ways. If the idea of eating it raw does not appeal, how about in a smoothie, pizza topping or spaghetti? There is even an ebook, 25 Placenta Recipes - Easy and Delicious recipes for cooking with placenta.
Many women find that by far the most popular and convenient way of consuming their placentas is to encapsulate it and swallow it in a pill. With a growing network of placenta encapsulators in Australia, there's no need to do it yourself either.
"Business is booming. Women are definitely much more open to it now" says Sydney-based placenta encapsulator Alicia Langlands, who services the majority of hospitals across Sydney.
"I suppose having celebrities like Kim Kardashian talk about it probably helps. There are a lot of celebrities who have had their placentas encapsulated or they have honoured it in some shape or form, they've buried it or done something with it."
Mad Men actress January Jones hit the headlines when she said that placenta pills helped her avoid depression and tiredness following the birth of her son.
Langlands says she believes placenta pills have helped her too. After the birth of her second child, she developed postnatal depression (PND). "When I fell pregnant with my third baby I knew that I wanted to do absolutely anything and everything possible to reduce the risk of depression again and encapsulation just made sense. It absolutely helped me. I didn't develop PND."
Many of Langland's clients choose encapsulation because they have a history of depression and PND, she says.
"The oxytocin that is in the placenta is retained in the capsules so that oxytocin boost is just enough to get them through the post partum blues and get them over the hump that can sometimes result in PND. It's also fantastic because it helps boost breast-milk supply.
"The placenta has prostaglandins in it which help to bring in the milk supply and help shrink the uterus after birth. It's common for women to be anaemic after child birth and the placenta gives an excellent iron boost giving them back their energy and helping to restore their iron levels back to a healthy level."
Langlands, who has undertaken training in bloodborne pathogens and diseases, offers a pick-up, preparation and delivery service starting at $200. She says that in line with traditional Chinese medicine, she steams placentas with ginger and lemongrass. She knows other encapsulators who prefer myrrh or even chillis or jalapeños. Once cooked it is sliced up and dehydrated before being packaged into capsules.
However critics have questioned how safe the practice really is. Langlands says she has not come across any adverse reactions. "So far everything I have seen has been completely beneficial. I haven't had any of my clients come back to me with any bad reactions."
"It is an alternative therapy so it is not monitored in Australia.
"In the absence of a regulatory body a number of Australian placenta encapsulators are working together to develop voluntary codes of practice and conduct."
Langlands' experience is in line with the results of a survey published last year. Researchers at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, conducted a three-month survey of 189 women who had consumed their placenta after birth. The results, published in the journal Ecology of Food and Nutrition, showed that 95 per cent of those questioned reported a positive or very positive experience.
"Things like improved lactation, postpartum bleeding was alleviated, and postpartum recovery was either sped up or improved in general," Sharon Young, a researcher and a UNLV graduate student told Fox News. But the researchers added that the placenta's role in curing these conditions is still up for debate and more studies needed to be done.
However Nancy Redd wished she hadn't eaten hers. In a blog in The New York Times, "I Regret Eating My Placenta", she blamed placenta pills for putting her in a "tabloid-worthy meltdown mode, a frightening phase filled with tears and rage."
Her concern was with the unregulated process, she said. "Perhaps one day there will be clinical studies on human placentophagia, and we'll find out more about the pros and cons of the practice. Possibly we'll eventually be able to obtain a prescription for placenta processing, to make sure we know what's really in those "cleansing herbs".
Given the choice again now, would I give the capsules a go? At around a dollar a pill they would definitely be worth a try. Just as long as I didn't have to see what went into them.
- Sydney Morning Herald