The deadly risk of eating your placenta
The women who do it say it has the potential to improve mood, prevent post-partum depression, increase energy, and improve milk supply. But experts have warned that the practice of placenta eating comes with potentially deadly risks.
In their latest journal issue, the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) told the story of a US woman whose newborn was admitted to intensive care for severe breathing difficulties. The doctors, confused by the rapid deterioration of the baby who was born healthy and without complication, found that it had a deadly blood infection known as late-onset group B Streptococcus agalactiae (GBS) bacteremia.
The infant was treated with an 11-day course of antibiotics and sent home, but five days later was hospitalised again after contracting a second GBS infection. This time, after further investigation, doctors discovered that the cause of the infection was the placenta pills that the mother had been taking three times a day since the baby's birth.
The GBS-infected placental tissue, in the form of dehydrated pills, were ingested by the mother and then passed on to the baby.
The mother, who may have developed a intra or post-partum infection that was not picked up by the encapsulation company in pre-labour testing, was instructed to stop consuming the capsules and the baby, after being treated with a second course of antibiotics, recovered and was sent home.
"Placenta ingestion has recently been promoted to post-partum women for its physical and psychological benefits, although scientific evidence to support this is lacking," the CBC stated.
"This is the first paper showing negative effect," Dr Kirsty Pringle, of the Mothers and Babies Research Centre at the University of Newcastle, says. "It's nice to [see] some research into it because lots more women are doing it without evidence that it's beneficial."
Anecdotally, there are plenty of women who say it's beneficial.
The idea is that the placenta is jam-packed with hormones and nutrients (iron, protein and vitamin B6) that the new mum is depleted of post-birth. It is believed that eating the placenta (most commonly in dehydrated pill form, but some whack slices into their morning smoothie or pop it in their stir-fry) replenishes these lost stores.
While the practice is still not commonplace, it has been growing in popularity in recent years with celebrities like January Jones, Alicia Silverstone and Kim Kardashian all eating their placentas (Kardashian believed it would help her retain youthful looks after she gave birth while Jones reported that it kept her energy levels up).
"More people are taking it up because now there's this encapsulation method, where you're taking a pill instead of having to eat the meat, which makes it more palatable," Pringle says. "Secondly there are celebrities doing it and people think, 'Well, if they're doing it then it must be a good thing'."
As someone who studies the placenta, Pringle says "it's an amazing organ" that provides all the nutrients to the baby during pregnancy.
"In some ways I think there are certain nutrients in it that are going to help the mother afterwards and a lot of animals eat their placenta after birth and it might be of some benefit to them, but it might also be a survival thing," she explains. "It's going to smell if it's left around so for their own protection they have to eat it. Humans don't need to do that for survival."
Additionally, the placenta also takes all the waste from the baby during pregnancy and helps to protect the baby from any toxins the mother may be exposed to during pregnancy.
"Some of those things may not be beneficial to the mother afterwards," Pringle cautions, adding that while heating during encapsulation may kill some pathogens, it does not kill infections like GBS.
"Although there might be some benefits from the hormones and nutrients, I would be wary of it especially when there's no evidence that it has any benefit and now, looking at this report, with the infection that's a really big concern and the fact that the way the capsules are being made, there's no regulation or standards around that."
Pringle would like to see more research done to explore the potential risks and benefits, particularly as more women take up the practice.
In the meantime, she says: "I would be worried that at the moment those risks would outweigh any potential benefits the capsules might have. It's important for health care providers to tell women that it's not that there are no risks so it doesn't matter if there are no benefits. There are risks."
- Sydney Morning Herald