Many celebrity mothers are fans of taking placenta pills to help ease their recovery. However, the science is unclear on the benefits and risks.
More mothers than ever are asking their doctors to save the placenta after their baby’s delivery.
Why? Well, they want to consume it.
The placenta, also known as afterbirth, is a marvel of anatomical design.
It connects the mother to a growing fetus, acting as a conduit for oxygen, food, nutrients, hormones, and more.
It even removes waste the fetus creates.
When the baby is delivered, the placenta — then a 1-pound flat, round organ — is delivered, too.
In most hospitals and delivery rooms, the placenta is discarded, never to be thought of again.
Increasingly, however, mothers want to eat or take the organ as a supplement, believing it may bring improved mood, higher energy levels, a quicker recovery from pregnancy, and more.
And they’re not alone.
Celebrity mothers like Chrissy Teigen, the Kardashian sisters, and January Jones have all talked about consuming their own placenta and the benefits they believe they experienced as a result.
Teigen, in a recent interview with CBS Sunday Morning, said that eating her placenta wasn’t considered out of place in Los Angeles, where she lives with husband John Legend and their two children, 2-year-old Luna and 4-month-old Miles.
She joked that “they grill it here.”
Teigen credits the organ for helping her avoid postpartum depression, something she’s openly discussed struggling with after the birth of the couple’s daughter in 2016.
But before you envision serving up seared placenta with a nice chianti and side of yeast rolls, it’s important to understand how placentas are typically processed and consumed.
When you deliver your placenta, you can ask the hospital to retain the organ and send it to “placenta arts specialists,” people who clean, slice, and then dehydrate the organ before grinding it up and putting it into pills.
You can also consume a placenta raw, roasted, or cooked. Some will blend it into smoothies or dehydrate it like jerky.
The supplement, however, remains the most common preparation.
Currently, no official standards exist for processing placenta for consumption.
Many centers suggest people preparing placentas heat them above 130°F degrees (54°C) for more than 2 hours to kill bacteria. No regulatory agency oversees these production centers.
If not handled properly, placenta may lead to illness, as it did in the case of an Oregon mother and her infant.
In 2017, the CDC issued a statement, warning mothers and doctors against consuming placenta after they learned of and studied the case of an infant who fell ill shortly after birth.
The mother, days after delivering her infant, began taking capsules that contained her placenta that had been cleaned and dehydrated.
A few days after leaving the hospital, she returned with an ill baby. The baby tested positive for group B Streptococcus sepsis (GBS), a bacterium that is found on the human body but can cause severe infections and illnesses in newborns.
After administering antibiotics for the sepsis, the infant was released and sent home. A few days after that, the infant was checked into another hospital and again tested positive for this unusual form of sepsis.
Doctors tested the mother’s placenta pills and found the bacterium in the pills. They also discovered that the bacteria in the child’s two positive test results and the pills were made of almost identical strains.
The doctors could not rule out that the infection had come from other family members, but the near-identical strains was enough for researchers to suspect the placenta pills were the guilty party.
In their statement, the CDC said, “Placenta ingestion has recently been promoted to postpartum women for its physical and psychological benefits, although scientific evidence to support this is lacking.”
Plus, the placenta can come into contact with bacteria that put the infant at greater risk for illness.
“When the placenta passes after the baby through the birth canal, it will also come in contact with these pathogens lingering in the recto-vaginal area. Eating that contaminated placental tissue could then further expose the woman and her baby to those invasive pathogens,” the lead author of the CDC report and infectious disease expert Dr. Genevieve Buser, told Motherly.
The CDC statement concluded, “The placenta encapsulation process does not, per se, eradicate infectious pathogens; thus, placenta capsule ingestion should be avoided.”
This practice remains largely unconventional, even unrecognized, among many U.S. hospitals and doctors’ offices.
In fact, in one report from the American Journal of Obstetrics & Gynecology, more than half of obstetricians and gynecologists say they don’t know enough about the risks and benefits of placentaphagy (the practice of eating your placenta).
Additionally, 60 percent of those doctors said they weren’t sure if they are in favor of it.
Earlier this year, a study in the journal Birth brought the CDC’s verdict against consuming placenta back into the spotlight.
The findings suggested that the practice isn’t unsafe, as long as the placenta is handled properly. Indeed, the study of more than 23,000 birth records found that there is no increased risk of neonatal intensive care admissions, hospitalizations, or infant deaths in babies born to mothers who ingest their placenta.
At the same time, however, another study from the same research group concluded there wasn’t any difference in health reports between mothers who were taking placenta supplements and mothers who were taking a placebo.
However, this study did not look at the impact of placentaphagy on mood disorders such as postpartum depression.
More research is needed to understand if there are any possible benefits from this practice.
“I did my midwifery training in New Zealand, which internationally is regarded as having the best maternity healthcare system in the world,” said Kathy Fray, bestselling motherhood author, senior midwife, and international maternity consultant. “In New Zealand, [consuming placenta is] pretty common and seen as all very normal for a woman to have their placenta dried and encapsulated for them to consume in the first month or so.”
Many mothers believe, and Fray suggests, that consuming the organ will help the mother recoup some of the minerals and vitamins that are lost during pregnancy.
“From a health perspective, it is so rich in vitamins and minerals, especially iron. Consuming the placenta can go a long way to assisting the new tired mother’s body to cope with the demands of new motherhood in those first critical weeks,” Fray told Healthline.
While the current scientific evidence does not support the use of placenta after birth, anecdotal responses from mothers indicate some benefit. Whether that benefit is entirely placebo-induced is to be determined.
“Placenta encapsulation is a very old trend regaining popularity as new generations of health-conscious mothers are wanting to take a more active role in their pregnancy and postpartum experience,” Elizabeth Trattner, AP, an acupuncture physician in Miami, Florida, told Healthline.
“From a clinical experience, many of my patients have encapsulated their placenta and have used this as a tonic to strengthen themselves after childbirth,” Trattner said. “I have seen the benefits firsthand, so I do not have any issues with the practice.”
Whether or not you want to consume your placenta is a decision left up to you.
However, it’s important to be aware of the risks and potential problems you could face. While research shows the risks are rare, they do exist.
Talk with your doctor about your choice and make sure your hospital will allow you to have the placenta. Some hospitals do not, so you need to be aware before you deliver.