Doctors have increasingly fielded questions and requests from women who want to consume their placenta after giving birth in the hope of reaping a variety of health benefits.
Dr. Leena Nathan, an assistant clinical professor at the University of California Los Angeles (UCLA) Health Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology, said many women are interested in consuming the placenta for health reasons, despite a lack of scientific evidence.
“They use it for improved breastfeeding and helping with mood after delivery,” Nathan told Healthline. “I tell them there's no good evidence to consume the placenta, and it costs some money.”
While these benefits have not yet been verified by medical studies, there had been little evidence that consuming the placenta could be harmful until the recent case report issued by the CDC.
“There may be particular risk factors that are real red flags,” said Dr. Genevieve Buser, lead author of the case report, and a pediatric infection specialist at Providence Health Services in Oregon.
Placenta in pill form
In the case study published last month, a newborn was hospitalized twice after contracting an infection called group B streptococcus (GBS).
The bacteria often colonize in adults with minimal or no symptoms, but the bacteria can be dangerous to infants.
Pregnant women are screened for the bacteria late during pregnancy, and are advised to take antibiotics if they test positive to diminish the chance that their newborn will be exposed when they are born.
The mother in the case study tested negative for the bacteria when she was 37 weeks pregnant.
In the case report, the newborn was initially diagnosed with the infection shortly after birth and was treated at the hospital with antibiotics before being sent home.
However, just days later the parents brought the infant back to the hospital due to irritability. A blood test revealed the infant had the same infection again.
Looking for a cause for why the infant was infected again, doctors tested the placenta pills the infant’s mother had been taking after giving birth.
They found the same strain of GBS in the pills that was found in the infant’s blood during both infections.
Buser said the case certainly leads to “more questions” about the safety of the practice.
Having a “mother ingest those capsules increased the colonization … of bacteria in her GI tract or on her skin,” Buser told Healthline.
She said that could increase the chance of the newborn getting infected.
Buser clarified that since the researchers didn’t do further testing in the home, it’s not clear that placenta pills definitively caused the infant to contract the bacterial infection a second time.
She said the goal of the case report is to separate fact from fiction for pregnant women and their healthcare providers.
“I think the important thing here is that there's the conversation between the provider and mother,” she said. “There may be particular risk factors that are real red flags.”
Handle with care
Buser said certain bacterial infections or blood infections — like hepatitis or HIV — can also be transmitted via the placenta, raising the importance that the material is carefully handled.
“It does have infectious potential,” Buser said.
In the CDC report, Buser and her co-authors reported that the infected placenta was dehydrated at a temperature of 115 to 160 degrees, which they found may not be enough to kill bacteria like GBS.
She said women who want to pursue this practice should figure out how their placenta will be prepared and talk to their doctors about potential risks.
Buser also pointed out that there’s no outside board that verifies companies that prepare placenta are adhering to safety standards.
“As a consumer, you're relying on their own internal processes or what they're telling you, but it's not like there's an external party,” to check, she said.
Claudia Booker, a midwife who encapsulates placenta for clients, said she was skeptical that the placenta pills caused the second infection in the infant, pointing out the mother could still have been colonized with GBS before taking the pills.
However, Booker did stress that the article should make those who prepare placenta for consumption reconsider how they prepare the organ.
Booker said she steams the placenta at a high temperature that will likely kill pathogens like GBS, and then dehydrates the material before encapsulating it.
“My concern has always been that you have meat in a warm place … It's building up [bacteria] at the same time,” she said of the dehydration-only method.
While Booker said she does not plan on changing or stopping her practice, she said the article is a cautionary tale for those who want to keep providing placenta encapsulation.
“I look at that article as being a cautionary tale for us to look at what we're doing and to review and assess,” she told Healthline.
Due to this case report, Nathan said she plans on looking into the providers who encapsulate placenta to better inform her patients about potential risks and safety issues.
While she wants to have an open conversation with her patients about it, she usually does have some simple advice when they bring it up initially.
“Honestly, I tell my patients … save your money and get a steak and glass of wine, and it will help your mood and iron level,” she said.