I have a confession to make. This year, I narrowly escaped becoming a placentophagist. Placentophagy is the eating of human placentas and, two months ago, I nearly ate mine.
It’s OK, I didn’t shove the whole bloody thing into my face raw and yodel at the sky in some Satanic birth ritual. Nor did I make like a budget Hannibal Lecter and sauté it with champignons. But instead, for a fee, I arranged for a very nice lady – a former midwife – to come to the hospital after the birth and take my placenta away in a chilled box. Then she’d freeze-dry it and decant it into capsules for me to have with my morning coffee every day (I could also have had placenta smoothies and placenta moisturiser). It was altogether a very civilised prospect.
To be quite frank, a few years ago even this prospect would have icked me out beyond imagining. But, like many things involved with motherhood that might previously have felt taboo – shitting on the delivery table in front of your husband and at least two health professionals; popping your boob out for your baby amid a crowd of disapproving tutters – you just have to re-engineer your concept of acceptability.
And consuming your placenta in capsule form came recommended by several of my friends and at least two Kardashians. You may know a few people who’ve done it. I did my research, too – being designed to nourish your growing baby, the human placenta is packed with vitamins and stress-reducing hormones, plus nutrients like iron and oxytocin. Fans of placenta encapsulation say that these can benefit new mothers and protect against anaemia and postnatal depression. As someone who was rendered a zombie by both of those after the birth of my first son, I would pretty much have tried anything this time around. And, among my friends, the reviews of placenta encapsulation ranged from “really, really helped” to “don’t know if it helped, but it didn’t cause any harm”, which was good enough for me.
Fans of placenta encapsulation say that these can benefit new mothers and protect against anaemia and postnatal depression
However. New research shows it may actually cause some harm after all. The study, published in the American Journal of Obstetrics & Gynaecology, found that all the available research on placenta encapsulation was unscientific and biased. Some of the claims of benefits – increased pain threshold, for example – had only been proven in rats. Most of the health professionals the researchers interviewed felt uninformed about the risks and, worst of all, a new mother passed on a life-threatening infection to her baby through her breast milk. And, eventually, the doctors realised it had come from her placenta pills – it was probably introduced during the process of encapsulation – and the Center for Disease Control and Prevention released a warning about placenta consumption in June of this year.
To be quite frank, I’m not sure how much this research will dissuade believers. Placenta encapsulation is growing in popularity and availability in the UK. And it’s easy to see why. So many births are disassociative medical experiences that rob new mothers of their sense of agency. Practices like placenta encapsulation can feel more natural, more maternal and as though they’re taking control. But, until there’s more research into it – or at least a strict standard of encapsulation is developed that absolutely excludes the possibility of pathogens being introduced – it might be best to steer clear.
And my placenta capsules? Well, in the end my labour came on so quickly I didn’t have time to finish my sandwich, never mind call the placenta pills lady. So I may have dodged a bullet by letting my placenta end up in the hospital incinerator. Unless, of course, Hannibal Lecter got to it first.