I’ve recently come to learn of a new fad that is sweeping the ranks of crunchy moms everywhere. Despite it’s inherent, “OMG eeeww” factor, it’s being unquestioningly embraced by many who live for the “natural = good” philosophy.
I’m talking about placentophagia, aka, the act of eating your own placenta.
The placenta is a temporary organ found in female mammals while they are pregnant. The placenta makes possible the exchange of nutrients and waste products between the mother’s and the baby’s circulatory systems. The mother’s and baby’s blood never mixes – that is the sole purpose and function of the placenta.
But some crunchy moms insist that the placenta isn’t just part of your babies life support system. It’s meant to be consumed as a medicinal chef-d’oeuvre. It’s natures primitive Prozac. It cures baby blues. It increases milk production. It shrinks your uterus. It regulates your iron stores and gives you a hormonal boost. And so on and so on and so on. So everyone needs to be popping placenta pills post-partum, and stat.
IS EATING THE PLACENTA “NATURAL”?
Now, I consider myself to be a rational crunchy mom, or quasi-crunchy. I very much prefer natural approaches to childbirth and child rearing, but I draw the line when it comes to putting a worship of all things “natural” above scientific analysis and basic common sense. The one basic tenet of gung-ho crunchy moms that I disagree with is that all things natural are therefore beneficial to practice, use or ingest. After all, arsenic is natural. Asbestos is natural. Mercury is natural. Tapeworms are natural.
Is eating the placenta natural? Sure it is. If you are a lower order species, like a rat or a dog. But is it natural for higher order primates and human beings? Not really. Not all mammals consume their placenta’s, and historically, the practice almost never occurs in human beings. And the isolated incidences are almost always in the context of religious and ritualistic practices. Not unlike eating the beating heart of your enemies or sacrificing a firstborn to ensure a good harvest.
In addition to placentophagia, many mammals also practice filial cannibalism, where they eat their own young. Benefits of eating your offspring include, “satisfaction of current nutritional and energy requirements of the mother and an increased reproductive capacity”. Just like placenta’s, babies are chock full of natural hormones and offer many health benefits! (I’d make a baby back ribs joke here, but that’s just tasteless. Haha, get it? Taste? Cuz.. eating babies.. Nevermind.) Anyway, filial cannibalism is natural. It’s healthy. Lots of mammals do it. Shouldn’t we also be snacking on our babies from time to time?
Or what about coprophagia? Lots of mammals also partake in coprophagia – the act of eating your own vomit or feces. The semi-digested matter offers many health benefits to mammals, including increasing nutritive elements such as vitamins B, K and B12, and provides healthy bacteria from the partially digested food (along with an occasional case of hepatitis or e coli). So why are we letting our precious bowel movements go to waste? If patterning our behavior off of a select few of our mammalian sisters is a valid response to women’s health, then this should be embraced as well. Fully and completely, for consistencies sake.
See, the mere “natural” consumption of birth waste by a select few wild animals just doesn’t convince me that it’s the thing to do when these same animals – dogs, goats, lemurs, apes – also indulge in shit fetishes, filial cannibalism and circle jerks.
IS EATING THE PLACENTA HISTORICALLY RELEVANT?
And saying, “Well, some people throughout history have eaten their placentas too” holds about as much weight as the “Some mammals eat their placentas” reasoning.
Societies throughout history – particularly ancient societies – have done some really freaking weird things. Human culture is full of superstition, crazy beliefs and appalling behavior. Just look at planking or twerking. So when it comes to historical context, just because some crack pot that thinks the sun is an angry fire demon in the sky believes that placenta munching is a cure-all, doesn’t make it true. That’s why we have a little modern thing called the scientific method.
Without using the scientific method to validate a practice, you end up getting modern day rituals like metzitzah b’peh, an ancient Jewish tradition involving circumcising a baby and then having a grown man suck on the wounded child’s penis. Or the modern day South African witch doctors that encourage men to rape babies and children because of the belief that by doing so you can heal yourself of AIDs.
And I’m so tired of hearing “it was used in ancient Chinese medicine” as a kind of sacred crunchy mom stomping ground to justify natural remedies. The ancient Chinese also relied heavily upon dangerous levels of opium, letting live bees sting you in the face in bee venom acupuncture, rubbing dead scorpions on your body and eating live frogs for detoxification, and many, MANY other – shall we say – questionable things.
So no, eating human afterbirth is NOT historically “natural” – it is historically ritualistic and found only in very small and isolated incidences through world history.
IS EATING THE PLACENTA SCIENTIFICALLY SOUND?
When it comes to scientifically backing up the claims of the placenta eating crowd, the burden of proof is really on the ones suggesting self-cannibalism and consumption of biohazardous medical waste. And the “proof” is just not there. Lots of claims, sure. But the fact is, there are literally NO scientific studies to confirm the “benefits” of placentophagia. Studies among carnivorous rats that act as carrion scavengers in the animal kingdom, yes. But among humans? No.
Most medical professionals flat out refute the claims that eating the placenta provides health benefits to the mother. There is simply no evidence that the placenta contains hormones that are biologically active in increasing milk supply, decreasing postpartum bleeding or improving postpartum mood. But even if the placenta did contain such miracle working hormones, there is no evidence that those hormones would survive biologically intact and maintain the integrity of the proteins and irons during the drying process of encapsulating placental tissues. Then there is the whole pesky issue of whether the wonder cure could survive the acid in the stomach, if it exists in a form that can be absorbed in the intestine, and if it can be absorbed in a form that could be utilized by human cells. There’s just no evidence of any of that.
The only solid-ish claim of those who support eating the placenta is that the placenta contains iron stores. Since the placenta is an organ meat, it can theoretically improve iron levels. But then again, so can an over the counter iron supplement. Or eating own your child.
There are just so many claims of the placentophagiasts that just smacks of miracle elixir and snake oil sales pitches. For instance, I keep hearing that these placenta pills have no expiration date. They’re so amazing, you can save them for decades to take during menopause, where they surely retain all their magical properties! This is quite a claim for a pill that is home made and not FDA approved. Even assuming the healthy nutrients (if any) are retained during the encapsulation process (doubtful), who exactly determines this lack of an expiration date for placenta pills? All herbal products, vitamin and mineral products and dehydrated meat products have an expiration date. The general rule with pills is that herbs retain their nutritive value up to 3 years after encapsulation, vitamins and minerals have a 2 year retention, enzymes and amino acids have a 1 year shelf life, and dehydrated meats have a variable of 3 months to 2 years for an expiration date. What, scientifically speaking, makes dehydrated human placenta jerky capsules immune from an expiration date?
IS EATING YOUR PLACENTA SAFE?
When scientific analysis eludes placenta proponents, I keep hearing the “Well, it can’t hurt, so why not try it!” excuse. But how do we know that it doesn’t hurt? It’s essentially cannibalism. Placenta pill poppers assert that the placenta is part of the woman’s body but actually, this is inaccurate. While there is a maternal component, placental tissue is mainly derived from the fertilized egg and carries the fetus’s genome. So technically, eating the placenta fits the definition of eating the flesh of another individual of your own species. Eating an organ of your childs, to be exact. And it has been firmly established in the biological and medical communities that there are many negative health concerns associated with cannibalism – the act of consuming human tissue.
Kuru disease, Prion disease and Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease are all incurable infections directly related to consumption of certain proteins in human flesh, most notably human organs such as the brain and the small intestines. How do we know that the placenta does not have the capacity to transfer these infections? A recent study that sought to identify and analyze the multi-protein complexes in the human placenta found 733 unique proteins and 34 known and novel heterooligomeric multi-protein complexes in the human placenta. Do we know, for a biological certainty, that these are safe to consume? The simple answer is no. We don’t.
And the recent onslaught of word of mouth miracle cures from placenta pills “not causing ill effects” make little difference in the world of cannibalistically derived illnesses. In the case of kuru disease, the incubation period has been known to last for 5 to up to 20 years after eating human organs before the symptoms start to kick in. And even then, the symptoms – ranging from tremors to hysteria to dementia – can take 3 months to 2 years before they finally culminate in insanity and death.
PLACENTA PILLS = PLACEBO PILLS
The proof of placental potency via “word of mouth” testimonies does more to advocate the use of placebo pills than anything.
It HAS been scientifically proven that placebos pills work, whereas it has not been established that placenta pills work, despite the grandiose claims. When it comes to the effectiveness of the placebo effect and placebo pills, it has been proven that capsules work better than tablets. Big pills work better than small pills. The more expensive the pills, the better. The more doses a day, (and the more ills it claims to cure), the better.
Placebo pills are also most effective in combating – you guessed it – depression! Like post-partum depression. (How ironic…)
Indeed there is much more reason to believe on scientific grounds that placenta pills “work” among eager new moms because of the placebo effect than because of any nutritive value found in the placenta. Clinical studies have shown that placebos have produced endogenous opiates – pain-relieving chemicals produced in the brain – which copy the effect of pain-relievers in unsuspecting patients. Placebos have even dramatically altered the levels of hormones in patients.
It has also been firmly proven that the placebo effect is directly related to the perceptions and expectations of the patient – if the substance is viewed as helpful, it can heal. It also helps if the one peddling the pills is enthusiastic and provides wild and varying claims to it’s cure-alls. In one study, the response to a placebo increased from 44% to 62% when the doctor treated the patient with “warmth, attention, and confidence.”
In short, placebos work best in patients who have pre-conceived notions of the effectiveness of a remedy and strongly believe they will receive certain health benefits from it. Basically, patients like ultra-crunchy moms who live by the ritualistic philosophy that anything natural is therefore good, are prime candidates for a placebo – or placenta – pill. In my personal opinion, they are both one and the same.
Which is why I won’t be eating my own placenta.