The placenta, a temporary organ, has a crucial role to play in pregnancy. It nourishes the fetus, also bringing oxygen and removing waste for the mother’s kidneys to dispose of. This essential organ also regulates hormone production throughout pregnancy and is responsible for sustaining the pregnancy. The placenta, attached to the baby via the umbilical cord, is born shortly after the birth of the baby.
We know that with the exception of just a few species, all mammals, including herbivores, consume their placenta as an innate behavior after giving birth to their young. Some say the behavior, also known as placentophagy, satisfies a nutritional need of the mother. Others claim it is a way for the animal to clean their nest in an effort not to attract predators. While at first glance, the cleaning-of-the-nest theory makes sense, we know that animals whose young can walk immediately after the birth, such as horses or giraffes, still consume their afterbirth with great enthusiasm even though they could just walk away from the birth site to a perceived safer location. Similarly, monkey species also engage in placenta consumption even though they could let the placenta fall to the ground below away from their tree-top birthing location.
If mammalian mothers only consume placenta as a way to clean the nest site, why don’t they take the time to lick up the blood and other fluids from giving birth? What are they gaining from the practice? And finally, if most other mammals do it, why don’t humans eat placenta after birth?
The Fire Hypothesis:
Last spring, I had the pleasure of attending PlacentCon, a conference for birth workers that hosted many presentations centered around the placenta and placentophagy. The conference, held in Las Vegas, had speakers from a variety of specialties, but one of the most memorable talks was given by Dr. Daniel Benyshek, medical anthropologist at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas (UNLV). Dr. Benyshek, along with researcher, Sharon Young, discussed their work with the groundbreaking placebo VS. placenta study currently underway at UNLV. When asked about why humans don’t innately engage in placentophagy, Dr. Benyshek had a fascinating hypothesis.
He explained that as a species, early humans probably did consume their placenta after birth. When fire was discovered millions of years ago, trees, absorbing heavy metals from the earth, were then burned. As a result, expecting mothers were around smoke and inhaling it regularly. While we know that the placenta does not act like a filter, holding onto toxins, it does have difficulty ridding itself of heavy metals. As the women were around smoke more and more, their placentas had increased levels of cadmium and lead. Upon ingesting their placentas after giving birth, women began either getting very ill or dying, and over time, we evolved to discontinue the practice. For the same reason, in present day, it is thought that cigarette smoking in mothers is a contraindication of placenta encapsulation.
Though there is research supporting the benefits of placentophagy in new mothers, the body of research is small and incomplete. The anecdotal evidence, however, showing that placenta encapsulation can help ease a new mother’s transition into motherhood is overwhelming. Women who consume their placentas often report:
- less incidence of iron deficiency
- more energy
- less fatigue despite irregular sleep
- increased milk supply
- enhanced mood
- decreased postpartum bleeding
Whatever the cause of placentophagy in the animal kingdom, it’s clear that moms from across the world are pleased with the results from utilizing their placenta for postpartum recovery. It’s exciting to see more research developing about this practice. Stay tuned in 2016 for the results of UNLV placenta VS. placebo study to be published!