Saturday, February 16, 2013

To Encapsulate or Not To Encapsulate?

Placenta encapsulation has become increasingly popular in the natural birth community. Claims of lower postpartum depression, the replenishment of vital nutrients, even increased milk production permeate discussions in both mainstream and "crunchy" circles alike.

Placentophagia (the eating of one's placenta) is found in many mammalian species, though interestingly has not been recorded in human history and is only occasionally observed in the reproductive behaviors of our closest cousins. Anthropologists have failed to nail down the specific drive behind placentophagia, however, the hypotheses have become the mantras of today's placental encapsulation enthusiasts.

I'll say this: I'm a huge supporter of the practice. Not only do I believe it can potentially replenish your body's nutrients, I also believe in every person's right to do what they will with their bodies whether or not they're giving birth. If you have spent the better part of 40 weeks growing the organ that sustained your child in utero, it is understandable that you wouldn't want it to just be hauled off to the incinerator. Many families opt to take it home, bury it, save it in a freezer, or have it encapsulated. Encapsulating parents take the capsules like vitamins, and indeed the placenta is home to a number of beneficial nutrients that may aid postpartum recovery.

On just about every placenta encapsulator's website, you can find the following claims:
It is believed that consuming your placenta can:

  • Help to balance your hormones
  • Replenish depleted iron levels
  • Assist the uterus to return to its pre-pregnancy state
  • Reduce post-natal bleeding
  • Increase milk production – this has been proven in a study
  • Make for a happier, more enjoyable post-natal period
  • Increase your energy levels

Sounds pretty good, doesn't it?

As much as I hate to be a buzzkill, I must interject here that there is absolutely no methodologically sound research to back many of these claims (or demonstrate how consuming one's placenta would, say replenish iron levels better than a diet rich in heme iron). I wish there was such research, but unfortunately, the evidence of any of the above benefits remains largely anecdotal.

Deena Blumenfield at Shining Light Prenatal Education breaks down the issues with some of the commonly-held beliefs about placentophagia, noting specifically the questionable claims surrounding oxytocin and postpartum bleeding:
Yes, oxytocin is present in the placenta… but how much of it is destroyed during the cooking or dehydrating process.  No one knows because there are no studies on this.  How much of any of the hormones or nutrients are destroyed during cooking or dehydrating?  Again, no one knows.
Placenta is also used to control postpartum hemorrhage ... by cutting off a small piece of placenta and asking mom to suck on it, or eat it, as her care provider is trying to control the bleeding.  However, this is used in conjunction with other techniques, such as uterine massage, to control bleeding.  So where is the bleeding control coming from?
As a lactation consultant, I wish to specifically address the commonly-held belief that consuming your placenta can combat low milk supply because of its high levels of prolactin. It's shocking to see a number of people citing "a study" on placentophagia and prolactin levels when in reality no such study exists.  Let me rephrase... no such methodologically sound study exists.

The "study" put forth by most supporters of placentophagia is Soykova-Pachnerova et. al, Placenta as Lactagagon. The first thing I noticed about this study is that you can't find it anywhere... I sifted through page after page of placenta enthusiasts citing it, but couldn't locate a primary source at all.

The second thing I noticed about this study, once I found a reliable source with more details about it, is that it was conducted in 1954. It had an extremely small sample size, it was not performed with any kind of single- or double-blind method (in other words, participants knew whether they were being fed placenta or the placebo), and it did not control for outside factors (first gestation vs. subsequent, overlying health issues, etc). It has yet to be replicated. From those issues alone I am prepared to dismiss this research as bunk. Moreover, I am concerned with the number of folks claiming increased lactation from placentophagia has been "proven in a study."

Still, I find that the rationale deserves a closer look. While it is true that placenta contains lactogens (human placental lactogen, or hPL), hPL is slightly different from the prolactin (PRL) responsible for milk production. In fact - to totally nerd out on endocrinology for a moment -  it appears that the similar hPL molecules, along with progesterone, keeps the body's prolactin levels at bay until the placenta is delivered.[1]

Which brings me to my next point: even with lactogens present in placenta, can taking them orally cause one's prolactin levels to increase? For this to happen, lactogens (prolactin, etc) would need to have some sort of oral absorption capabilities.  Do they?

Unfortunately, the evidence seems to suggest they do not. While the body of research on this topic is also lean (and decades old), a well-controlled experiment conducted in 1979 found that the serum prolactin levels of lab rats were not effectively raised by the oral administration of prolactin. This study has also not been replicated, however, the conclusive nature of the results may contradict the need for further study.

Lastly, anecdotal evidence of better breastfeeding success and lower PPD is suspect in that it leaves many socioeconomic factors out of the equation. Consider location alone: the provider listings at show that most placenta encapsulation specialists are localized to metropolitan areas, areas where there are also likely to be lactation consultants, peer support groups, friends close by, etc.

Now consider the economic factor. To my knowledge, placenta encapsulation is not covered by any insurance company (and definitely not Medicaid), with out-of-pocket costs ranging from $200 and up. If someone has the ability to pay that fee (especially after having a baby), they probably also have the ability to pay for a lactation consultant, a doula, a therapist, etc. They are more likely to be partnered and have well-paying jobs (which would denote higher education levels). These factors play major roles in breastfeeding success and postpartum depression risk alike; therefore, without research on placentophagia that controls for these factors, there is truly no way of knowing whether the placenta - not socioeconomic status - is what's lending these great results.

Regardless of all the suspicions I have about placentophagia being a "miracle cure," my opinion is that there are probably many benefits (mostly nutritional), and it is likely not harmful. There has been some concern over the 2011 study that found heavy metals present in placenta and cord blood, but those levels are likely a reflection of what the body has been exposed to anyway. I am not clear on whether or not re-consuming those metals will do any more damage, however, I would encourage you to speak with your midwife or doctor if that is a concern.

But unfortunately, the claims involving lower PPD and better milk supply seem to be anecdotal. I'll echo Blumenfield that I would love to see actual research. As someone who works with new parents as both a doula and lactation consultant, it would be great to find out that placentophagia does in fact have these miracle properties. In other words, I would love to be proven wrong.

Lauren Guy

[1]Jan Riordan, and Karen Wambach, Breastfeeding and Human Lactation Forth Edition, (Sudsbury, Massachusetts: Jones and Bartlett Publishers, 2010), 88-90.


  1. Lauren,

    This is an awesome writeup. It is so hard to wade through the information- there is usually very little middle ground between crunchy nonsense and rigid science that fails to take into account the myriad socioeconomic, emotional, and cultural factors. Anyway, I'm super impressed.


    1. Thanks dear! It can be difficult to stay level-headed in a field fraught with strong opinions and hyperbole, but I try. :)

  2. Very helpful! Did you find any research on the PPD connection?