Almost all non-human mammals eat placenta for good reasons — are we missing something?
BUFFALO, N.Y. — A paper by neuroscientists at the University at Buffalo and Buffalo State College suggests that ingestion of components of afterbirth or placenta — placentophagia — may offer benefits to human mothers and perhaps to non-mothers and males.
They say this possibility does not warrant the wholesale ingestion of afterbirth, for some very good reasons, but that it deserves further study.
Mark Kristal, PhD, professor of psychology and neuroscience at UB, directs the graduate program in behavioral neuroscience, and has studied placentophagia for more than 40 years. He is recognized as a principle expert in the field.
Kristal’s article “Placentophagia in Human and Nonhuman Mammals: Causes and Consequences,” will be published in the March 30 issue of the journalEcology of Food and Nutrition, which will be devoted to the subject of placentophagia.
It will be available after March 30 at http://www.tandfonline.com/toc/gefn20/current.
Kristal’s co-authors are Jean M. DiPirro, PhD, associate professor, Department of Psychology, Buffalo State College, and Alexis C. Thompson, PhD, research associate professor, UB Department of Psychology and a research scientist in the UB Research Institute on Addictions.
They point out that the benefits of placenta ingestion (as well as the ingestion of amniotic fluid) by non-human mammalian mothers are significant.
- It provokes an increase in mother-infant interaction, for instance, and increases the effects of pregnancy-mediated analgesia in the delivering mother.
- It also potentiates opioid circuits in the maternal brain that facilitate the onset of caretaking behavior, and suppresses postpartum pseudopregnancy, thereby increasing the possibilities for fertilization.
“Human childbirth is fraught with additional problems for which there are no practical nonhuman animal models,” says Kristal, citing postpartum depression, failure to bond and maternal hostility toward the infant.
- He says ingested afterbirth may contain components that ameliorate these problems, but although there have been many anecdotal claims made for human placentophagia, the issue has not been tested empirically.
“If such studies are undertaken,” he says, “the results, if positive, will be medically relevant. If the results are negative, speculations and recommendations will persist, as it is not possible to prove the negative.”
Kristal says there is a current fad of ingesting encapsulated placenta, which mirrors unverified reports in the 1960s and 1970s of people in back-to-nature communes cooking and eating human placentas.
The upsurge in recent anecdotal reports of the benefits of taking placenta by new mothers, irrespective of dose, method of preparation, or time course, suggests more of a placebo effect than a medicinal effect.
“People will do anything,” Kristal says, “but we shouldn’t read too much significance into reports of such exceptions, even if they are accurate, because they are neither reliable nor valid studies.
My own studies found no evidence of the routine practice of placentophagia in other cultures, findings supported by a recent extensive study by anthropologists at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas.
“The more challenging anthropological question is,” he says, “‘Why don’t humans engage in placentophagia as a biological imperative as so many other mammals apparently do?’ because we clearly do not do this as a matter of course today and apparently never have. Perhaps for humans, there is a greater adaptive advantage to not eating the placenta.”
The paper discusses some possibilities in this regard.
“Whether or not we learn why humans do not do this, it is important for us to search for the medicinal or behavioral benefits of components of afterbirth for the same reasons that we search for plant-based medicinal substances,” Kristal says.
“The outcome of such a quest need not be an exhortation for women to eat afterbirth, but for scientists to isolate and identify the molecule or molecules that produce the beneficial effect and use it to design pharmacological tools,” he says.
He adds, “In the case of Placental Opioid-Enhancing Factor or POEF and enhanced opioid-mediated analgesia, for instance, we have determined through earlier studies that not only is the effect nonspecific in regard to species, but it is also nonspecific in regard to sex.
“That means that although males, who in all probability do not make the molecule, have the ability to respond to it,” Kristal says.
Kristal conducts research and publishes on opioid and hormonal mechanisms underlying periparturitional phenomena and the psychobiology of motivated behaviors.
DiPirro’s areas of research include psychostimulant-induced neural adaptations in neuropeptide neurotransmission in the forebrain and experience-induced adaptations in defensive and affiliative behaviors.
Thompson’s research includes studies of aspects of maternal behavior and behavioral regulation of pain and analgesia.
Mark Kristal, says Don’t worry, though—the results might mean we can get around the need to eat the stuff.
“The outcome of such a quest need not be an exhortation for women to eat afterbirth, but for scientists to isolate and identify the molecule or molecules that produce the beneficial effect and use it to design pharmacological tools,” Kristal explained to EurekAler
Placenta Recipes: Placentophagy
Eating the placenta is known as placentophagy. It is practiced by most mammals in the animal world, including many primates. This excludes the majority of humans.
However, there are some that proport that eating the human placenta can help with ailments from postpartum depression to postpartum hemorrhage.
There are some midwives and doctors who use the placenta medicinally in the early stages of postpartum because it is high in progesterone and has small amount of oxytocin.
This supposedly helps stem bleeding after birth and causes the uterus to clean itself out. Some forms of Chinese medicines also contain parts of human placenta.
While eating one’s own placenta doesn’t really pose any serious health risks, with the exception of spoilage, eating someone else’s placenta can be a hazard to your health. In today’s world of illness transmitted by blood like Hepatitis, HIV and AIDS to name a few, you must know that these are potentially carried through the placenta as it is full of blood.
How to Cook Placenta
There are many ways to cook the placenta. How people choose to eat it varies greatly. Some choose to use dishes that would normally contain beef or liver, using the placenta to replace the meat. This might include a stew, a lasagna or even patties.
These types of recipes assumed you will prepare the placenta as the meat. This may mean you will ground or tenderize the placenta. Some choose to cube it. However you cook it, be sure to remove the membranes and umbilical cord first. Some recommend that you do not use the fetal side of the placenta.
- Various Recipes, including Lasagna and Spaghetti
- Recipes and info on dehydrating your placenta
- To eat or not to eat?
The only people that I know personally who have eaten their placentas have chosen to dehydrate the placenta. This leaves it in a beef jerky like format. It can then be eaten in this form or ground up using a mortar and pestle to either sprinkle it over other foods or place in capsules to take.
Everyone I know who has done this, and we’re only talking a handful of people out of the thousands of women I’ve helped, have done so because they believe in the health benefits of eating the placenta.
Some families choose to commemorate the birth and celebration of the placenta by burying it under a tree or with art projects like a placenta print. One scientist mom I know of actually kept her placenta in a jar of formaldehyde!
Did you know that the human placenta looks like the tree of life on the side of the baby?