People tend put anything excreted from the body firmly in the "gross" category, or at least in the "would not eat" category. Yet, eating the placenta — a veiny organ that helps link a mother to her unborn baby until it is expelled during the birth — is suddenly becoming trendy as celebrity moms, including Kourtney Kardashian and January Jones, promote the practice.
If you have ever seen a placenta, you know that the reason must not be that they look delicious (and if you haven't, there is a photo of one at the end of this article — squeamish people, beware). Rather, proponents of placentophagy, the scientific word for placenta-eating, argue that it provides a myriad of health benefits, including reduced risk of postpartum depression, increased energy and pain relief. However, a review of the current research on placentophagy, published June 4 in the journal Archives of Women's Mental Health, found no scientific evidence to back up these claims and warns that placentophagy may even be harmful to mothers and their infants.
Placentophagy is a common practice among other mammals, but its effects are still largely unknown in humans. Almost all of the 10 currently published research studies on placentophagy look only at nonhuman animals.
"The animal data that we reviewed that is showing any potential beneficial effects is not translatable to humans the way they're practicing it right now — that's the bottom line," lead author Cynthia Coyle of the Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine told Tech Times.
The one human placentophagy "study" that has been published presents only anecdotal, nonscientific evidence. Furthermore, the lead author of the human placentophagy paper had a major conflict of interest. She is also the founder/director of Placenta Benefits, a company that encapsulates placentas in pills for consumption.
"We found that a lot of websites and blogs and the media and celebrities are citing this work to support the claim for humans that eating the placenta in one of its various forms will help to reduce pain, but the validity is questionable," says Coyle.
In addition to the lack of evidence to show that mothers should eat their placentas, there is even some reason to believe that they shouldn't. One of the functions of the placenta during pregnancy is to act as a filter that protects the fetus from toxins that its mother may encounter in the environment. Coyle points out that there is not enough research yet to rule out the possibility that toxins build up in the placenta.
"We don't know the beneficial components and we also don't know the harmful components of the placenta — there are just no studies that have been done," she says.
Still, Coyle emphasizes that this does not mean that we should stop looking into placentophagy as a potential tool for helping new mothers — it just means that it's too early to make a scientifically sound decision about it.
"Let's find out if it is safe," she says. "We need the science."
As promised, here is a photo of a placenta (googly eyes added for decoration):
Photo: Simon Powell | Flickr