The questionable nutritional value of eating a human placenta

Placenta - it's not just for shampoo anymore. There is a rising belief that eating a human placenta after child birth provides a nutritional benefit for the mother and possibly curbs postpartum depression.

Those brave enough to eat a placenta use a variety of methods to consume the organ. But are there any real health benefits to this gustatory practice?

Warning: An image of a human placenta and an instructional video for preparing a human placenta follows.

The questionable nutritional value of eating a human placenta

Why Other Mammals Eat Their Placentas
The placenta is a temporary protective organ that serves as a conduit between the mother and her developing young. The child is fed is through the placenta via the mother's blood supply, as waste from the young exits to the mother for disposal. The placenta follows the newborn as it exits the mother, leaving in the moments after childbirth.

In the wild, land dwelling mammals often consume the placenta. They also lap up the amniotic fluid as it flows out of the mother. The amniotic fluid consists of proteins, urea, and assorted fats, but we have yet to see a rush of new parents to drink amniotic fluid smoothies.

Mammalian consumption of the placenta is likely performed as it removes the lingering presence of blood in order to ward off predators, with one study showing placentophagy to provide an increase in natural opioids in rats.

The precedence of placentophagy in the wild leads some soon-to-be parents to wonder if they should be eating placenta after childbirth. The practice of human placentophagy brings with it claims that the act reduces post-partum depression and imparts a further connection between the mother and child. Both of these benefits could be the psychological result of a placebo effect.

More concrete benefits have been proposed as well, with placentophagy replenishing iron, aiding in lactation, and giving the mother a rush of stress relieving hormones, like corticotropin-releasing hormone. The amount of corticotropin-releasing hormone created by the placenta increases dramatically prior to birth, leading proponents to believe the birthed placenta still contains a high concentration of this hormone.

While the placenta itself may be of nutritional benefit, do these benefits exist in a placenta prepared for human consumption?


Cooking Up Some Placenta
A typical placenta, when disconnected from the umbilical cord, is a deep red mass roughly 8 to 10 inches long, an inch or so thick, and weighing about a pound. Imagine a piece of raw flesh about size of a nice piece of prime rib, but filled with fibrous tissue that is rather tough to chew through.

While see land dwelling mammals consume the placenta raw, humans that partake in the placenta consume it in a variety of forms - prepared as a lasagna, ground up in a smoothie, or in pill form.

Cooking the placenta in any form could degrade the proteins within, decreasing the nutritive quality of the organ by imparting heat as well combined with a natural degradation of the organ over time as it exists without a nutrient supply. Small molecule hormones are often rather small, however, and difficult to rip apart at temperatures used for food preparation. Grinding the placenta into a powder for use in pills often involves boiling and drying of the flesh as well.

For optimal benefit, eating the placenta in the hours after it passes through the mother would be necessary. However, obtaining the placenta in a timely fashion is a chore in itself, as hospitals are often reticent to release the placenta and it can be difficult to grab it in the chaos that follows birth.

While psychological benefits are difficult, if not impossible, to quantify, the nutritional benefits could be ascertained.

A clinical study of nutrients within prepared placenta, in cooked or pill form, is necessary before definitive nutritional benefits can be established. In the meantime, if you are looking for optimal nutritional value from the placenta, it is best to consume it as wild animals do — raw.

Top image by one tiny spark/flickr. Image courtesy of sarindam7/PD.