The Science Behind Placenta Encapsulation

To consume, or not to consume? Placentophagy has become increasingly popular in the western world. Benefits, from protection against postpartum depression, iron supplementation, controlling blood loss, and more are touted by proponents. On an emotional level, many parents are uncomfortable with their baby’s former lifeline ending up as medical waste. Placenta encapsulation is often seen as the simplest, least messy way to repurpose your placenta. But what does the evidence say?

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Anatomy of a typical placenta

The ethics of initiating a study on pregnant and postpartum patients are complex. Unfortunately this has left a great deal of room for improvement in evidence based practice. A recent study assessed iron supplementation benefits of placenta encapsulation and found no benefit. Patients were separated into one group given encapsulated placenta, and a “placebo” group given pills containing dehydrated beef. Iron levels were measured throughout, and no difference was found between groups. This suggests patients considering placenta encapsulation may want to consider additional iron supplementation as needed.

When looking at other supposed benefits of placenta encapsulation, we continue to see no advantages over the control group. Does this mean placentophagy should be discouraged? Absolutely not. To gain an understanding of the evidence, we must also understand the process of encapsulation, and the mechanics of the placebo effect.

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Encapsulated Placenta

Encapsulation falls into two main categories, raw and steamed. In both cases the placenta is dehydrated. Some proponents of alternative medicine counter the above data by suggesting the dehydration process minimises benefits. The application of a slice of placenta tissue to the oral membranes of a patient with unusual amounts of blood loss has historically been a tool in the midwife’s arsenal. A wide range of positive anecdotal evidence exists, but unfortunately controlled, human studies comparing raw vs dehydrated placentophagy do not exist at this time.

So why bother? In all choices we make, we must make a risk/benefit assessment. At this stage it seems as though maternal placentophagy is a low risk endeavor. Consuming a placenta you yourself did not deliver is NOT recommended. Like any human tissue, placentas may harbour blood born illnesses. Consuming one’s own placenta is largely risk free, providing the placenta is prepared with the same common sense food safety one would use for any other meat product.

Could this be the placebo effect, or has the science not caught up? At this stage, it could go either way. As a parent considering placenta encapsulation, don’t be afraid of the placebo effect. Contrary to popular belief the placebo effect can have some real benefits. Perhaps in some cases, the end result is worth it regardless of what mechanism provides the effect. Whether you feel benefits from consuming this incredible organ, or feel those same benefits from the amazing capabilities of the mind, it may be worth a shot.

*Talk to your primary medical care before beginning any course of action. Informed consent matters. Ask questions.

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