In the first few days of her baby’s life, Devorah Shalev was weepy. Then giddy. Then stressed. Then hungry. But mostly, overwhelmed — the 31-year-old mom from Las Vegas was hit hard with a case of the baby blues.
When she became pregnant with her second child, she looked for ways to stave off those sad feelings — and ended up doing something surprising. She ingested her placenta.
Placentophagy, as it’s called, grabbed headlines this summer after a judge ordered a Las Vegas hospital to give a new mom her uterine lining, which the woman planned to dry, grind up and ingest. She, like Shalev, had heard that ingesting the placenta was a natural way to ward off the baby blues — those overwhelmed, weepy feelings that 80 percent of moms develop after giving birth.
New moms who swear by the benefits of consuming their placenta point out that it’s a common practice among mammals — and after all, women are mammals, too. But no studies have examined health benefits of human placentophagy, says Dr. Diana Dell, an assistant professor in ob-gyn and psychology at Duke University.
“There’s certainly no data,” Dell says. “And, truthfully, the only place there may be data is in veterinary journals.”
Because the placenta contains estrogen and progesterone, some women believe that the sudden withdrawal of those hormones after the delivery is what causes the baby blues, and that ingesting the afterbirth restores hormone levels.
"The placenta does produce estrogen and progesterone," says Mavis Schorn, the director of the nurse midwifery program at Vanderbilt University School of Nursing. "So the theoretical idea is that it may help, but there's absolutely no research on it."
Schorn also points out that because no research exists for this practice among humans, it's not clear what the cooking or encapsulating does to the nutrients and hormones that are in the blood.
Still, placentophagy isn’t something recently dreamed up by crunchy granola types — it’s been going on in many parts of the world for centuries:
- In parts of Indonesia, the Czech Republic and Morocco, new mothers once believed eating the placenta guarantees future fertility.
- Chinese women thought a bite of dried placenta would speed up labor.
- Once women in Hungary had tired of the whole child-bearing business, they believed that by burning the placenta and placing the ashes in their husband’s drink, he’d soon be shooting blanks.
Today, Google helpfully points the curious toward guides to preparing and eating the placenta. “Use your favorite lasagna recipe and substitute this (placenta cocktail) for one layer of cheese,” chirps one how-to Web site. Another suggests grinding it up as a pizza topping.
But for women not blessed with iron stomachs, Jodi Selander offers help. Ingesting placenta doesn’t have to be a stunt to put "Fear Factor" to shame, the Las Vegas mom promises.
Popping placenta pills
After giving birth to her first child, Selander was cursed with a tough bout of the baby blues. Searching for natural remedies to combat those sad feelings before she delivered her second child, Selander stumbled upon a way of eating placenta without actually eating it — instead, she popped a pill.
“Before, I’d only ever heard of eating it,” Selander says. “Which, if a woman wants to do that, that's wonderful — but that was something I personally couldn't do.”
Selander opted for a home birth with her second child, and after the delivery, her midwife placed the placenta in the refrigerator. In her own kitchen the next day, Selander used her food dehydrator to dry the placenta, baked it in her oven, ground it up and put it into capsules. There was enough of the stuff to create about 150 capsules, of which she took one a day for the next two to three weeks.
“I felt so much better; I just felt great,” Selander remembers.
There may not be any concrete evidence for its benefits, but Schorn says that unless the placenta was kept improperly, there are no inherent dangers to ingesting placenta, whether through encapsulation or cooking and eating it.
"It's an organ. So, just like any organ meat, if it wasn't kept well — if it wasn't frozen or kept at a cool temperature — you have a danger of bacteria or something growing," Schorn says. "But there's nothing inherent about placenta that would make it more dangerous than any other meat."
After her positive experience with the practice, Selander now sells placenta encapsulation kits from her Web site, placentabenefits.info. Still, she's honest about the ick factor she’s up against. While she says her site gets about 70,000 hits a month, she's only sold a couple dozen kits in the past year and a half.
“The first time you hear about it, everybody thinks it's weird,” Selander admits.
Weird, sure. But isn’t it also just a little … gross?
“I don't think so, but some people would think so,” Selander says. It just calls for a change in your mind set, she says.
“We have a very sanitary society. Anything that is not cleaned up and pretty and made to be put on display, we do deem as gross,” she says. “But the thing is, birth is a messy process and the whole act of bringing life into the world is a whole messy ordeal.”
One of Selander’s clients is the once baby blues-plagued Shalev, who says the experience helped her enjoy — not just survive — the first few weeks of her second child’s life.
“After the first baby I was an emotional wreck,” says Shalev, speaking on her cell phone. “I’m sure my husband here can verify that.” (Hubby Amir Shalev grunts his agreement in the background.)
But she noticed a sharp contrast in the weeks after delivering her second baby.
“It occurred to me that after a week I hadn’t cried once,” Shalev says. “I was definitely stressed, but not once did I feel completely overwhelmed.”
'Not the most attractive organ'
Even the most vocal placenta pushers don’t expect the practice to ever become a national trend. But Selander hopes that the process will keep slowly attracting attention as another option for women to consider. The placenta, in her opinion, has simply received a bad rap.
“It's not the most attractive organ,” Selander says. “And it comes out and it's attached to your beautiful baby, so in comparison of course it's not going to get as much respect and affection as the baby — of course.
“But at the same time, it's what helped bring that baby into the world. Without that placenta, there would be no baby,” she continues. “We create it, we give birth to it, and it has such a truly, truly sacred connection to the child and to life.”