During pregnancy, the developing fetus relies on three so-called life support systems, which consists of the umbilical cord, the amniotic sac and the placenta. Each one has their own unique, highly valuable and very important purpose for the growing fetus. Without them, the baby would not be able to properly develop through its 40-week gestation period.
Of these three fetal life support elements, the placenta has received much attention in recent years. The attention has not necessarily been for its important role during pregnancy, either, but rather for the role it can play after pregnancy in an act that is known as placenta encapsulation.
In this guide, the topic of placenta encapsulation, also known as placentophagy, is thoroughly assessed, including the process involved, the pros and the cons, research findings related to the process and how to decide if placenta encapsulation is right for a mother and her baby.
What Is the Placenta?
To fully understand placenta encapsulation, you must first have a full understanding of what the placenta is and the purpose it serves.
The placenta is an organ that develops in the womb of a pregnant mammal. This organ, which resembles the shape of a pancake, is attached to the uterus during pregnancy and connects to the fetus via the umbilical cord.
The placenta, also commonly referred to as the afterbirth, is responsible for producing estrogen, progesterone and human chorionic gonadotropin (hCG), which are three hormones that are imperative for the mother and her baby during pregnancy.
The placenta is literally the lifeblood of a developing fetus, as it transports blood between the mother and the baby. This organ is full of maternal blood, which carries oxygen and nutrients from the mother that are vital for the baby’s development. While the baby receives blood from the mother through the placenta, the baby also passes waste products from its blood to the mother’s blood through this organ.
What Is Placenta Encapsulation?
After the delivery of the baby, the placenta either evacuates itself from or is removed from the mother’s body, as it is no longer needed.
In modern medicine, the placenta is generally disposed of after birth. In the event that the birth of the baby was traumatic or there were complications during the pregnancy, the mother’s doctor may request to examine the organ. There is another option for the placenta after birth as well, and that is placenta encapsulation.
Placenta encapsulation is an age-old practice that is most commonly seen in Chinese medicine, and it involves ingesting the organ. In the Western world, placenta encapsulation had not been a common practice, but in recent years, more and more people are becoming interested in and are practicing placentophagy. Placenta encapsulation was first recorded as a trend in the United States in the 1970s.
Placenta encapsulation is something that has not been unknown of in the United States, and there have certainly been many people who have participated in the practice. However, it has become more recognized and the center of controversy in recent years as a result of celebrities, including Kourtney Kardashian, Alicia Silverstone and January Jones, who have reportedly consumed their placentas.
The Process of Placenta Encapsulation
In order for the placenta to be consumed, it must go through a specific process of being:
- Ground and turned into placenta pills
When desired, the placenta is generally consumed by the mother shortly after birth, as it is thought to provide her with various health benefits.
What Are the Benefits and Risks of Placenta Encapsulation?
To present date, placenta encapsulation research has been limited. The few scientific studies to date have not conclusively supported or dispelled the effects of consuming the placenta, and a definitive decision about placenta encapsulation has yet to made by modern medicine. According to a recent report published in October 2015 in the Archives of Women’s Mental Health, and titled Placentophagy: therapeutic miracle or myth?:
“Studies investigating placenta consumption for facilitating uterine contraction, resumption of normal cyclic estrogen cycle, and milk production are inconclusive. The health benefits and risks of placentophagy require further investigation of the retained contents of raw, cooked, and encapsulated placenta and its effects on the postpartum woman.”
The authors further note that in terms of pain reduction, experimental animal research of placenta encapsulation has not been applied to humans.
Placenta Encapsulation Benefits
Given that there has been little research done on placenta encapsulation, it’s difficult to say with certainty what the exact benefits are. However, some studies have found evidence that support the benefits of encapsulation.
These benefits include:
- Improved care and management during the postpartum period — placenta consumption may slow down or stop postpartum bleeding, increase postpartum recovery time and boost energy.
- Enhanced mother’s milk — placenta consumption may increase the amount of lactose and the protein in the milk, thus leading to increased health and development for the baby.
In addition to these benefits, the wealth of hormone and nutrients that are housed in the placenta are believed to provide nourishment to the person who consumes it, just like it helped to nourish the developing fetus during pregnancy.
Some of the hormones and proteins produced by the placenta and the benefits associated with consuming them include:
- Thyroid stimulating hormone, which regulates the thyroid gland, boosts energy and increases recovery from stress.
- Prolactin, which increases lactation, and thus a nursing mother’s milk supply.
- Oxytocin, which helps to decrease pain and impart a greater bond between the mother and the baby.
- Placental opioid-enhancing factor, which increases the production of the body’s natural production of opioids, thus reducing pain and heightening mood and well-being.
- Corticotropin releasing hormone (CRH), which can help to ease the effects of postpartum depression.
Placenta Encapsulation Risks
Since there have been limited scientific studies done to investigate the effects of placenta encapsulation, it is difficult to definitively know if there are adverse effects of consuming this organ. For all intents and purposes, it seems that there is no specific, major risk associated with consuming the afterbirth.
The placenta encapsulation risks that are on record have only been reported by mothers who have ingested the placenta. The negative effects that have been reported include:
- Jitteriness after taking placenta pills
If someone other than the mother is going to ingest the placenta, there is the possibility that blood-borne illnesses the mother may have can potentially be passed onto the person who consumes it.
Placenta Encapsulation for Postpartum Depression
Those who are advocates for ingesting the placenta believe that one of the biggest benefits of the practice is easing postpartum depression. This thought process is linked to the fact that the placenta is high in oxytocin and placental opioid-enhancing factor (POEF), two elements that can lower depression levels and improve overall health, energy and well-being.
However, many medical professionals advise their patients to avoid consuming the afterbirth, as there is no definitive scientific link that illustrates placenta encapsulation is beneficial for the treatment of postpartum depression. Even some medical professionals who are open-minded to alternative therapies aren’t confident that there are positive effects of consuming the placenta.
Though it is deemed a ‘natural therapy,’ that does not mean there aren’t any risks. Since there haven’t been enough studies done to date, and conclusive evidence has not been found to link placenta pill consumption with reduced postpartum depression, many doctors err on the side of caution and suggest their patients stick to proven postpartum depression natural treatment options instead.
Placenta Encapsulation and Increased Milk Supply
There is some evidence that placenta encapsulation may increase milk supply, though further research is needed.
For instance, The American Journal of Obstetrics and Diseases of Women and Children, as reported by PlacentaWise, had this to say:
“It has been shown that the feeding of desiccated placenta to women during the first eleven days after parturition causes an increase in the protein and lactose percent of the milk…”
The reason placenta pills are thought to help with production of breast milk is because the placenta is packed with valuable nutrients and hormones that have been linked to increasing milk supply, including:
- Estrogen, progesterone and testosterone, all hormones that aid in the development of the mammary glands and help to prepare the breasts for lactation.
- Prolactin, which is the key hormone that is responsible for the production of breast milk.
Those who believe that ingesting the placenta is beneficial for breast milk production are true advocates of the cause. However, it should be noted the claims that are in support of increased breast milk production as a result of placenta ingestion have only been made by nursing mothers who have actually ingested it. These claims are not backed by scientific fact, so they are not definitive evidence that placenta encapsulation is beneficial for breast milk production.
Placenta Encapsulation Combined With Prebiotics for Increased Milk Supply
Those who are in support of the improved production of a mother’s milk supply as a result of placenta encapsulation believe that ingesting the placenta along with prebiotics will lead to even greater milk production.
Although mothers who have consumed both the placenta and prebiotics may have had success with the increased production of their breast milk, the claims that have been made are not scientifically based, and so they can’t be used as authoritative evidence.
Alternative to Placenta Encapsulation in Terms of Your Gut and Your Physical and Mental Health
While there may not be a definitive answer to support or disprove the benefits of placenta encapsulation, there is scientifically-backed evidence that links the health of your gut with increased physical and mental health.
In the world of science, it has long been known that the health of the gut is directly related to overall physical health. Proper digestion allows for the breakdown of nutrients in the body. Additionally, if the gut is not working correctly, it could lead to the development of toxins, which can be withheld in the body and cause further problems.
If the bacteria in the GI tract is unbalanced (a condition called gut Dysbiosis), it can lead to discomfort and pain. If the gut is unhealthy, scientific evidence supports the ingestion of prebiotics to improve its health.
The Gut and Mental Health
Until recently, little has been known about the benefits that the digestive system plays on mental health, if it provides any benefits at all. However, neuroscientists are now beginning to examine the effect of prebiotics on mental health. Bacteria that is produced by the gut has been linked to certain mental diseases. As a result, neuroscientists are interested in finding out if there is a link to consuming prebiotics and improving mental health.
Scientists have found that stress hormones and the levels of anxiety and depression mice experience are impacted by the changes in their gut bacteria. In a mouse that showed signs of being autistic, the levels of bacteria in its gut were high. Another study found there may be a link to prebiotics and the reduction of anxiety levels. In this study, 45 participants between the ages of 18 and 45 took a prebiotic or a placebo every day over a span of three weeks.
At the conclusion of the study, the scientists tested the participants’ reaction to computer tests, in addition to their cortisol levels. The researchers found that those who took the prebiotic had lower anxiety levels when they were exposed to stimuli that imposed a threat. Additionally, the participants who took the prebiotic had lower levels of cortisol (high levels of cortisol are linked to depression, anxiety and stress).
The link between gut health and mental and physical health is scientifically proven. As such, for those who may not be interested in placenta encapsulation, taking a prebiotic supplement like Prebiotin could be an alternative natural remedy for postpartum depression and other physical and mental ailments that are often associated with postpartum healing. In addition, supplementing a prebiotic in a child’s diet is a smart idea to continue feeding their gut if a mom can’t breastfeed, after the child is weaned or if the child is taking antibiotics.
Interested in Placenta Encapsulation?
If you are interested in placenta encapsulation, your first step is to seek out the services of a placenta encapsulation specialist. This person would be able to provide you with placenta encapsulation service that involves turning the organ into pills.
While there may be benefits associated with taking placenta pills, and you may be interested in attaining these benefits, you should look into the cost that is associated with them. For many, this can be the final deciding factor as to whether or not they move forward with placenta encapsulation.
Is placenta encapsulation right for you? Only you can make that decision. There isn’t conclusive evidence to support whether or not there are definite pros or cons. It is crucial to speak with your healthcare provider to further learn the benefits and risks of placenta encapsulation and to determine if it is something that’s right for you and your baby.
If you decide placenta encapsulation is not right for you, you could speak to your doctor about the benefits of adding prebiotics to your diet. Your doctor may be able to explain their benefits in relation to what you were hoping to gain from consuming the placenta.
At the end of the day, you should do what you feel is good for the health of you and for the health of your baby.